Bread upon the Waters
Last Outpost of Civilization
FROM THE TROPICS to the Northwest÷from Puerto Rico to the State of Washington.... Late in December, 1934, I was on my way to Seattle at President Dubinsky's request. The International had chartered a dressmakers' local there, and it needed building up. Crossing the continent, I had the odd experience of meeting all four seasons of the year in the course of a single week.
Enroute I visited Los Angeles, where the dressmakers had elected a new executive board, which I was called upon to install. The rival union had been liquidated some lime before. I was proud to note how well our membership had carried out the program we had charted following the hard fought general strike in 1933.
In San Francisco the two locals had formed a joint board managed by Samuel S. White. The dressmakers were headed by Jennie Matyas, appointed as an organizer there by President Dubinsky. For years a resident there, she had lived as a girl in New York, where she had helped Waist Makers' Local 25 make history.
January 2 and 3 found me moving northward, feasting my eyes on a fascinating panorama÷gigantic redwood trees, white-topped Mount Shasta, the Cascade Mountains. Great stretches of open land were dotted with snow-capped stumps which had the look of giant mushrooms. On either side of the train, roads glistened like pictures of fairyland in a child's book.
A committee headed by Clifford Mayer, Manly Labby, and Sam Schatz of Local 70, met me in the Portland station. The same evening I spoke at a cloakmakers' meeting. It was stirring to see these girls absorbed in serious union matters and arguing intelligently about them. A year earlier they had known nothing about unionism and were working for miserable wages. Now they had laid a solid foundation for a real union. Arriving in Seattle Saturday noon, I registered at the YWCA and believing I would stay here for some time, went hunting for an apartment. I was fortunate in finding a clean, well furnished place in the Spring Apartments, in the heart of the business section, a few blocks from the Labor Temple.
Unpacking my things in this new home, I turned on the radio and sat down in front of a bay window facing magnificent Mount Rainier, topped with snow the year round! Rain was falling, the sort the Scotch call a "drizzle-drazzle," but which people in the Puget Sound country speak of as "Oregon mist." I contemplated the mountain as if through a veil of gauze.
The air was chill, and a great loneliness pressed down upon me. I asked myself: "What am I doing here alone? What is in store for me?" I got out of that shadow by phoning two trusted members of the Cloakmakers' Union, Meyer Rosenberg and Leon Glazer. At the Glazer home, we discussed the problem of putting the new dressmakers' local on its feet.
Meyer Rosenberg, father of four grown children, and a pioneer in our union, had come from Toledo, Ohio. An active member of the Democratic party, he took me to several important affairs, one being the annual Jackson Day dinner, in the Olympic Hotel. The guest speaker was candid about the party's patron saint, dwelling upon both his virtues and weaknesses. Rosenberg also took me to meet Warren G. Magnuson, the youthful, athletic District Attorney, since elected to Congress.
Leon Glazer and his son Eugene both worked as pressers, Eugene serving as secretary of the local. Always ready to do things for the organization, unfortunately he could not make the proper approach to the dressmakers. For this a woman clearly was needed.
Another telephone call brought four cheerful guests for breakfast on Sunday. Ross Brown, whom I had known in the East, brought his fiancee, and a tall young man from California, R. P. Beverstock, and his wife, Genevieve. Ross had attended Commonwealth Labor College in Arkansas, and was now with the Masters, Mates, and Pilots' Union. Beverstock, "Bev" to us, was a Stanford University graduate, and Seattle representative of the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau.
After breakfast we went sightseeing in Ross Brown's car. He took us to see the Skid Road, as Yesler Way is called, because in pioneer days logs drawn by oxen were skidded down this long sloping road to the first sawmill, owned by Henry Yesler. The foot of that thoroughfare, however, had a different connotation in labor circles. Here was the "slave market," where migrant workers sought jobs in employment offices all too often conducted by human sharks. Colman Dock also had special meaning. From it crowded steamers had pushed off for Alaska in the Klondike gold rush of 1897. Close by were the sites of the first cabins in Seattle.
Near the waterfront the atmosphere was dingy. But the prospect improved as we rode through the business center and into the residential sections. Seattle unquestionably has charm. It is a modern metropolis, which has managed to preserve a great deal of natural scenic beauty. A city of hills and terraces, where many homes seem to hang precariously, surrounded by luscious fruits and flowers. Roses, blooming all year round, are so large and perfect that at times they give the impression of being artificial.
Cloakmakers' Local 28 in Seattle had been functioning ever since it was chartered in 1912. ILGWU representatives visited the Pacific Northwest periodically, and the local membership kept in frequent touch with the general office.
The Seattle dressmakers, all women, who made house and cotton dresses chiefly, numbered about a thousand. After my visit the previous spring, a group of these women decided to establish a union of their own, and applied to the International for a charter. A local, No. 184, was set up. Without competent guidance, however, its charter members had made practically no progress with organization.
In October, President Dubinsky had stopped in Seattle on his way home from the A F of L convention in San Francisco. A committee representing the dressmakers, cloakmakers, and the Central Labor Council conferred with him and asked that I be sent to direct the upbuilding of the new local.
Now that I was on the fob Glazer and Rosenberg suggested a room at the Labor Temple, as our organizing center. No office space was available in the Temple, but the secretary offered to let us use the ante-room to the large assembly hall on the fourth floor, with the proviso that delegates to the Central Labor Council sessions could continue to pass through that room.
Designed for coat-checking, this was small, dark, and depressing. A door equipped with a peep-hole opened into the assembly hall. At once I proceeded to clean up and beautify our new office. I made curtains for the window, bought potted ferns, improved the lighting with modern electric fixtures, acquired a typewriter and mimeograph, and wired to New York for posters and literature. From the basement some one brought an ancient rolltop desk and a swivel chair, lent to the newly formed union "for the duration." Quickly a drab interior was made over into comfortable and inviting quarters.
Several evenings later I sat in a corner watching the CLC delegates come in. Largely men who did hard manual labor, they included teamsters, longshoremen, marine workers, loggers, brewery workers, butchers, bakers, and machinists. Most of them naturally expected to find nothing in the room but the customary hooks on which to hang their coats. One man took off his coat while speaking to another and moved toward his usual parking spot. Instead of bare hooks, he found the wall covered with eye-arresting labor posters. Open mouthed with surprise but evidently pleased, he moved about the room, examining the other walls, stumbling over me, but too absorbed to remember to excuse himself.
Introduced to the assembled delegates as the new organizer for "the Lady Garment Workers," I was warmly welcomed into organized labor's official family in Seattle, with the Council pleading its full support to our cause.
Of necessity this campaign moved slowly at the beginning, for the new local had no active members. The courageous girls who applied for the charter had been gradually eased out of their jobs; most of the others were reluctant to join. Frequently they gave us this answer:
"Why should I risk my job to join your union? The NRA is protecting me."
Many of the dressmakers here were of types not to be found in a New York garment shop, except perhaps as buyers models. designers÷or scrub-women. Not a few drove their own cars; some wore expensive fur coats, bought not with money earned in the factories, but from returns on inherited real estate, dividends on investments, or income from private dressmaking done at home evenings and Sundays. But others had had a constant struggle with poverty, had been on welfare or the WPA, and were in mortal fear of losing their jobs.
A large percentage of these people were children and grandchildren of adventurous Americans who had come overland from the East in "prairie schooners"÷covered wagons. They included numerous Scandinavian immigrants or one generation removed, the latter mainly Minnesota-born, plus a sprinkling of Irish, Icelanders, French Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders.
When we began our Seattle campaign there were strong prejudices against unions among women garment makers, but of a type different from those I usually ran into. Unions in that rough and ready country were reminiscent, both in organization and administration, of pioneer days. They were nothing new in the Northwest, but they had been organized by men for men only. Union halls generally reeked with tobacco smoke, like saloons. Union meetings frequently ended in free-for-all fights, in which heads were bashed and noses broken. Grudges and arguments were settled in the same violent way. So a union hall, in the opinion of most of the women I met, was "scarcely the proper place for a lady."
Since the NRA had established the Dress Code of Fair Competition, with a minimum wage, they felt that they were protected by the federal government. They had no knowledge of the part union action had played in bringing that Code into being.
Yet there were good reasons for their joining a union. Most of them were being mercilessly exploited. The NRA minimum of $13 a week for 40 hours' work on cotton garments, was low enough, but even on this the employers frequently chiseled, using subterfuges to get around the law, and paying the same wages for higher priced silk and wool dresses.
Frontier habits and attitudes still prevailed widely among the inhabitants of Seattle. A large percentage of the men did heavy labor÷as loggers, or in the sawmills; as longshoremen; as seamen on ships plying to Alaska, the Orient, or to Southern and Eastern ports; or as fishermen, who made periodic two-week trips to waters near Ketchikan, Alaska. There were a few whalers, too, who hunted Moby Dick in high-powered boats, with harpoons shot from small cannon.
In 1851, with the Civil War still ten years distant, 24 men, women, and children who for months had traveled westward, drawn by slowmoving ox-teams, arrived on the Eastern shore of Puget Sound, the last frontier.
Indians headed by their chief, Seattle, welcomed them. When the cluster of log-huts had grown a little, the men who built them named their village for the friendly chief.
Migrants had founded this city, and in 1935 the great bulk of its 375,000 residents were still from other places. Curiously enough, as soon as these migrants were firmly established in Seattle, they regarded later comers as outsiders. "Rugged individualists," their motto was "Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost! "
From the beginning, and as late as 1925, all commerce in Seattle revolved around lumber production. Vast grants of timber in the public domain had been obtained from the federal government by hook or crook, and the timber barons slashed through the mighty virgin forests with no thought for the future.
As the lumbermen had exploited the forests, the loggers who felled the trees, and the sawmill hands, so many employers in Seattle took the utmost advantage of their workers.
Soon after the 1929 stock market crash 30,000 persons in that city were jobless. Some organized the Unemployed Citizens' League, which set the pace for similar self-help groups all over the United States. Harvesting fruit and vegetable crops on a sharing basis, it set up various co-operative enterprises, which, however, were opposed by business men, who feared these would cut into their profits.
On March 1, 1933, many of the League's members marched toward Olympia, the state capital, with the intention of presenting an appeal to the Governor for reforms in relief procedure. But they were prevented from entering that city by several hundred "vigilantes."