CONDITIONS IN THE LOS ANGELES dress industry had grown steadily worse in five months. Manufacturers generally were violating the state minimum wage of $16 a week for women, and the President's Re-employment Agreement, more often called the Blanket Code, in effect until a permanent Code of Fair Competition under the NRA could be agreed upon for the industry. An appallingly large labor turnover was deliberately fostered by the employers for their own benefit. Workers who showed any inclination to organize for selfprotection were promptly fired; and the blacklist operated relentlessly against those who dared protest.
I got a close-up of this from local union leaders the morning after my arrival. Something drastic must be done within the next few weeks.
The City of Angels then had about 150 dress factories, employing some 2,000 workers. About 75 per cent were Mexican women and girls, the rest Italians, Russians, Jews, and American-born. Over a thousand worked in the cloak and suit industry, now fairly busyy A small hut active sportswear industry made cotton garments, casual attire, and slacks, in vogue among the Hollywood younger set.
Comparatively few of the dressmakers knew anything about unionism. Employers took advantage of language difficulties and racial differences to encourage separatism and suspicion. One group was played against another. The factory door was shut as tightly on the $16 state minimum wage law as on the Golden Rule. Records of hours worked were falsified and earnings were pitiful, in some cases as low as so cents a week. From the standpoint of wages and hours, there were sweat-shops in some of the most modern buildings m Los Angeles.
The "open-door system" prevailed. Women hunting jobs were given "the freedom of the building." Doors leading to staircases were left unlocked, so that they could take the elevator to the top floor, ask at each shop if there was work, walk down to the next floor, and repeat the performance until, if lucky, they found a few days' employment for the price offered.
If a rush order for a few dozen dresses came in÷for this was largely a short-order industry serving the local market certain firms put out a Help Wanted sign, bringing in all workers that could possibly be placed. As soon as the order was filled, they would be laid off. One such factory had only ten sewing machine operators, and required at most two hand finishers, but as many as 13 were hired. Garment factory owners regarded their employees as casual workers, in the same dass as migrants who harvested fruit and vegetahle crops.
This policy was not confined to the women's garment industry; it was that of most California employers. And always they had a large labor reserve to draw upon. For various agencies helped to swell the state's population. An organization known as the All Year Club spent large sums for ads in national magazines, inviting tourists to come to Southern California, where there was sunshine all year round, and good living. And other organizations and individual employers used both newspapers and handbills to attract people from outside, implying if not stating that workers in that region were treated better than anywhere else in the country.
Because of its semi-tropical climate, Southern California had long been a haven for the sick, especially those suffering from rheumatism, arthritis, asthma, tuberculosis, bronchial illness, sinus ailments, and heart trouble. Often when a doctor prescribed a stay in California for one person, his whole family migrated there for the duration. Its able bodied members had little choice of employment. Even people with good union records and from good union towns, were inclined to rush to the first job available, heedless of existing conditions, working on a temporary basis until the family decided whether to settle in Los Angeles. This constant influx of newcomers, from every part of the country as well as from South of the border, is still a grave problem for labor unions.
That same evening, at a Cloak and Dress Joint Council meeting, I heard more about working conditions. Louis Pine, council chair man, introduced me as the new general organizer, sent by the national office to line up the dress workers. Sixty or more persons were present, including shop chairmen, more than half being women.
Pine, for years chairman of New York Skirtmakers' Local 23, and then working at a sewing machine in Los Angeles, was an impressive figure with his mop of black hair and high cheek bones. A fighter for the rights of the cloakmakers, he was feared and respected by his enemies and loved by his friends. His lead is still generally followed in union affairs, except in matters of divided opinion on political issues.
Cloakmakers' Local 65, under the leadership of Pine and Henry Rubinstein, a presser who stood side by side with him, had managed to weather the depression, maintaining its membership despite the political warfare led by the Communists within the organization. Later they liquidated the cloakmakers' branch of their dual union in Los Angeles and enrolled en masse in Local 65. Although the local had no written pact with the employers, it was always taken for granted that cloakmakers were the backbone of our union. Hence when the upsurge of 1933 took place, they quickly re-aligned their forces. That spring, too, Cutters' Local 84 was formed, with Harry Scott and Jack Hass as manager and secretary and a group of young men in the forefront. The dressmakers followed in their footsteps and began enrolling members, electing Paul Berg, a dress operator, to serve as their secretary gratis.
I told the gathering of the recent achievements in the East, touching on the drama and the human side of the mighty general strike which had given our union in New York City a chance to rebuild its broken ranks. I dwelt upon the rising of labor throughout the country, voicing my earnest belief that Los Angeles would soon have a solid organization of both cloak and dressmakers. Responses varied from lukewarm to hearty. My recital evidently had the effect of a powerful injection on a dozen or so. Others felt pessimistic÷ "Mexican women could never be organized." The skeptics reminded me that Los Angeles garment manufacturers preferred Mexicans to others because they would "work for a pittance and could endure any sort of treatment."
I contended that the Mexican dressmakers were normal humans, who simply needed honest and intelligent guidance. I had worked with them the previous spring and we had got along well.
"Several of those women," I said, "are greatly respected by their own people. Give these an intensive training in elementary trade unionism, and it won't be long before they are Up to the rest of the ILGWU organizing staff."
"What we need," declared one council member, "is a general strike. We are all for it' but we haven't the money to finance it."
"When the time is ripe," I assured her, "the necessary money will be available."
The local union leaders breathed more freely when I explained that the International had undertaken an organizing campaign of women's garment workers all over the county. Their tension was further eased when they learned that I had already deposited a revolving fund in the Bank of America. Beyond doubt they got the impression that I had brought thousands of dollars with me.
Wherever I went those first few days, I met anxiety coupled with hopeful expectation. Friends in the Clare Dress Company shop, from which I had been fired, came to see me next day. In the few months since I left the \Vest Coast, they had suffered continually from the indignities against which I had protested, and their sense of rebellion had grown.
"We want a strike," said Carmela a tiny creature with flashing black eyes. "We want to picket our shop."
"Have you ever been on strike before?" I asked.
"No, but if others can go out and win, like the Philadelphia and New York dressmakers, why can't we?"
"They say the NRA is back of us what is the NRA anyway?" another wanted to know.
I brought together groups of these active workers and explained, that following the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, labor and industry were invited to Washington to present their ideas of Codes of fair competition for their particular fields. Our draft of a Dress Code was filed after the New York strike was settled, and our representatives were to go to Washington and convince employers from all sections of the country that they should abide by it and give the workers a living wage.
In Los Angeles, the NRA office was supposed to be upholding the President's Blanket Code. Instead, that office was actually working hand-in-glove with the reactionary forces, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Better America Federation÷a front organization enjoying the blessing of Harry Chandler's Los Angeles Times.
Our union soon accumulated a mass of evidence of discrimination and intimidation Workers were let out on mere suspicion that they had signed union cards. With the manufacturers' blacklist working overtime, they were doomed. I knew what that meant: constantly at work behind the scenes was the anti-union machinery of the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association. Organized in 1896, its principal object was to maintain the "traditional open shop in Los Angeles."
One basic rule of the Blanket Code provided that workers register their time in order to be paid for actual hours spent in the factory. The dress manufacturers, however, discovered a way to chisel.
"Do you know, Rosa, what the boss makes us do now?" Maria, oldest of the three Flores sisters, complained to me. "I come in the morning, punch my card, work for an hour, punch the card again. I wait for two hours, get another bundle, punch card, finish bundle, punch card again. Then I wait some more÷the whole day that way."
This was a continuous process, a bundle of hand finishing often requiring only a few minutes' work. The resulting time-sheet was cumbersome, complicated, and frequently unintelligible to the Mexican worker. And she had to surrender it before she received her pay. In certain factories, too, the vicious kick-back system operated. Workers would receive pay in keeping with the minimum wage law, would sign for it, and then would have to turn back part of the money.
Apart from the ever-present underlying industrial conflict, Los Angeles offered a curious spectacle to any student of social problems. To the average tourist, the city spelled sunshine, Hollywood, broad boulevards, film studios, and homes of favorite players, the Brown Derby, where one could rub shoulders with celebrities, and Sid Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where hand and foot prints of many motion picture stars are "immortalized" in sidewalk concrete. Nature lovers might climb the mountains, stop overnight on Mount Wilson to visit a world-famous observatory, spend a week-end in a canyon, or at an old Franciscan mission along El Camino Real. In the summer one could attend the Hollywood Bowl open air concerts nightly, or go swimming in the Pacific ocean.
But there was another side. For many years Los Angeles had been a Mecca for strange religious cults, utopians÷people with political and economic panaceas, health faddists, quack doctors, nudists, homosexuals, people who believed that optimism and a smiling face would carry them triumphant through all difficulties, and individuals informally classified as eccentrics, crackpots, and screwballs.
Wandering through Pershing Square, a mid-city open forum opposite the swank Biltmore Hotel, one got a closer picture of the ideas that permeated this melting pot. Amid tropical verdure, soapboxers, itinerant missionaries, and debaters of all shades constantly carried on. During the Hoover era, the politically-minded and the utopians offered their cure-alls. Now the topics had changed, and the virtues and shortcomings of the New Deal, with its wide array of alphabetical departments, were under close scrutiny. All "isms" were given a hearing, though sometimes the harangues were shouted down with collective lusty laughter. There one heard frequent uncomplimentary allusions to Governor Rolph, "rosy-cheeked baby kisser," who obviously was no friend of the poor.
Mapping out an organization program, we laid emphasis on reaching the Mexican workers. A local cultural society operated a radio station, broadcasting in Spanish from a movie theatre on Main Street near the Plaza. Members were entitled to use the station to announce births, marriages, and deaths. I joined the society and explained to the manager the task confronting us. He was sympathetic, particularly when he learned that our problem was to reach Mexican women workers. When I paid six months' dues in advance, he agreed to stretch the rule about announcements and let us talk about the union. So each evening at 7 we did a short broadcast, which we knew was heard by every family owning a radio set among the city's innumerable Mexican population.
Presently we engaged Bill Busick journalist, orator, publicity man, and former Socialist Presidential campaign manager for Norman Thomas. He began to edit our four-page semi-weekly newspaper, The Organizer in both Spanish and English. We issued attractive leaflets addressed to workers in specific shops. This resulted in important new contacts, which gave me an opportunity to cultivate some of the more articulate dressmakers from across the border.
After the broadcasts we would go down to Olvera Street, a narrow alley at the foot of the Plaza, dating back to the first Spanish settlers in 1781. It had been reconstructed in recent years and turned into a bazaar as an attraction for tourists, who got a taste of Mexico by visiting the quaint booths and stores owned and run by Mexicans. Here were hand-made pottery and glassware, giant-size candles for saints' days, huarachas (sandals), mantillas (shawls), and colorful baskets, silver jewelry, candy made from cactus÷and in some places v here one was known to the proprietor, tequilla, and other potent Mexican beverages.
Dark handsome girls with fire in their eyes lent color and grace to the scene. They carried on lively conversation with women who were busy cooking over red-hot charcoal on tin plates tortillas, frijoles and hot tamales, sold to customers who sat at small tables under the open sky. And groups of boys, wearing big sombreros, their shoulders draped with gayly woven ponchos sauntered to and fro in the roadway, singing Mexican ballads to the accompaniment of guitars, fiddles, and marachas.
A little theatre in Olvera Street had been artistically remodeled by Leo Carrillo, of the stage and movies, himself a descendant of an old Spanish family. A variety show in the everyday tongue of the Mexicans, coupled with national dances, was given here nightly. Close by, La Golondrina a cellar restaurant in an ancient building, did a rushing business, with tourists waiting outside for a chance to get in to drink and dance.
Many of the people I met during these nocturnal excursions, workers all, bore names notable in early California history÷names of explorers, military and religious leaders and grandees who had received large land grants from the Castilian Crown.
In the Plaza, Mexican men engaged in informal sharp-tongued debates. The women, traditionally keeping out of public life, sat on nearby benches chatting with their neighbors, while the children played. Several swarthy-skinned orators discussed passionately the relations between the United States and their own country.
"All this California, this land of gold and sunshine," one said, "in justice belongs to Mexico It was taken from her in 1848. Some day Mexico will take it back."
"But that's not the best way," replied an opponent. "If our compatriots would listen to me, they would urge that Mexico become part of the United States. We'd all be much better off as American citizens, with the many rights and privileges that the people of this great country enjoy."
Other voices took up the theme. It was good for a whole evening, or perhaps a whole week, of arguing.
Some of the women quietly admitted to me that they, too, would like to be Americans. In Mexico, they said, women still had no freedom; a married woman could not vote nor hold a job without her husband's consent, and the father was still the supreme ruler over unmarried daughters until they reached the age of 30. The poor were always overburdened with work, entire families toiling on the plantations owned by the rich. Those who wanted to enter a profession were looked upon with contempt÷a hang-over from the Moors who at one time ruled Spain and whose Oriental traditions were carried to the Spanish-speaking New World.Two active union co-workers, strolling with me on the Plaza's curving walks, pointed proudly to the bold statue of Felipe De Neve, Governor of California, when it was part of the Spanish realm. De Neve brought with him 22 men, women, and children from Mexico in 1781 to establish a pueblo, a town, and named it de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles, our Lady, Queen of the Angels. Afterward, for convenience, the name was shortened to the last two words. The Governor mapped out detailed plans for the town's expansion, and gave each incoming family seven acres of land to cultivate.
"He was a good man'" Ramona Gonzales declared. "He made Los Angeles for us to live in. Why do the Yanquis say we are to be deported?"
A stone's throw from the Plaza, at the head of Sunset Boulevard, the girls looked with equal pride on another statue÷that of Padre Junipero Serra, leader of the Franciscan Friars, founders of 21 Catholic missions in California in the days of Spanish rule These stretched along a 700-mile road, El Camino Real÷the King's Highway, offering shelter to the traveler after a day's ride.
Spanish and Indian blood flowed in the veins of many of the workers with whom I had daily contact. For decades, when California was young, the muscle and energy of their Indian forebears had been conscripted by the friars, who saved the souls of these simple people and exploited their bodies.
Churchly peonage in the agricultural fields was long gone from California, but in its place was wage slavery, which had in its toils thousands of humans with bronze and copper skins From the beginning of the twentieth century, Mexican tillers of the soil and their families had been encouraged to come into the Golden State in steadily increasing numbers to gather the seasonal crops and then to depart. In later years their services were used largely by the Associated Farmers, an alliance of big land-owners, notoriously callous to the welfare of hired hands.
Living quarters provided for the Mexican migrants were primitive in the extreme, usually consisting of a cluster of tents or shacks in an open space, without thought of comfort or privacy. These families for even tiny children accompanied their mothers into the fields or orchards to work beside them throughout the day÷"chased the seasons" in battered flivvers several families often riding in one car.
As the season advanced, and the later fruits or vegetables ripened and were ready for picking, the migrants moved from ranch to ranch, toiling from sun-up to sun-down. In California a farm is called a ranch.
Poorly paid and hard driven, many of these agricultural workers, seeking to leave their thankless labors, naturally gravitated to the principal California cities, where compatriots had preceded them. Thus hundreds of Mexican women and girls, traditionally skillful with the needle and eager to get away from family domination, had found their way into the garment industry in Los Angeles.
A few high caste, California-born Mexican families prospered in trade and owned well-appointed homes in the better sections of the city. The people with whom I was concerned lived mainly in the outskirts, on unpaved streets, at the end of car-lines, in rickety old shacks, unpainted, unheated, usually without baths and with outside toilets. Within the flimsy walls of those shacks, the occupants shivered with the morning and evening chill. Like the desert, Los Angeles is hot during the day, but comfortably cool on summer evenings. In the fall, spring, and winter homes there need heat.
The usual method of a labor organizer in new territory is to ring doorbells in seeking out prospective unionists. But there were no doorbells for me to ring when I went calling in these slums with some of the Spanish-speaking girls.
Yet often the squalid exteriors were deceptive, the interiors, while poorly furnished, being clean and neat. In not a few of the Mexican dwellings were frigidaires, expensive radio sets, large floor lamps, vacuum cleaners, and other luxuries which had been sold on the installment plan by silver-tongued salesmen. In one place I visited a huge refrigerator stood as a show-piece in the center of the living room, unused because the electricity had been shut off for non-payment. In another house, also a rear shack in the Belvedere section, I saw a baby-grand piano, bought on time for $340 for a 12-year-old girl studying music in a public school. The child's father was a pick-and-shovel man, irregularly employed, the mother a dress finisher, eking out a meager living. Her greatest fear was that the piano, her proudest possession, would be taken away if she failed in her payments. Hence she was willing to take work home, any kind and for any length of hours, for her daughter's sake.
The chief fear that hung over these immigrants, however, was that of deportation. Many families had no income beyond the meager seasonal wage of a single worker, and were on county relief. Employers, knowing that a complaint to the authorities would lead to deportation of outspoken employees, used this threat to curb the rebellious.
Gradually the Mexicans in the dress factories came to our union headquarters, asking questions timidly but eagerly. Some employers, learning of signed membership cards, scoffed: "They won't stick." Others were plainly worried. Women not yet in our ranks came with the disquieting news that their boss had threatened to report them to the immigration authorities and have them "sent back" if they joined our union. We promised that our attorneys would fight any such underhanded move.
Meanwhile the Cloakmakers' Union, having consolidated its ranks, was trying to reach an agreement with the employers. Negotiations had been going on for weeks, but the employers had used various pretexts to stall for time. They hoped matters would drag along until the end of the season, when they would have the upper hand, for it is usually hard to gain any improvement in conditions while factories are shut for lack of work.
Under the leadership of Louis Pine, ably assisted by Henry Rubinstein, the solid, slow-speaking presser and veteran member, and bushy-haired I. Lutsky, recently added to the staff as business agent, the union called a mass-meeting to decide on the next move.
At 3 o'clock on Tuesday, September 25, the city's cloakmakers laid down their tools, walked out of the shops, and marched through the garment district to Walker's Orange Grove Theatre on Grand Street. Quickly the place was filled to capacity and another hall had to be opened for the overflow.
The determination of the workers at that gathering was impressive. They listened to the report of their leaders, and voted unanimously to authorize them to call a general strike, if the employers continued to stall. The stoppage was itself a manifestation of a vigorous organization celebrating its rebirth. There was only a one-and-a-halfhour cessation of work, but it made the front pages of the local newspapers.
That strike vote was a surprise and a shock to the employers, who had been skeptical about our organization strength. Next day some hastened to voice their readiness to sign up, evidently fearing that a second mid-day meeting might be more serious.
With the cloakmakers' action as a cue, the largest meeting of dressmakers ever held in Los Angeles took place in the same auditorium on the 27th. They discussed their grievances at length, cheered speakers who told of the recent dressmakers' victories in the Eastern cities, and voted unanimously for a general strike if the employers failed to recognize their union and refused to grant their reasonable demands. The leadership was given full power to act. Those demands included union recognition, a 35-hour week, a guaranteed minimum wage for each craft, in accordance with the pending Dress Code; regular union hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with an hour for lunch; a five-day week; shop chairman and price committee to be elected by the workers of each shop; no home work; no worker to punch a time-card except on actually entering or leaving the factory; all disputes to be adjusted by a committee composed of the shop chairman, a representative of the union, and a representative of the employer, and an impartial arbitrator selected by mutual consent, to decide on disputes in the event of a deadlock.
A copy of the proposed agreement had been sent each employer with a letter asking that he meet with us in conference. But we realized that none of the dress factory owners would consider meeting with us, since they were acting under instructions from the Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles.
We had in our possession a copy of a bulletin issued by that organization on August 31, recommending "methods which may be of assistance in forestalling possible employee difficulties." It included these suggestions:
"Delay or postpone wage or hour discussion with employees for 24 hours after
a request is received.... Within that time please meet with the proper association
committee that may be posted on conditions of the moment.
"Before hiring any employee . . . do not fail to communicate with the last employer to learn actual cause of leaving. This is essential just now . . ."
"Establish a policy of laying off temporarily or permanently those apparently more interested in making unreasonable trouble . . ."
We also had a copy of an earlier bulletin calling members to a meeting, to block a proposed merger of the State Bureau of Labor and the Industrial Welfare Commission. This consolidation, the association's executive secretary wrote, would work "tremendous hardship" upon local manufacturers.
Citing "serious competition from the Eastern markets" which Los Angeles garment companies had to meet, the secretary's message continued pointedly:
"We have been able to overcome a lot of this resistance through the close
co-operation of the Industrial Welfare Commission. However, if that
department is merged with the Bureau of Labor . . . all this good work will be
wiped out and we will . . . be forced to strictly adhere to the minimum wage laws
"Los Angeles has always been an open shop town, and it is our intention that it remain so. Therefore we must resist this consolidation....1
As our campaign gained momentum, the newspapers dealt with it at some length. The local NRA office stepped in, inviting both sides to a conference. Three sessions with the employers convinced us that they did not mean business. They objected particularly to having the word "union" or the name of the ILGWU in any signed agreement!
Events moved swiftly. Discharges for union activities continued÷in one shop 29 workers were fired; dressmakers enrolled in increasing numbers, with the Mexican women and girls leading; and we gathered a mass of evidence of intimidation, of open violation of the state minimum wage law, and of flagrant disregard of state sanitary and safety regulations.
Looking into the matter of expense for the strike which now appeared inevitable, I found the cost of a public hall within walking distance from the garment district prohibitive. Then I canvassed streets off the beaten track and found several vacant buildings which could be had at reasonable figures. We would have to install a commissary, for feeding the strikers would be essential. The rest was not a problem, as our International always pays strike benefits and incidental expenses that are included in an organization drive. We had only three officers on our payroll. Our other active people, as well as the office staff, worked as volunteers, the union paying for their lunches, trolley and bus fares, and gasoline for those who owned flivvers Our payroll was negligible, the officers receiving around $35 per week each.
Writing to my home office late in September, I told of the steady influx of Spanish-speaking workers into the ILGWU. The number of Mexican workers already signed up was sizeable enough to compare promisingly with the largest of the Latin groups within our International, the Italians. "We get them," I explained, "because we are the only Americanos who take them in as equals. They may well become the backbone of our union on the West Coast."
If a strike had to come, I reported, we were prepared to act quickly. Such a contingency might arise any day in view of the concerted discharge of our members in large numbers. The president of the International was astounded at our speed, but obviously impressed. I asked that some one be sent to help with negotiations while I took care of organization routine. Promptly one of our national vice-presidents, Israel Feinberg, an ace negotiator, was asked to come. I also received a considerable check, not all the money I asked for, but enough to give us a good start.
Feinberg arrived by plane on October 4. Next day he acted as chief spokesman for the cloak and suit makers in conference with the employers. The half-day stoppage made them more amenable to a peaceful settlement, which was worked out in subsequent discussions.
Manifestly a gentlemen, and always correctly dressed, Feinberg was then in his middle fifties. Like most of our leadership and contrary to the popular conception, he is quiet spoken, yet hammers home his arguments convincingly. One employer remarked that "if he had studied law, Mr. Feinberg might have become one of America's greatest lawyers."
Our relations with the dress manufacturers were not smooth. They balked anew at our proposals and wanted "more time for consideration."
At a special session with local union executive officers and the rank-and-file organization committee, various standing committees were appointed for "emergency duties" if negotiations should fail. In such a conflict, premature announcement of plans must be carefully guarded against so as not to give the other side opportunity for further intimidation. The executive committee therefore had agreed to leave it to Vice-President Feinberg, Paul Berg, and me to set the date for the walkout, not to be announced until the actual day.
I went ahead at full speed with final arrangements÷rented a vacant three-story loft building at Los Angeles and Eleventh Streets, had a telephone installed, and rented desks for the offices and 2,000 folding chairs for the strike meeting rooms and the large assembly loft on the top floor. No one but myself and another committee member knew the location of those quarters.
1. Italics here are mine÷R.P.