MY MOTHER waved farewell as the TWA plane took off from Newark airport. In a moment I lost sight of her. The big winged ship taxied to the end of the field, and swung around. Another few seconds and the plane had lifted clear of earth. and was gliding smoothly through space.
Looking eastward as we climbed, I could see the Statue of Liberty, ships moving in New York Bay, the skyscrapers of Manhattan with their lights just beginning to stab the gathering dusk. Between were railroad yards and the smoke-stacks of countless industrial plants. Below, as the plane straightened its course, was the city of Newark, with a shimmering streak of illumination recognizable as Broad Street. The sun was gone from the sky, darkness came quickly, and other towns over which we passed were mere blurs of light.
September 17, 1933 This was my second trip to Southern California. Early that year I had been discharged from a Los Angeles garment factory and blacklisted for union activity. Low in funds, I had hitch-hiked home to Boston, via New York. Now I was speeding back to the West Coast in response to appeals telegraphed to the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union by the dressmakers in the City of the Angels, asking that I be sent there as an organizer.
The intervening months had seen an upheaval in the American labor movement. With the inauguration of President Roosevelt the New Deal had been born, and multitudes of workers throughout the country had become conscious of certain fundamental rights. Under the National Industrial Recovery Act passed by Congress in June, Section 7-a provided that all workers had a right to join a labor union of their own choosing. Both employer groups and labor representatives were invited to Washington to write codes of fair competition for their respective industries, specifying minimum wages and maximum work hours.
In this interim, the dressmakers staged a general strike of unprecedented magnitude in New York City and adjacent territory; and kindred strikes took place in Boston and Philadelphia, aimed at winning back decent wages and human working conditions, lost in battles with unscrupulous employers during the depression.
Early that summer I was working as a sewing machine operator in a Manhattan dress factory. But I took a leave of absence to serve in the campaign which preceded the New York strike÷and was promptly sent to Brooklyn as secretary and general assistant to Giacomo Di Nola, who had been assigned to organize the Williamsburg district. Blissfully unaware that Brooklyn was gangster infested and was regarded by ILGWU organizers as the "Siberia" of the Greater City, I plunged into the job with zeal. It was tough going but invaluable experience. Before the campaign was over, we broke up the racketeering ring which was supposed to control "certain garment firms." Late in August we had sent most of the striking workers back to their shops, fortified with a union agreement, improved working conditions, and better pay.
While we were still clearing away tag-ends in the New York area, my friend Paul Berg arrived from Los Angeles, delegated by the small dressmakers' group there to attend the preliminary Code hearings in Washington. He told me several letters and telegrams had been sent to the national office urging that I be dispatched to "L.A." to help with an organization drive. They needed some one who knew the peculiarities of the Los Angeles set-up, and yet was not of it, to lead that drive÷some one from the outside, assigned by the ILGWU, and backed by it both financially and morally.
Paul's words rang a bell in my mind. Boldly I appeared at the office of President David Dubinsky of the International and volunteered to go to Los Angeles, explaining that the situation there was familiar to me. I told of my being fired and blacklisted, after we had planted the nucleus of a union, with a handful of members from several dress factories.
I had promised friends÷and the boss who discharged me÷that "some day" I would be back, that "we" would organize the local industry, and that the workers of that firm would be the first to be unionized.
"D.D." smiled at my recital.1
"What are your plans?"
I had a ready answer: "First, I want a charter, so that we can launch a dressmakers' local at the psychological moment. Second, I want a revolving fund, to impress upon the Los Angeles crowd that we are in earnest and that the campaign is being financed by the national office. Third, let it be understood that I am directly responsible to you."
All this must have sounded brazen to our president, who knew little about me, except that I was an active rank-and-file member of the union who was always ready to pitch in when needed. But evidently he was willing to take a chance.
"All right. How do you want to travel?"
"It's immaterial. I hitch-hiked here from the Coast."
"Yes, but time is short now. Can you stand travel by plane÷and go tomorrow?"
I nodded agreement, my breath catching in my throat. This would be a new adventure.
A plane reservation was made immediately. Then I was given a $250 check÷advance allowance for organization expense÷and the requested charter. Ordinarily, any local group seeking national affiliation had to have at least seven members and send in $25 with their names to get a charter.
On one point only did our president instruct me: to consult frequently with two trusted L.A. cloakmakers, Louis Pine and Henry Rubinstein. My salary was to be $35 a week, less than I made in the factory where I worked before the New York strike. This, however, bothered me not at all. The thing uppermost in my mind was the task to be done.
Though I had large hopes for the labor movement generally, I had no illusions about what lay immediately ahead. Los Angeles was notorious for hostility to labor unions. Long an open-shop stronghold it had boasted an anti-picketing ordinance ever since 1911. Naturally the new assignment was a challenge. It would mean a hard fight, against well-organized enemies. I was not afraid of that. No job in the labor field; it seemed to me, could be more difficult than the one just finished in New York.
Heading southwest, the plane stopped briefly in Harrisburg, then sped on above widespread dark stretches of forest. The other passengers appeared to be sleeping. I turned out the small light above me, lay at ease in my reclining chair, closed my eyes, and let my thoughts roam.
Mother's sad face at the airport gate lingered. Where had I seen her looking like that before? That scene was a repetition of some other. My mind flashed back, back . . . across time and space . . . I had it÷Derazhnia, my home-town in the Ukraine, in the dismal railway station there, on the day I left for America. Was it possible that 20 years had passed since then? . . .
Now I am a child again in Derazhnia, roving with three sisters ÷Esther, the oldest, Marishka, who is younger, and little Hannah. Odd how much youngsters can absorb without knowing it at the time, and without its being noticed by their elders.
Our favorite haunt is the marke-place, which serves as the town's open forum between fortnightly trading days. We hear talk about many things, some of it remembered because it is discussed repeatedly afterward at our dinner table. Talkers and listeners in the market gather in circles÷tradespeople, bearded peasants, artisans, and men in old drab Army uniforms. It is late in 1905, and the latter are discharged soldiers, beaten and maimed, and just back from the lost war with Japan in the Far East. These weary and broken men speak out bitterly against their officers for leading badly armed troops ruthlessly to slaughter.
In one circle, our tall, keen-eyed father, with his well-groomed beard and slightly gray temples, is the center of attention.
"This defeat of our Army and Navy is the first victory of yellow men over white in our time. Mark my words, the Japanese war lords will not stop at this÷"
We move on to other circles, standing on tiptoe to see who is talking. Voices mingle, some held to a whisper, others sharply keyed. They speak of rising taxes, of pogroms in the industrial cities, of Widespread hunger among the people.... But most of those with opinions look around cautiously before saying what's in their minds.
General Stoessel had plenty of food at Port Arthur, and enough
ammunition to last three months. Then why did he run up the white flag?
I can tell you why: Because the hearts of our people were not in the war.
And do you think the hearts of the Japanese were in it? Nonsense! I was there. The Japanese fought because they either had to fight us or face their own firing squads.
When more soldiers come, who will feed them?
Not the government.
Maybe the ravens will feed them, as they fed Elijah the prophet.
Purishkevich says he organized the Black Hundreds to uphold the law.
But do they uphold the law when workers are shot and killed ? And when
they kill Jews and students?
All this killing is to make the people forget that Russia lost the war.
Do they think that we who were in the front lines can ever forget?
I won't forget. I was wounded at Mukden and lay twenty hours in the mud before the stretcher-bearers came. When I got to the base hospital it was too late to save my leg.... What am I good for with this stump?
There are rumors that our Tsar will issue some new manifesto÷
Maybe a constitution?
Koniechno, indeed, we ought to have a constitution like America.
But we won't live to see one.
You are not yet forty. You are too young a man to he so hopeless....
The Government will press the people just so far, and then there will be a revolution . . . some day . . . some day.
Gradually dusk falls, and the circles begin to break up. Father, surrounded by a dozen soldiers, is still speaking.
"I have served my time, I am now a reservist, I was ready to go if called.... Many of our Jews were fighting in the Far East.... We must have equal rights. If we were good enough to send our best blood to defend that corrupt clique of bureaucrats, we are good enough to enjoy equal citizenship in the country of our birth÷"
"But, Barin, who does enjoy equality in our country?"
Well, if we have to fight we may as well fight for it right here.
The day will come . . . have patience, the day will come . . .
Now the talk ends, and Father, accompanied by a limping soldier, walks off to our flour and seed store, a short block away. We have to hurry to keep up with his long stride....
In the evening at home Mother worries about his being so outspoken in the outdoor discussions. "Why do you keep sticking your head into a noose? A man with a large family must be careful. Suppose a new gendarme heard you? . . . It is not safe to speak your mind in our country . . . many honest men like you have gone to Siberia just for saying that Russia is autocratic . . . that we need a constitution, a democracy...."
Our family is seated at the Sabbath dinner table. Father has brought home another guest. We youngsters are unobtrusive but our ears are open. The stranger, a little man with heavy spectacles, is telling of down-trodden peasants burning their landlords' estates, of night-fires lighting the sky.... Many such guests come to mind ÷traveling speakers, university professors stranded for lack of money in this provincial trading town; Talmudic students, and other "students" who seem more worldly, young men and older men with torbas, duffle bags, the contents of which are never shown to us children. They talk with Father far into the night, after the rest of the family are in bed. Next day Izaak Peisoty has important new information with which to hold forth to an eager audience in the market.2
Years later I am to learn that our little railroad town served as one of the centers for the underground, a link with the outside world ÷Europe and America.
Esther, my older sister, returns from a visit to Odessa, the historic metropolis of Southern Russia, 200 miles off, and comes back bursting with realizations. She explains to us younger ones the difference between evolution and revolution, learned by chance from some of our cousins. I listen eagerly. Then she tells us excitedly of a marvel she saw while away÷electric lights can you believe it?÷lamps burning upside down. We scoff at her. No! It couldn't be÷the kerosene would spill and explode.
Riding at ease in the airplane, I slept occasionally in my chair. But much of the time I was wakeful from inner excitement. When we reached Pittsburgh, I got out with the other passengers and stretched my limbs, while the plane was being serviced by a small crew of men dressed in white.
Night still reigned when we got to Chicago, where new passengers replaced those disembarking, and then we winged onward.
Dawn brought clear skies. Life seemed utterly peaceful as that magical transport carried us along. Towns, railroads, rivers, and highways, seen by daylight, looked like parts of a toy setting. The harsh angles of industrial cities were smoothed out when viewed from lofty altitudes; and the wide plains resembled crazy quilts with intricate designs and colorings. From the height at which we flew I could not discern a single human being below÷the masters of all creation were invisible from the skies.
Rummaging in our attic, I come upon books that fascinate me. One is a volume of eye-witness accounts of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, and the retreat of the Grand Army from the deserted and burning city of Moscow a grim but absorbing story.... Bonaparte's soldiers dying by tens of thousands along the roads and in the Pripet marshes and at the crossing of rivers÷caught in the merciless grip of the Russian winter, and driven back by the army of Alexander I and the Russian partisans, the peasants and villagers.
That retreat, too; is discussed at length in the market-place circles.
"Napoleon lost in Russia for the same reason that we lost the war with Japan," declares a battered veteran. "He was too far from his base of supplies."
"That was one reason," my father agrees. "But a greater reason was that the Russians were defending their own ground. No foreign invader will ever succeed in Russia÷for the people will fight to the last man, on Russian soil."
On another day in the attic, I stumble upon a trunk full of books and pamphlets dealing with Zemlya i Volya, Land and Freedom÷ the underground movement to overthrow the House of Romanov and replace it with a democratic form of government. Without being told, I know that such literature is taboo, but daily I disappear into this quiet hiding-place and read about men and women imprisoned or exiled or hanged as revolutionists.
I ask seemingly innocent questions of my tutor, Hannah, a pale young woman hired by Mother to supplement my two years of study in Rosalia Davidovna's private school for girls. Likely Hannah knows the answers, but she is cautious. It is dangerous to discuss such things, for the okrana, the secret police, are constantly eavesdropping. Young girls must not ask too many questions, I am warned, and I heed the lesson, keeping secret my attic find.
Our close-knit family begins to break up. Esther leaves for America. We have heard much about that far-off land. Its people fought for their liberty . . . carried on a revolution, proclaiming that "all men are created equal." Surreptitiously we have read about the American Declaration of Independence. Some day such a document, created by the Russian people, will be read openly by all boys and girls.
The name of George Washington is known to us, and the name of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the Negroes, and that of Thomas Edison, whose picture is on the pasteboard boxes containing the cylindrical wax records for the phonograph which Uncle Shloime's sons sent him from America. We relish Mark Twain's stories about venturesome boys; Uncle Tom's Cabin we know almost by heart; and we are stirred by Jack London's tales of rough men who battle with tooth and nail.
What a wonderful country is America, holding out a welcome to those who, like my sister, want to live in a free world! Everybody can earn a living there. To us in Derazhnia, America is the Goldene Mdeeni, Land of Gold. We think of that whenever we see Israel Telpner, storekeeper's son, who worked in New York for months and then came home, with a black derby hat and gold teeth, the first we ever saw, which he exhibits with beaming pride.
There is a steamship agent in Derazhnia, who sells tickets for three lines÷Cunard, Red Star, White Star÷the names of which everyone in our town knows. He talks eloquently about fortunes made in America by poor emigrants. Drinking all this in, peasants from our vicinity have scraped together enough rubles to buy passage and have gone there to dig for gold. Lately, however, some have returned home, confessing that what they dug from the earth was plain black coal.
But Esther writes that there is plenty of work in New York. She has a job÷in a shirtwaist factory.
With my sister gone, I grow increasingly restless, and when I become 17 I can see no future for myself except to marry some young man returned from his four years of military service and be a housewife That is not enough.... In America things are different. A decent middle-class girl can work without disgrace.... After months of argument and cajolery I persuade my parents to let me, too, go to the United States.
A gray October morning. Almost half the town crowds into the dull-red station to see me off. Most of the young people envy me. My mother stands near the gate, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. Father is escorting me across the Ukraine and Poland to the German border. Hurried kisses and goodbyes. My heart pounds with excitement as we climb into the train. A bell rings, the locomotive coughs and puffs, and in another instant Derazhnia fades into the mist.
We ride in an old square-ended third class all-purpose car, with double-deck bunks. It overflows with peasants, soldiers, traders. They use the bunks on both levels for seats, sit on their bundles, or stand in the doorways. Each carries a torba, in which there is food, and that food reveals the character and social standing of its possessor. The air becomes thicker and thicker as we go along.
Father's voice sounds clearly in the dimly lit car. A beardless lad in a soldier's uniform holds a candle for him as he reads the day's newspapers aloud, most of these people being illiterate. At each stop I hurry to the station platform to get hot water for tea and the latest extra. All are interested in the case of Mendel Beiliss, Kiev watchman, on trial on a trumped-up charge of murdering a Christian boy in a "religious ritual." We wait anxiously for the verdict. The prosecution overshoots the mark, with coached witnesses and forged documents÷so blatantly false that the jury does not believe its accusations. Beiliss is acquitted, and we all celebrate joyously.
At the German frontier I hold my father close with a sudden pang. A chill comes over me, and I have a feeling that I shall never see him again. But I have made my choice and cannot turn back.
I awoke from a doze as the plane glided down to a stop in the airfield outside Kansas City. There was a two-hour layover here amid oppressive heat.
Amarillo, Texas, was next, and I recalled being there on my way East in the Spring. Now one noticed a difference in the voices and complexion of men native to that section. Tall and wearing wide Stetson hats, they walked with an easy gait, and spoke with a drawl.
I see myself leaving Antwerp, a friendly city, in the rain. The steamship Finland, huge to my eyes÷my first voyage anywhere. Second-cabin luxury for a provincial girl; frankfurters at one meal, the first I've ever seen. And ice cream, much more substantial than the 5!uit ices I knew at home. Eleven days at sea÷long days, with few ships passing, and often with only an illimitable empty ocean to look at; it is an event when gulls swoop down close to us as we lean over the deck rail. \Will we ever reach New York? But in the evenings many voices join in Russian and Ukrainian songs; they help to still my restless impatience.
At last the Promised Land! The Statue of Liberty rises before me, exactly as I knew it would from pictures÷a stately, determined woman in a light green robe, with uplifted hand holding a torch to welcome seekers of freedom.
" . . .'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."'
My sister and I fall into each other's arms as I leave the ship at 23d Street in the Hudson River on Thanksgiving Eve, 1913.
The making of another American begins.... Esther gets me a job in a shirtwaist factory and I learn the trade. I have barely missed the time when the men working in New York's garment industry had to provide their own sewing machines, needles, and thread, and when girls like myself were apprenticed to a "masterworker," who paid them a meager few cents for a day's work, out of his own wages.
I join a virile and growing labor organization, Waistmakers' Local 25 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. At its meetings I learn about the "Uprising of the 20,000" women and girls in 1909, my sister Esther among them, who walked out of the waist factories in protest against intolerable sweatshop conditions .. . imbued with their spirit, others now carry on....
As we approached the Rocky Mountains, we heard that we were traveling in the wake of a tornado, but saw no evidence of it. The plane rose to 11,000 feet and soon we were above the clouds, a sea of milky foam.... In Albuquerque, New Mexico, canopied by clear skies, several dozing Indians sat leaning against the white-washed walls of a gift shop, in which an attractive copper-skinned woman displayed fine examples of tribal craftsmanship.
Ascending for the last lap of our flight, we headed for the barren desert lands of Arizona, Nevada, and California, a boundless expanse of sand, cactus, and sagebrush. I closed my eyes again. Once more my thoughts were busy with the past.
May 1,1914÷I see myself in blue skirt and white middie blouse, blue sailor collar, and red flowing tie, marching with hundreds of other girls like myself in the May Day parade in New York. It starts from the Forward building on the East Side and ends with a massmeeting in Union Square, at which union leaders speak. Abraham Baroff, manager of Local 25, leads the procession on a white horse. The bakers are clad in white. We march past the scene of the Triangle Waist Company fire near Washington Square, and shudder as we look up at the windows÷eight, nine, and ten stories high÷ from which so many girls jumped to death because the exit doors were locked to keep u ion organizers out. One hundred and forty-six persons died there that day m 1911, nearly all of them young girls. Conditions in the garment factories are better now, made so by new safety laws because of the fight led by our union.
Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in the Balkan tinder-box, on June 28, 1914÷and quickly Europe is swept into war. Canada, too, is drawn in, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, on the side of the Allies against Germany a d Austria. In 1915 the steamship Lusitania is sunk by a German submarine only ten miles off the Irish coast, and 124 Americans are among the 1,198 persons lost. Despite this, public sentiment against the United States entering the war continues widespread.
Local No. 25 sets up an educational department, with Juliet Stuart Poyntz as director, the first of its kind in the American labor movement. Most of us young immigrant waist-makers attend night school to learn English, and supplement our education with the union classes in subjects of social significance. Thus we gain knowledge and poise and confidence. Under the auspices of that department, too, we have weekly outings and later establish our first vacation center, Unity House, in the Catskill Mountains. When that is destroyed by fire another, much larger, is set up in the Poconos in Pennsylvania.
American munitions makers add to their millions by selling to both sides. All over the country there are rumblings among the mass production workers, the unskilled, the underpaid, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.... Many are on strike, largely for better wages, to keep up with mounting costs of living.... Selling prices of iron and steel climb to the highest levels since the Civil War.... Preparedness Day parades in many cities. In San Francisco the labor unions refuse to take part. A bomb is exploded closer to the line of march, killing ten persons. Several labor leaders are arrested. Tom Mooney and Warren Billings are convicted of the bombing, on evidence later shown to be perjured.
Union Square÷soap-boxers, circles in impassioned discussions mass-meetings, demonstrations. Singing, too! I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier. I hear outstanding labor leaders, defenders o civil liberties.... Arturo Giovannitti, dynamic Italian-American poet, speaks, his soft wavy hair blown in the breeze. "Labor's enemies tried to frame me in the Lawrence textile strike, just as they've framed Mooney and Billings in San Francisco! . . ." All day, every day, the circles are in the Square, close packed huddles, voices rising and falling and rising again.
If they ever try to force us into the war, there'll be a revolution in this country overnight.
We'll be in the war in another six months.
No, we won't. Woodrow Wilson will keep us out of it.
Nobody but the bankers and munitions makers want war.
Yes, but the British control public opinion. They bought sixteen. Of our biggest newspapers. I had it straight.
Did y' see Art Young's cartoon in The Masses? That one where two big cops are draggin' a little guy off to jail ? One bystander says. "What's he been doin'?" and another guy says: "Overthrowin' the gov'ment." It's a scream!
President Woodrow Wilson, pacifist, changes his mind under pres. sure. War is declared.
Emma Goldman, fearless champion of human rights, in Madison Square Garden. Short-sleeved, her fists clenched, she vehemently opposes our entry into the world holocaust, and is threatened with arrest. "I defy the police, when the lives of millions are at stake I " . . . Alexander Berkman also speaks: "The men of this great land will never let themselves be led by the nose into an imperialist war! . . ." More speeches like those spell prison for both.
The war won't last three months.
We'll go over there and we'll clean up them Huns in a hurry.
I was against the war, but now that we're in it I'm for my country, right or wrong.
Yeah÷but you're over the draft age. You won't be called.
There's a long, long trial a-winding.... Over there, over there. . . . They were all out of step but Jim. . ., How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?
The Russian people revolt in February, 1917, the House of Romanov falls, a provisional government is set up. Weary of fighting and bloodshed, the German masses follow the Russian example, and the Kaiser abdicates. On November 11,1918, an armistice is signed, and millions rejoice over the enemy's "unconditional surrender" and "the restoration of peace."
But almost immediately Russia is torn asunder by civil strife, with the Allied armies openly supporting counter-revolutionary elements. Our soldiers are sent to Murmansk and Archangel and into the wastes of northern Siberia to fight the Russian people. The Bolshevik dictatorship is established, and aided by the Allied intervention and blockade of Russia, it is in a position to entrench itself solidly.
Fair-minded individuals and organizations in this country sound insistent cries of protest against the blockade and the intervention; and A. Mitchell Palmer, Attorney General with an ambition to become President, sets going a "red terror" unheard of in the history of this country. Hundreds of innocent persons, among them some of my close friends and co-workers, are arrested in lawless raids on Russian labor and cultural centers in various American cities andare deported without trial. Some 246 are shipped out on the old transport Buford before daylight on December 20, 1919.
Terror comes to my home-town. "General" Petlura's "army" of hooligans, both anti-Bolshevik and anti-Semitic, sweeps into Derazhnia in the night like a swarm of rats. There are heavy footsteps on the porch of my family's home, and pounding on the door. Father opens it, to see who the intruders are, and to reason with them if need be, as he has done at other times like this. Mother is close behind him. Unarmed, he is shot down, before he has a chance to speak or raise a hand, He dies as he had lived, unafraid....
The Roaring Twenties roll in. My excess energies find an outlet in organizational activities, and I am elected to Local 25's executive board.
A new movement÷Workers' Education÷gains momentum. It is designed to provide education for union rank-and-file members, to strengthen their effectiveness and develop leaders among them. With labor's gains in the economic field, mental discipline and knowledge of history and economics become indispensable for unionists living and working in a democracy. Just as organized labor's insistence forced the establishment of free public schools early in the nineteenth century, so now labor demands modernized education to train the workers to meet their problems in the machine age. Our International is in the forefront of this movement; we take pride in the fact that my own local set up the first union educational department in the country in 1915.
M. Carey Thomas, the nation's leading woman educator, and president of Bryn Mawr College, induces its directors to institute a summer school for women workers in industry÷"to stimulate an active and continued interest in the problems of our economic life which so vitally concerns industrial women as wage earners; to develop a desire to study as a means ... for the enrichment of life...."
With 104 other young women from various parts of the country, I am given a scholarship and spend the summer of 1922 on that campus. Most of our classes are held under shady green trees on beautifully kept lawns. With a faculty representing nine top-rank colleges, we worker students are given short-cuts to an understanding of labor economics, political and social history, the relation of women to the labor movement, English literature, appreciation of music. We are aided in our studies by tutors, daughters of wealthy families, young women amazingly tall, who never had to bend over a sewing machine in their growing years, and who always had proper food. They, too, learn from us about the world of work. Hilda Worthington Smith, dean of Bryn Mawr, is the summer school's first director. Later on she is to achieve an outstanding record as head of the WPA Workers' Education Project.
After Bryn Mawr I feel that my adult education has only begun and a year later I apply for a scholarship at Brookwood Labor College, a resident school in Katonah, Westchester County, 40 miles north of New York City. In 1921 the estate occupied by Brookwood was given to the labor movement for use as an educational center, by William Mann Fincke, liberal-minded clergyman and son of a coal operator, from whom he had inherited the property.
I spend the next two years there studying the social sciences÷an adventure in living, with faculty and students not only meeting in class-rooms and in recreational activities but jointly doing the man- ual labor of maintaining this co-operative college. Many new roads of thought are opened up to me by our instructors. Our dean, A. J. Muste, who teaches the history of civilization and public speaking, was formerly a minister in a conservative Massachusetts town. The others are David Saposs, Josephine (Polly) Colby, Arthur Wallace Calhoun, and Helen G. Norton.
Brookwood attracts labor-movement notables from many lands. They come there to exchange views with the students and faculty members. Class study is informal but intensive. Every important industry is represented in the student body, which makes it easier for us to understand the industrial and rural problems facing the country. "Organizing the unorganized" is our great objective. Many of the students come from steel mills, coal mines, auto plants, textile mills, and farms. After a year or two at Brookwood they return home to impart their newly acquired knowledge to their fellow workers.
I see the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union rise to its highest peak of strength in the Twenties, and I see the union go to pieces. 'Through much of that decade savage internal strife rage; within our organization. This is a result of the setting up of the Red Trade Union International in Moscow, designed to take over the labor movement of the whole world, and to "liquidate" all the trade unions affiliated with the Amsterdam International. Those of us who do not side with that aim watch with apprehension the fast disintegration of all our past gains.
The International's membership goes down, down, down. But through it all a devoted minority holds on loyally, and certain officers continue their work doggedly, though they are heartsick. They stay on the job not because of the rewards. For in our union a paid officer gets no more pay than a skilled wage-worker in a garment factory. And during this period, some of our officials receive no salary for as long as three years. Others get paid sometimes÷i there is enough money in the treasury after all other bills are paid
My mother comes from Russia in 1928 to make her home with me I try to arrange for some of the others in our family to come also But the Soviet government refuses to let its youth leave; my four sisters and two brothers are needed to help rebuild that war-shattered country.
Nineteen Twenty-Nine brings to the United States the black day of the Wall Street crash. The garment industry is hard hit as the nation tumbles into the worst depression it has ever known.
Banks close, manufacturers go bankrupt, thousands of dressmaker are close to starvation.... Apple-selling by jobless men runs it course, and the number of shoe-shiners on city streets breaks all records.... President Herbert Hoover, for whom so many shack-town have been named, vacates the White House to let a new tenant in Congress passes the National Industrial Recovery Act, which give labor a shot in the arm, and fresh hope comes to millions of hitherto unorganized workers. Our International takes full advantage of the opportunity to rebuild its shattered ranks.
Twilight and darkness, and for a while the journey grew tedious We had crossed the desert and the mountains. Then a whiff of freshair seemed to push through the tightly shut doors of the plane. Looking down, I saw luxuriant green gardens and orange groves.
Ahead of us presently were the bright lights of Los Angeles. The plane nosed downward and landed, coming to a cushioned stop on its rubber-tired wheels in Glendale airport.
As the door opened, I saw several of my friends waving a welcome from the gates÷Helen Richter, Anna and John Ribac, Boris and Sophie Surasky, Raina Finkel, Sophie and Julius Siegel. The plane being hours overdue, they were anxious, wondering meanwhile whether they should have brought a stretcher. Airplanes in 1933 were not so easy-riding as they are now, and not every one could travel two miles above sea level without becoming ill.
But I felt tip-top, and soon we were sitting in a cocktail lounge, where we talked far into the night. Then I went home with the Ribacs, to occupy again the comfortable studio room that I had left in the spring.
1. President Dubinsky is known informally to thousands of ILGWU members as "D.D."
2. In the Russian language gender is indicated by the final syllable Of ones name. Thus my mother and her daughters signed themselves Peisotaya. When my sister Esther came to this country, somehow the family name was changed to Pesotta. The pronunciation, however, is as if it were Peysota.