Bread upon the Waters
Some History is Recorded in Chicago
MY MEXICAN co-delegate, Beatrice Lopez, and I arrived in Chicago early Sunday morning, May 27. The special train bringing the Eastern delegation to the convention was due at 10 a.m., and we joined the official reception committee. I was happy to find many of my New York friends among the delegates or guests, especially Anna Sosnovsky. Chums of long standing and classmates at Brookwood Labor College, we had much to talk about. She had organized several hundred cotton garment workers, mostly girls and newcomers in the industry, in Newark, New Jersey, and was now representing their local at the convention.
While we sat at breakfast, several delegates announced that they had "decided" to sponsor me as their candidate for a vice-presidency in the International. I was too astonished to say anything, and the girls went on to remind me that there was no woman on our General Executive Board. This was ridiculous, they said, in a predominantly women's industry. In the past, two women had served at different time as vice-presidents÷Fannia M. Cohn, now executive secretary of our educational department, and Molly Friedman, who resigned after she married and retired to private life to raise a family.
I tried to make clear that I had no wish to be a vice-president of the ILGWU, though I recognized that it would be a great honor. Now that I had finished my job in California, I wanted only to return to a sewing machine in a New York dress shop.
The rest of the day I was so busy helping to check in delegates and place them in hotels, that I had no time to give the vice-presidency idea another thought.
A serious problem arose at the Medinah Michigan Avenue Club, convention headquarters, where we were to hold our sessions. The management refused to admit the Negro delegates from Local 22. In protest, the rest of No. 22's delegation declined to check in, and remained outside, their baggage beside them. After a protracted argument, the management relaxed its rule, and the delegation filed in and registered.
It is usual for the local ILGWU organization in a convention city to put on a good show in welcoming delegates and guests. Chicago, under the leadership of Morris Bialis, the International's vice-president there, did a creditable job. As a prelude, the Chicago unionists had organized a parade, and on Monday morning 9,000 dress and cloakmakers marched from Canal and Van Buren Streets to West Side Carmen's Hall on Ashland Boulevard. The women wore white costumes, with white overseas caps bearing the letters ILGWU, and the men wore similar caps of blue. Cheering onlookers lined the sidewalks five deep, and countless flags waved, as the marching workers sang to stirring music played by three brass bands.
Carmen's Hall, with a seating capacity of 4,000, was swiftly filled, and an overflow of several thousand blackened the streets outside. The stage was gay with flags and flowers, sent by locals and shop groups of workers.
Vice-President Bialis officially opened the convention. Slender and boyish-looking, with a mane of black wavy hair and clear black eyes, he seemed to personify the militant spirit of the International. Victor A. Olander, secretary of the Illinois Federation of Labor, made the welcoming address; and Alderman Oscar F. Nelson, a vice-president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, extended "the key to the city" to the delegates in behalf of Mayor Edward J. Kelly. Then Bialis turned the convention over to David Dubinsky, president of the International.
Before beginning his keynote address, Dubinsky asked the assembly to stand in silent tribute to his predecessor, Benjamin Schlesinger, who died shortly after being re-elected to the presidency in Philadelphia in 1932.
D.D. reviewed the struggles of the ILGWU through difficult years, as it surmounted great obstacles and fought enemies outside and inside. Sentence by sentence, he built up a compelling picture of the tremendous significance of our organization's achievements. One got a new conception of the International, of the boundless energy, stubborn devotion to an ideal, and stamina it had taken to rebuild the organization out of the wreckage left by the dual union after the disastrous 26-weeks' strike in New York in 1926. That had been our first defeat, he pointed out; it left the ILGWU saddled with a debt exceeding $2,000,000, a shameful monument to the reckless spending orgy which characterized the "left wing" administration then in power.
The International had ridden out the storm and cleared the bulk of its obligations, and its 35th anniversary was being celebrated with the greatest convention it had ever held. The ILGWU membership had dropped from 110,000 in 1920, to 40,000 in January I, 1933. Now it had climbed to a height of nearly 200,000. At this 22nd biennial gathering were 369 delegates, 143 locals, and 13 joint boards, located in 73 cities in 16 states and Canada.
Our president dwelt on how the union had pioneered in collective bargaining, and in labor education, enlisted the aid of public-spirited citizens and government officials in the fight to eliminate sweatshops, protected the health of the workers, participated in community activities, given aid to charitable institutions, and helped other labor organizations both in this country and abroad in their battles to uphold human rights. The International had reduced working hours in our industry to 35, won high minimum wage scales, and established the right of workers to their jobs, so they could not be discharged without review by a proper impartial tribunal.
Dubinsky touched upon the 1930 industrial upheaval, when tens of thousands of our workers lost their jobs, employers forced work conditions down to the lowest possible level, and the sweatshop in its worst forms reappeared. In the three years following, garment makers were close to starvation.
When the National Industrial Recovery Act came into being as a part of the New Deal, our workers benefited greatly, Dubinsky recalled, "largely because of the militancy of our union and its readiness not only to threaten to strike, but actually to resort to strikes when the occasion called for it."
Mainly, however, he declared, our success was achieved because we concentrated our drive during the early months of the NRA, the "honeymoon period," and because our International, like the United Mine Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, was quick to realize the importance of the new law.
At that time the administration in Washington appeared ready to give the underdog a break, and employers had not yet shown much. resistance to the NRA Codes. This came when the heavy basic indus-tries became involved in Code hearings.
In the non-union industries, the Codes were not being enforced, and flagrant violations by the most "patriotic" employers were com-mon. The unions, however, were in a better position to enlist the services of the NRA for enforcement; they could insist, under threat of strikes, that restitution of wages be made to underpaid workers. In our industry, tens of thousands of dollars in back pay were col-lected for ILGWU members.
Dubinsky regarded as a mistake the efforts of the Darrow Com-mission to maintain the small businessman's existence at all costs.
"From the first day of the depression," he declared, "it was clear that the little man could survive only at the expense of labor. Un-willing to admit that economic forces were working against him, and that he would shortly become a part of the working class himself or starve, the small business man continued a haphazard existence by slashing wages here, chiseling there, lengthening hours....
"The little businessman ought to realize that as a capitalist he cuts a sorry figure, and that no legislation or other force can turn the clock back for him. In any event, labor does not propose to be exploited by him. We refuse to return to the sweatshop or permit the degradation of our workers to justify or extend the existence of the small business man."
Applause rocked the big auditorium as our president finished with these words:
"It was an outcry of injustice against miserable conditions that finally prompted the Government to begin thinking and talking and considering social legislation. But it will be the power of organized labor that will make it not only the subject for discussion, but a matter of law, a matter of practice, a matter of relief to the op-pressed....
"We are serving humanity, fighting for freedom.... Our cause is just and our purpose is noble. Our defeats are only temporary setbacks. We are bound to win.... United as never before, shoul-der to shoulder, let us go marching on to our future battles and more glorious victories."
Short-statured and in his early forties, Dubinsky had a peaches--and-cream complexion, so cherished by women. In a corner of his mouth was clamped a cigar which peeled apart as it was smoked to a stub. At times his round face, with upturned nose, would take on the expression of a baby. Gavel in one hand and cigar in the other, he conducted the convention sessions masterfully.
Much has been said and written, both commendatory and critical, about the president of our International, since that convention. Some observers have compared him to the young David slaying the giant Goliath; others consider him almost a demigod whose wisdom cannot even be questioned. Reactionaries classify him among the hated New Dealers, a connotation damning him in the eyes of profiteers, Tam-many politicians, and gangsters.
As I viewed him on the opening day in Chicago, during the two weeks there, and in my close association with him through ten succeeding years (as a member of the General Executive Board), Dubinsky was and is an ordinary mortal, who happens to be living in a period favorable to his type of leadership. And clearly he is not infallible.
He is the third man to head the ILGWU since I joined the union, and to my mind the luckiest of the three. Benjamin Schlesinger, cloakmaker, the first, put the organization on a rock-solid founda-tion. Morris Sigman, presser, became president at the beginning of the internecine war, never recovered from its blows. Abraham Baroff, congenial and fatherly, one of the builders of the Waistmakers' Local 25, served as secretary-treasurer for ten years under both Schlesinger and Sigman. Late in the Twenties Sigman resigned, and Schlesinger again became president. Baroff retired later, and Dubinsky, manager of Cutters' Local 10, and since 1922 an International vice-president, was chosen to succeed him.
When Benjamin Schlesinger died in 1932 Dubinsky was elected as president-secretary-treasurer, and has held that joint post ever since. Within a year after he assumed offfice the whole American labor movement underwent a radical change. With favorable legislation to help them rebuild the ILGWU, he and the GEB had the cooperation of a loyal corps of men and women in various cities who had given their hearts' blood to keep our organization from being destroyed in a critical time.
I came to know Dubinsky in the following years as a man of tremendous vitality, ready to undertake almost any big task, provided he was sure the huge membership of the International was behind him. An individual of strong feelings, sensitive and impulsive, he could alternately be ruthless or break out in tears of humility.
Many times across a decade I dared to contradict him, when I saw that with all his knowledge of governmental, labor, and social problems, he was unaware of the existence of issues confronting me at the moment in some remote part of the country. Sitting in his New York office, he does not always readily comprehend the peculiar situations faced by an organizer afield, and one cannot always give detailed explanations over the long distance telephone.
Hence I frequently took liberties, using my own judgment in endeavors to act in the best interests of the union and the workers involved. Remembering Admiral Dewey, who cut the cable with the States so that he would not be hampered in winning the Battle of Manila, I found that an organizer often had to make her own decisions, even though they ran counter to her superior's instructions. But usually when there was reckoning afterward, D.D. accepted the situation like a sportsman.
I had been appointed to serve on the organization committee of which Vice-President Joseph Breslaw, manager of Pressers' Local 35, was chairman, and at its initial meeting, I was chosen secretary.
All proposed resolutions on organization were referred to us÷and requests for organizers, charters, funds, educational directors, literature, and other forms of co-operation. We were in almost continuous session that first week. A constant stream of delegates came to us to explain conditions in their respective areas, and we got first-hand information about what was happening in our industry all over the land.
Enactment of the NIRA in 1933 had a profound effect upon milllions of exploited people. Unorganized workers who had never before raised the question of their rights as human beings, and who had accepted whatever they were given as inevitable, suddenly awakened to the fact that they were part of a great democratic nation. With a new sense of their own value in production, they began to clamor for organization. They had new and solid standing ground in Section 7-a of the Recovery Act, which provided that workers had a right to join unions of their own choosing.
Stirred by the victorious general strikes of the Philadelphia and New York dressmakers, workers in the garment industry all over the country called upon our International for guidance. We became aware of groups of workers numbering tens of thousands, in widely scattered cities where factories had sprung up like mushrooms during the depression.
These shops came into being as a result of advertisements by Chambers of Commerce offering alluring advantages to industry, such as free factory sites, no taxes, free power, and a dependable supply of labor, "cheap, plentiful, and contented."
Many workers in those factories were wives and daughters of unemployed miners, factory workers, and farmers, who had taken jobs at any pay offered. But they were not so contented nor so dumb as their sanguine employers believed. Many, too, were the wives and children of former union men. When New Deal legislation gave governmental sanction to labor unions "of the workers' own choosing," the awakened ones realized the pressing need of working-class solidarity.
Our national office responded quickly to the flood of inquiries, hastening to send detailed information and constructive advice, and dispatching charters and organizers wherever they were most needed. Organization drives were started simultaneously in many areas, some hitherto untouched Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Georgia) Ohio, Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and on the Pacific Coast. Campaigns were carried on in at least 60 cities. Delegates from these centers gave our committee the human side of the story, the dramatic phases, the minor notes, that seldom get into formal reports.
Occasionally the committee recessed to hear addresses of special importance in the convention hall. This conclave was truly a pageant÷a richly colored moving panorama chronicling major victories of labor. Its interests and discussions were not confined to the ILGWU, large as that had now grown. We were concerned with the fortunes and fate of all workers throughout the world, and with their right to those liberties since called "the Four Freedoms."
To the flower-decked convention platform came a long line of distinguished guests÷public officials and veterans of the industrial struggle and others whose hearts had long been close to labor's continuing fight for a better world. Among the speakers were men and women who had been arrested on picket lines; who had faced onslaughts by police clubs; who knew the inside of courtrooms and jails. Some brought close to us the tragedy of the European labor movement under the iron heels of Fascism and Naziism. Through the speeches one dominant note constantly resounded: "Fight Fascism everywhere! Fight Fascism in any guise! "
Two speakers whose words made a deep impression were political refugees÷Martin Plettl, from Germany, fraternal delegate from the International Clothing Workers' Federation, then centered in Amsterdam, Holland, who spoke in German, and Dr. Max Winter, former vice-mayor of Vienna, who had escaped with his life and little else, from the terror under the Dollfuss regime.
"Vienna has been fighting and starving since February," said Dr. Winter, "not only for Vienna but for the workers the world over. On May Day we were not allowed to hold public meetings of workers, but we had, in the Vienna woods, three great mass meetings...."
He told of a friend, John Bertzer, a former clothing worker and member of the Austrian Parliament, who died in jail from starvation. The authorities forbade any announcement of the funeral. But the news spread secretly and swiftly, and when his body was brought to a crematory, 2,000 workers quickly gathered there.
"Not a word was allowed to be said in honor of my dead comrade," Dr. Winter related. "No flowers were permitted on his coffin. But as it sank into the fire those 2,000 men and women shouted: 'Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! "'
Then Luigi Antonini, vice-president of the International and secretary-manager of Italian Local 89, largest local in the ILGWU, with a membership nearing 40,000, reminded the delegates of the nearness of June 10, the date on which the Italian Socialist Giacomo Matteotti was killed by Fascists. It was hard to realize that Matteotti was dead. One recalled his words: "Liberty, liberty÷it is like the air we breathe. We do not miss it until it is gone." First Vice-President Salvatore Ninfo added that it was only 11 months since young Anthony Fierro, Italian anti-Fascist, had been murdered in New York by a member of the Khaki Shirts of America.
My interest was held strongly when William D. Lopez of the Puerto Rico Free Federation of Labor spoke. He told of the plight of that island's 100,000 women needle workers. For 20 years Puerto Rico had been used as a source of cheap labor by outside manufacturers. Wages there were incredibly low. Listening, I formed my own mental picture of the sorry lot of those victims of employers' greed. It was akin to that of the Mexican women and girls in Los Angeles, whom I had organized a few months before.
Lopez urged the ILGWU to take the Puerto Rican needle workers under its wing. President Dubinsky answered that the convention already had before it a General Executive Board recommendation for an early organizing campaign in the island.
Jim Crowism cropped up anew at the Medinah Club at the end of the first week, when elevator operators refused to let the Negro delegates ride with whites, and ordered them to use the freight elevators. So the GEB moved the whole convention over to the Morrison Hotel. Tumultuous applause greeted the announcement of its decision. The organization committee was the first to hand in its report. On all requests for organizers and organization drives we made affirmative recommendations. When we reached the section of the report covering the Pacific Coast, which urged continuation of unionizing campaigns in San Francisco's Chinatown and in the Northwest, President Dubinsky called on both Vice-President Feinberg and myself to tell the delegates about the situation in our territory.
This was the third time in my life I had faced an ILGWU convention as a speaker. My thoughts flashed back to Cleveland in 1922, when I tried to speak in behalf of a fellow delegate whose seat was contested, and was shushed down by President Schlesinger. Later I again demanded the floor, got it, and held it until I had voiced a plea for a resolution calling for liberation of all political prisoners in Soviet Russia. And as a guest speaker at the 1924 convention in Boston, I voiced a plea for the same cause, before a partly hostile audience.
Now, in Chicago, commended by Dubinsky for my work on the West Coast, I was listened to attentively and sympathetically. Some of my co-workers, who had never before been outside their own environment, sat with open mouths.
On Sunday two bus-loads of delegates went to Waldheim cemetery, to lay a wreath on the joint grave of the five Haymarket martyrs: Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel, who were hanged, and Lingg, killed by a dynamite explosion in his cell, never plausibly explained by the jailers. I presided at the ceremony, Arturo Giovannitti and others speaking.
They brought one close to the long reign of police terror in Chicago in 1886, growing out of organized labor's fight for an eight-hour day; the bomb, thrown by an unseen hand at a protest meeting; and the trial, in a hysterical atmosphere, before a biased judge, and with a jury crookedly chosen to serve anti-labor forces. And they paid tribute to Governor Altgeld, who, in freeing the other eight defendants from prison in 1892, declared that the whole eight were convicted of murder chiefly because they were Anarchists, and that there was no evidence that any of them was guilty.
Throughout the convention my Eastern friends kept hammering at me, insisting that I accept the nomination for vice-president. They argued that we must not pass up such a splendid opportunity to place a women on the GEB again; that mine was the best record of those eligible; that I was from "out of town" and therefore would be deposing no one. A-t least three women delegates, two from New York and one from Cleveland, were gunning for the post, these friends said.
Emphatically I reiterated that I did not want it. I tried to make my reasons clear. I had no ambition to hold executive authority. Valuing my own freedom, I wanted to avoid getting into harness, and to keep from becoming enmeshed in inner-circle politics. Too, I felt that I could serve the cause of my fellow-unionists just as effectively as a rank-and-file member. And it was my contention that the voice of a solitary woman on the General Executive Board would be a voice lost in the wilderness. Having expressed myself positively on the subject, I dismissed it from my mind, considering the issue closed.
To my great surprise on the last day of the convention, I was greeted in the Morrison lobby by several delegates who cried: "Congratulations on your nomination! " Indignantly I answered that I had never agreed to be a candidate.
"It's all settled," Isidore Nagler, a member of the caucus committee, told me. "You were officially nominated last night. It's too late to do anything about it now."
I poured out more protesting words.
"You're crazy to talk that way," Nagler said. "I know some women here who'd give an arm for a place on the board. One of them sat in the caucus room until five o'clock this morning pleading that she be nominated."
Gloom pressed down upon me.
When the nominations for the eight out-of-town vice-presidencies were made, Delegate Edith Phillips of St. Louis put forward my name. I felt hot and cold at the same time. It seemed as if I were being dragged down by some dread force÷like a swimmer caught in an undertow. I wanted to cry out in protest, but my throat felt paralyzed.
All eight nominees were elected by acclamation.
Just before adjournment, Dubinsky asked Sol Polakoff, a former vice-president and one of the ILGWU's oldest leaders, to take the chair and swear in the newly elected board.
The delegates stood up and a hush came over the entire audience as we went through the solemn ceremony:
"I do hereby sincerely pledge my honor," each of us repeated after Polakoff, "to perform the duties of my office as prescribed by the laws of the union and to bear true allegiance to the ILGWU...."
This ritual, and the seriousness with which the whole regarded it, stirred me deeply, and helped console me as I assumed office.
Yet that was one of the most unhappy days of my life, and my diary shows this entry: "The greatest misfortune happened to me this morning. The convention delegates unanimously elected me to serve on the GEB for two years. Although there were several who aspired to that office, they were opposed, all favoring me. Some one else who wanted this honor would have been happy÷I feel as if I had lost my independence. Cried the whole day."