Several men, all taxi drivers, sit in a semicircle. To one side stands a gunman. A large man and union leader, Harry Fatt, is talking to the men. He tells them that workers' strikes in the recent past have ended up failures, and that now with a good President of the U.S. (Franklin Roosevelt), strikes do not make sense any more. The men are skeptical, but Fatt tells them they must stand behind the President. When a man in the crowd mocks this idea, Fatt calls him a "red" (slang for Communist), says he is keeping an eye out for them in the union, and claims that the reds, given the chance, will betray their fellow workers.
The crowd grows more uneasy and questions where Lefty is, their elected chairman. Fatt reminds them they already have their elected committee present and names the men in the semicircle, among them Dr. Benjamin and Miller. Fatt and the gunman make way for Joe, one of the workers. Joe maintains he is not a "red boy," citing his status as a wounded war veteran, and discusses how if a worker expresses dissatisfaction, the union leaders label him a "red." He compares the workers' poverty with Fatt's wealth. When someone asks where Lefty is, Joe admits he doesn't know, but says that Lefty didn't run out on them--"That Wop's got more guts than a slaughter house." He deems a strike for higher wages necessary; his wife, who convinced him last week to strike, claims he is "workin' for the company," not "for me or the family no more!"
Odets lands his audience in the midst of a specialized debate--a taxi workers' proposed strike--that has enormous political consequences for America in 1935. The country was still reeling from the stock market crash of 1929 that led to the era now known as the Great Depression. The unprecedented economic deprivation continued until the U.S. entered World War II in 1941. While everyone from corporations to independent farmers suffered, it was the working man who was most crippled as the unemployment rate reached an astronomical 25% in 1933. Because there was so much ready supply and so little demand for work, employers could skimp on wages and benefits in hopes of turning a profit in the lean times. With no leverage, the workers were forced to fight among themselves for these slim pickings.
The major solution to the problem of fruitless competition was unionization: workers in specific trades would bond together and receive, among other benefits, standardized wages and greater job security. Organization such as the American Federation of Labor rose to prominence during World War I. However, in a country founded upon the legend of the self-made man and fearful of communal action, unions were frequently criticized as Communist practices designed to overturn the American way of capitalism. This is where "Waiting for Lefty" picks up: the taxi drivers have been working for meager wages and are threatening to strike, while their union leader (Fatt) brands those in favor of a strike "reds."
An additional obstacle to unions is located in the word's etymology: uni-, or "one." The multitude of workers must act as one powerful body if they are to promote their cause. If there is not total cooperation among the workers--either because some will not strike for fear of permanently losing their jobs, or because of the abundance of "scabs," a derogatory term for replacement workers--then a strike inevitably fails.
Fatt co-opts this notion of unity; in attempting to unify the workers under the government's control, he alludes to the President in an effort to consolidate government into a single, unified figure (and also to hide his selfish agenda behind a patriotic rallying cry): "we gotta stand behind the man who's standin' behind us!" However, Fatt is the clear villain here, a stand-in for the corrupt "fat(t) cat" capitalist forces in workers' clothing. The trigger-happy gunman on stage with him is a stark reminder of big business's ability to quell any revolution with brute force. (The threat of violence from employers' forces was another obstacle to unionization.)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrat who won the Presidency from incumbent Herbert Hoover in 1932, would have strongly disapproved of Fatt and his tactics. Roosevelt is viewed as a populist whose "New Deal" programs enacted many of the most progressive and sweeping economic and social reforms of the 20th-century, such as his insurance of banks (to prevent panics of massive withdrawals leading to bankruptcy and hyper-inflation) and his passage of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which boosted industrial wages and promoted workers' unions--not "company" unions which aim for corporate interests, as Fatt would like the taxi drivers' union to become.
Joe relates his wife's complaint that he is "workin' for the company," not "for me or the family." Her statement has two direct meanings. First, Odets reminds his audience that workers need dignity in their work. They need to feel that the work is somehow for themselves--not out of greed, but out of pride. Second, the word "family" has connotations beyond biological or legal ties. As in John Steinbeck's Depression-era novel "The Grapes of Wrath," the workers need to see themselves as sacrificial family members before they can defeat the government.
To write a convincing play about the worker, Odets needed to use the worker's speech, his vocabulary and rhythms. In Joe's speech especially, but even in Fatt's, Odets deploys an ungrammatical vernacular, both straightforward and lyrical; it is not merely plausible, but poetic. When Joe says "Here I'm carryin' a shrapnel that big I picked up in the war," the odd word choices--"a shrapnel" instead of "piece of shrapnel," "picked up" instead of "was hit with"--blend with the standard language of a worker--"Here" to begin the sentence, the apostrophized "carryin,'" the implicit stage direction for the actor to show how "big" it is--to create the poignant, graphic lament of a veteran. Born in the street, the speech is also laden with ethnic references and connotations. Joe makes two references to ethnicity that would now be considered bigoted: that Lefty is a "Wop," a term with immigration origins (Wop stands for "WithOut Papers"), and that "It's plain as the nose on Sol Feinberg's face we need a strike." As with the Wop comment, Joe means no harm with the vaguely anti-Semitic slur; he merely intends to remind the men that though they are from different backgrounds, they have a common purpose.
Finally, Odets creates further dramatic conflict with the tension of Lefty's arrival. Lefty is an obvious nickname for a left-wing symbol, and the workers seem unwilling or afraid to act unless this courageous radical shows up and lends his support. As with Samuel Beckett's 1952 existentialist tragicomedy "Waiting for Godot," the other characters are, at this point, utterly dependent on this god-like figure. Odets's dramatic hook is in exploring whether the workers will remain this way and similarly suffer the fates of Beckett's endless and passively waiting Vladimir and Estragon.