Bread upon the Waters
Milwaukee and Buffalo are Different
SOMEWHERE IN THE TALMUD there is an ancient Hebrewsaying: The soldiers fight, the kings are heroes. It comes to mind as I review the rise of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
To write a truly comprehensive history of the ILGWU and get at the real source of our organization's phenomenal strength, the historian would have to visit many an odd corner of these United States in search of original data. Behind its growth in the face of political and economic vicissitudes there would be revealed a legion of men and women unheralded and unsung, rank-and-file people with natural ingenuity, strong working-class loyalty, readiness to sacrifice for an ideal, and all-around unselfishness.
The top leadership gets public recognition for the success of the International, but few outside the union know how much credit is due to members whose names rarely if ever see the light of print.
Martha Hart of Milwaukee was such a member....
Early in 1934 some cotton dress workers in that city decided that they must organize the local shops in their industry for self-protection. They were working long hours, for less than a living wage. Martha, a girl with no knowledge of union technique, made the first contacts with potential members of the projected union. She began at the plant of the Rhea Manufacturing Company, one of the largest cotton dress houses in the Mid-West, which normally employed from 1,000 to 1,200 women and girls.
To approach these workers was difficult because of their fear of being discharged. But Martha, who came of French Revolutionary stock, had determination and imagination.
A new brand of pudding advertised in the newspapers gave her a happy inspiration. She clipped out one of the ads, pasted it on a piece of cardboard, and bought a couple of packages of the pudding, bright-colored and eye-appealing. Walking into the Rhea factory at lunch-time, she spoke to an elderly woman who sat eating at one of the machines.
"I have a gift for you," Martha said. "I represent the Miracle Confection Company. To get new customers, we are giving away free samples of this new and delicious pudding. What flavor would you like? Strawberry, peach, pineapple, vanilla, chocolate, or what? Let me have your name and address and a package will be mailed to you."
Women and girls crowded around her. Before she left she had more than a hundred addresses. On succeeding days she got the rest, and repeated the trick at the other factories. Then a request to the ILGWU brought in a squad of organizers, headed by Abraham Plotkin, the International's general organizer in Chicago, and an intensive educational campaign was begun. One of our most competent men, Plotkin has a wholesome sense of humor and is eloquent both with his pen and on the platform.
Each of the workers was invited by letter to the union's first organizational meeting. When they caught sight of Martha Hart their faces first registered astonishment, then amusement.
"So this is our pudding?" one of them asked.
"Yes," Martha answered, "and the more you have of it the better you'll like it."
Under Plotkin's guidance, a new local, No. 188, was chartered, and within a year it had more than 1,000 members, with Martha as secretary-treasurer.
As a labor organizer I have learned that one must be ready at all times to go any place, day or night, in bitter cold, snow, rain, or scorching sun. In the course of my work, I became geared to pick myself up at a moment's notice to take train or plane, or drive my car, to serve in an emergency, and invariably I got to the trouble scene on time.
More often than not, after speeding somewhere to save a bad situation, organizers are forgotten, while the local leadership reaps the laurels. But I have usually enjoyed pinch-hitting for fellow workers in the field, and felt that I was doing it for the welfare of the greater number involved.
In Ecclesiastes is the proverb: "Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days." There is, however, another version which I seem to have known since early childhood: "Cast thy bread upon the waters, and after many days it will return to thee a hundredfold "
My father believed in that principle, gave of himself freely in service to friends and strangers alike, and found innate satisfaction in the doing. Memory of his attitude toward humankind was a sustaining force for me in my years afield. And the proverb justified itself. Organization campaigns and strikes in one city or another took great toll of nervous energy, and frequently left me empty and shaken Yet replenishment and reward came in appreciation shown by countless fellow-unionists, and in a host of enduring friendships across the land, and beyond its boundaries.
One of my emergency assignments was to Milwaukee. I was asked by our president to go there quickly soon after my return East from Seattle in the fall of 1985.
A sharp struggle involving the Rhea plant had taken place in the Wisconsin city in the previous September. After a 24-day strike, Local 188 had won an agreement with that company, including most of the standard provisions and a seven-and-a-half per cent wage increase. But the management had not thought it necessary to live up to this, and continued to violate several clauses. So our union submitted demands for an additional 10 per cent wage increase, and for arbitration of 16 separate grievances, in line with the agreement.
With arbitration soon to begin, Salvatore Ninfo, jovial, gray-haired International vice-president, had suddenly become ill, and I was asked to take over in his place.
When I reached Milwaukee, Martha Hart and Kate Fadness, Rhea shop steward, took me to Ninfo's apartment. He was in bed with a three days' growth of beard, and looked haggard. I guessed correctly, however, that his illness was not physical; he simply was disheartened.
For weeks Ninfo had spent most of his time at the Rhea plant trying to adjust union complaints. The management's policy was to humiliate him at every turn. Repeatedly he was made to wait in the outer office, like a soliciting salesman, to demonstrate to the employees that a union representative was a nobody.
"It's important for you to shave," I told him. "I saw Abe Plotkin last night in Chicago, and he's coming to the meeting this afternoon. You'd better come, too.... I'll guarantee to bring you back alive."
By 6 p.m. Miller's Hall was packed with dressmakers. I studied their faces÷the faces of hard-working people, German, Polish, Ital ian, French, and some of Scandinavian, Irish and English ancestry. They were unfailingly attentive and aware, I was sure, of events of social significance, the kind of folk one would expect to find in a city with a Socialist mayor and a long working-class tradition. Under Mayor Daniel W. Hoan, Milwaukee's workers enjoyed the protection of the Bill of Rights. Police were prohibited from acting as strikebreakers, the co-operative movement flourished, and municipal markets helped keep down living costs. But the administration lacked the power to make garment manufacturers pay adequate wages.
The meeting having been opened by the local president, a slim young girl with an olive complexion began reading the minutes. I was struck by the quality of her voice, a deep agreeable contralto. Where had I heard those tones before? I closed my eyes and searched my memory. The answer came like a flash across a movie screen: Eleanora Duse! I had listened spell-bound to the Italian dramatic actress at the time of her American tour in the early Twenties which ended abruptly with her death. The girl's voice sounded almost like hers; I must talk with her after the meeting.
While Plotkin was speaking Ninfo entered the hall, a salvo of applause greeting him. Touched almost to tears by this warm reception, he found it difficult to express his appreciation. The sympathetic attitude of the union membership made him well again.
The arbitration hearing was set for September 25, with Dr. Arthur Rubin of the University of Chicago as arbitrator. I had met him on the West Coast when he was there in the interests of the Cloak and Suit Code.
While Ninfo was busy preparing a brief of the union's case, we took steps to reinforce the Rhea workers. At my suggestion Mary Sortino, the girl whose voice so impressed me, was added to our office foce. Mary and her sister were special machine operators in the Rhea plant. She was willing to take the job, but we had to reckon with her family. The mother, a deeply religious Italian, fearing something might happen to Mary if she stayed out late, objected vociferously. We gave her a solemn promise that only on meeting nights would she need to stay.
The educational department, directed by Moiree Compere, announced its fall program, including the publication of a monthly mimeographed periodical, The Emancipator, which was the special concern of Ninfo. We applied to the WPA Training School in Madison, of which Tom Tippett was head, for the services of teachers for ILGWU classes in both Milwaukee and Racine. The plea was granted and our educational work in both cities proceeded with vim.
On a visit to Racine, a city of 68,000, some 30 miles south of Milwaukee, I found that our rainwear local needed encouragement and stimulus. Its meetings were conducted in the manner of an old fashioned lodge, the members sitting silent around the walls, not participating. Called upon to speak, I asked them to come forward and occupy front seats.
"You're not wall flowers," I told them. "I know that, because I've heard a lot about the splendid courage and aggressiveness you displayed in your victorious strike against the Chicago Rubber Company."
I recalled the admiration and respect with which Morris Bialis told our GEB about the women in that strike, who lay down on a railroad track in front of a freight train at the factory gates and dared the union engineer to run over them.
The dramatic reminder pleased them and added warmth to the gathering. I had the audience join with me in the singing of some of our union songs and the evening ended pleasantly.
It was agreed that the recording secretary would supply material for The Emancipator, which would devote a full page to Racine news We also arranged to have someone present at their meetings, to help them revitalize their local activities.
With the first issue of The Emancipator just off the mimeograph, still wet with ink, it was taken to the factories for distribution. Kate Fadness and I went to the Rhea plant at noon. Rashman, the company's production manager, asked Kate for a copy. She introduced me to him, and I asked whether he had time to talk with me.
He invited me into his office, but immediately went out again. After waiting ten minutes I left a note saying that I could be reached at our union office, and if he was interested, he could phone for an appointment. He needed that lesson, telephoned later, and then we talked at length. We, of course, could not settle the local grievances which were now in the hands of the arbitration board, but our conference smoothed out some differences.
Mr. Rashman explained that prior to this he had never been confronted with a labor problem. Marketing, styles, and production comprised his job. Evidently he realized that the union was there to stay, and was beginning to take cognizance of the fact that the labor problem also was an important factor in the production of cotton dresses, and I gently suggested that he pay a bit more attention to the well-being of his working force.
Departing I said: "Mr. Rashman, I would advise you to take our union seriously. The President of the United States does."
When I visited the Rhea factory again, the newly appointed efficiency engineer explained to me the new "progressive system" to which the employees were being subjected. A battery of eight machines was given a task. Eight operators at those machines had to turn out at least 25 dozen garments per day÷300 cotton dresses! The price rates were based on the unit system, and figured out about 14 cents per worker per dozen, or a little more than a penny per garment.
The method was simple: A bundle of cut garments was given to a group of eight. One worker seamed together the shoulders, passing the material to the next, who made the collar; a third put in the sleeves and so on until it reached the eighth operator. She finished the job, by blind-stitching the bottom of the garment, which then went to the presser, inspector, and shipping department. The speed of each worker had to be geared to the machine and to the next operation, which was regulated by the engineer's stop watch, and other gadgets, to make 3,400 to 4,000 revolutions per hour, which nettled the workers, keeping them at a constant high tension.
That system, the efficiency engineer explained to me, was in operation in about 30 plants, and had proved satisfactory to the managements.
Human movements could be made to correspond with the operations of the machines, with no waste of machine capacity, so as to produce the exact amount of work required by the company.
"What about rest and relaxation?" I inquired.
"Oh yes, a worker is allowed 3 5 per cent of rest in each eight hours. Do you know what 35 per cent rest means?"
I confessed my ignorance, so he explained that it amounted to about two and a half hours' rest per day. "Does that mean," I asked, with seeming ignorance, "that an operator has 15 minutes of rest every two hours, to walk through the factory and get a breath of fresh air?"
"No, no, not that," the expert hastened to explain. "Thirty-five per cent rest means, when a girl wants to stretch out during work hours near her machine, or relax when she gets tired÷that is calculated as rest." I was not satisfied with that system. As a machine operator myself, I contended it was better to work and take a rest when there was need for it. Moreover, as a human being, I refused to be geared to a machine like a robot; for the benefit of all concerned, I felt that the best way to make it easier for the workers to produce more was to determine the causes of industrial fatigue and eliminate them at the source, give the employees the kind of work they liked best and pay adequately. This would give the worker an incentive to work with enthusiasm and produce more like a human being than a beast of burden.
After a two-day hearing the arbitration board made certain constructive recommendations for better relations between the union and the company. It also recommended to the company ways to eliminate any misunderstanding in the future by having a union representative present when timing for piece rates took place, and advised it to refrain from any attempts to form a company union.
At a final dinner in Ninfo's apartment we spoke about the manifold duties in which am out-of-town union representative becomes involved.
Ninfo, who had been manager of the Italian Cloak Local 48, and a vice president of the ILGWU for many years, admitted to me that he never had such headaches as in Milwaukee, because in New York in most cases complaints were first handled by his business agents; when they failed, Ninfo himself would phone the firm, and if that, too, was unavailing the case went through the regular channels.
"What are the 'regular channels' in New York?" Martha Hart wanted to know.
The case would be referred to the general manager, who would invariably pass it on to the industry's impartial chairman.
But out of town he now learned one had to be all in one÷business agent, general manager, organizer, lawyer, public relations director, family consultant, health adviser, with no limit to one's working hours or physical energies.
"In New York it is all so very simple," Ninfo sighed nostalgically "Before I came here, when I used to read some of the reports in Justice telling about conditions the organizers found in the field I thought they were balmy. Now I know."
As we wound up the last phases of the arbitration in Milwaukee, I got ready to leave for the A F of L convention in Atlantic City. From there I was to go to Buffalo, where the time was ripe for am aggressive campaign, according to Vice-President Elias Reisberg, director of our cotton garment and miscellaneous division. He had lately surveyed that scene, interviewing some prospective assistants.
To me Buffalo was known principally as New York State's chief open-shop center, and as the American gateway to that glorious natural wonder, Niagara Falls, romantic lure for honeymooning couples.
Upon my arrival I found that Reisberg had practically promised jobs to two individuals, but neither was willing to work with the other. At the YWCA Industrial Division, Ethlyn Christensen and Patty Ellis gave me the low-down on organizing problems in that city.
Aware of the drawbacks but undaunted, and with the aid of Gertrude Stanley, a friendly social worker, I set up an office with all the paraphernalia and began the usual issuance of colorful literature and a magazine What Now? in Polish and English, which, in addition to general news about the industry, carried a special feature, The Adventures of Stella and Helen, a series of lively talks between two shop workers, comparing conditions in union and nonunion shops.
Ernest Bauman, whom I engaged at the suggestion of Reisberg, came in to assist me. We bought radio time, broadcasting Friday evenings in both languages. Bauman took over the English end. Briefly we would comment on the weekly labor news, with union songs at the beginning and end of the program. Our Polish listeners being Roman Catholics, we quoted Pope Leo XIII's encyclical in favor of unions.
Presently a young Polish organizer from Chicago was recommended for the job. Attractive and energetic, Marianne Alfons, who knew the hardships of factory toil from her own family's experiences, at once took over the Polish phase of the work, and began to make visits to her co-religionists.
But although during these visits we learned much about their difflculties÷the forced kick-back of part of the paltry $13, the legal minimum wage in the cotton garment shops; punching of one's time card by some other employee so that hours worked were only partly registered, the women we talked with hoped that their boss or forelady would get a lesson, "but I couldn't afford to get mixed up in it" . . . "I'd hate to go back on relief." . . . "My family depends upon my earnings." . . . "This might cost me my job."
Their fear was based on what had happened to some of their more outspoken friends, who early in 1934 tried to establish a union in the cotton dress factories in Buffalo. These were gradually eased out of their jobs and never again could get work in their trade. This threat hung over the heads of young girls who had recently begun to earn a living, and over mothers of large families, whose earnings kept the home pots boiling.
Yet at times I became impatient with others among the Buffalo dressmakers for what struck me as complacency rather than fear. One Friday I encountered an odd manifestation of their attitude. After our weekly had been distributed in front of the Barmon Brothers factory I boarded a street car with a group of women who were reading the latest issue of What Now? with evident relish. So I asked whether they liked it.
"Oh, yes, very much." They wouldn't want to miss an installment of The Adventures of Stella and Helen I asked whether they listened to our broadcast. They did, and their fathers enjoyed our summary of labor news, while they liked the songs.
Their enthusiasm heartened me. I felt that I had struck a bonanza in the form of good union material. "When are you coming to our office to sign up with the union?" They looked at me in astonishment. Of course, they admitted, things were better with our union in town; the boss had stopped chiseling on their pay, and the forelady was much nicer now. But it never occurred to them that just because they enjoyed our literature and listened to our radio programs they ought to join the union. They listened to many radio programs, but none of them bought Chase & Sanborn coffee, nor smoked Chesterfield cigarettes, nor used Sweetheart soap, or Pepsodent toothpaste, though some did buy Jello because it "took no time to make." Buffalo is a nasty town in wintertime, the rain and snow keeping people indoors much of the time. In that winter at least, the snow remained on the streets in dirty mounds until the spring thaw.
It was memorable, too, as the only city where I ever witnessed card-playing en masse. Parties were staged by Polish social, religious, fraternal, and labor organizations. Each group of players held a bridge-table size square of card-board on their laps. At the end of the game the winner remained seated and the other three moved on to the next square. Prizes were given to those who won most of the games in two hours of playing. Entertainment and dancing followed.
After attending several such affairs, I purchased cardboard squares and some decks of cards, and in a leaflet announced an "open house" card party, with refreshments served free to cotton dress workers. Then I had the girls in the office teach me rummy in a hurry, so I wouldn't be sitting idle when they played.
About a dozen of them responded, one of those a talkative woman who proved to be a forelady's stooge. The forelady sat in an automobile across the street and observed those who entered. Next day she threatened them with discharge if they visited our office again.
My work days now were filled with strain and discouragement, all the sharper after I visited other labor unions, where I tried to persuade the husbands of garment workers to induce their wives to join the ILGWU.
One such meeting was held in a dimly lit basement lodge hall. About thirty members of the painter's local came in individually and took seats around the walls, while the secretary-treasurer set himself up in business at an old desk collecting dues.
Shortly afterward a slim middle-aged man walked with dignity to the chairman's little table and sat down in the tall-backed chair behind it. Then he stood up. From his back pants pocket he took out a small American flag, which he smoothed out on the table, from a side pocket a gavel, from a vest pocket the painters' constitution, and declared the meeting open; another member went about the room whispering in the ear of each, presumably the password for the next meeting.
Then the "Lady Garment Workers" organizer was introduced to say a few words. I had little desire now to say anything, in view of the dull formality, but I outlined briefly my mission and received unanimous, ringing applause. The president assured me that the members would do "everything in their power" to help us. Judging by the meeting, I left convinced that their "help" would be of no value to us. And it never was.
While in Buffalo Reisberg would ask me to make trips to nearby towns where New York run-away employers were trying to get themselves established without the union. Invariably I would hear in these towns the same song: the Chamber of Commerce had built a mill and invited industry to move in, offering free rent, no taxes, and cheap labor. Some designing employer, dodging union conditions, would avail himself of this opportunity. Within no time the union would follow in his footsteps and make him sign a union contract. Forced to pay regular wages, the employer had no reason to remain there, far from the market, with inexperienced labor and mounting costs. Hence when I came to Hornell, I found a dress factory located in a building which alternately had housed a hosiery mill and a shirt factory, both of which had been forced back to their former places.
So to many townspeople a union spelled unemployment, and they naturally resisted unionization. As time went on I became aware that with the snail's pace at which I was moving in Buffalo hardly any tangible results could be expected. Coincidentally the Akron rubber workers' sit-down kept me busy for a while. But that spring, during a visit to New York, I urged Reisberg to relieve me of my duties, saying that as I was not of the chair-warming type I had no reason to stay on any longer. He agreed with me.
Late in April, on the eve of leaving for Fort Wayne, Indiana, to attend the United Automobile Workers' second annual convention, I liquidated the Buffalo office. As anticipated, the old chiseling was promptly resumed, and later the National Labor Relations Board ordered one of the local cotton dress manufacturers to pay $2,000 back wages to some of its employees. To this day, the ILGWU has not established a local in Buffalo.