One of Them. Iii
Now, as I had to look for another job, I made up my mind to get a place in a union shop only. Since the year 1900, the Union, consisting of a few members, had tried very earnestly to organize the workers and uplift the trade. The strikes that had been called had never been very successful because only a minority of the workers had responded. The heroic struggle of the few resulted in long weeks of starvation among the strikers, broken heads, arrests of pickets by brutal policemen, and workhouse sentences given by judges to young girls who tried to better their condition to save themselves from turning to the ‘White Way’ for their bread and butter.
For years, these few heroic, intelligent workers had fearlessly carried on the agitation for conditions that would make possible a more human life among their ranks. Until at last, in 1912, the great big mass of down-trodden workers raised their heads and responded to the bell-ringing that had been calling them for years, and began preparations for a big demonstration during the coming year.
The Manufacturers’ Association in the dressand waist-industry was the controlling element in that trade. For two months previous to the strike, the association, realizing the widespread agitation and foreseeing a strike as the result of the growing strength of the Union, feared to repeat the experience of past strikes. The protocol agreement adopted by the cloak industry in 1910, made the members desirous of having a similar agreement. As early as November, 1912, the Manufacturers’ Association began to confer with the Waistand Dress-Makers’ Union concerning an agreement that would prevent strikes in future. On January 18, 1913, a protocol agreement was consummated between the Manufacturers’ Association and the Union. It aimed to enlist both parties in an effort to raise the conditions and to obtain the equalization of standards throughout the industry by peaceful and honorable means. They agreed to create a joint board of sanitary control, to ensure sanitary conditions in the factory, sufficient light and ventilation, safety from fire and overcrowding members; a board of grievances — five members representing the Union and five the manufacturers — to adjust disputes and determine controversies; and a board of arbitration to settle all disputes that the board of grievances were unable to settle. They agreed that no strike or lockout should take place until these two boards had had an opportunity to try to adjust matters between the disputants.
A wage-scale board was provided, on which both the manufacturers and the Union were represented, to standardize the prices to be paid for pieceand week-work. The board was to preserve data and statistics, with the hope of establishing a scientific basis for the fixing of prices of weekand piece-work throughout the industry, which would ensure a minimum wage and at the same time permit reward for increased efficiency. That board was empowered to make an immediate and thorough investigation into the existing rates paid for labor, the earnings of the operators, and the classification of garments in the industry.
Subcontracting was to be abolished. The term subcontracting is used when one skilled worker in a shop has under his control from one to ten unskilled workers. He is responsible for the work and is paid for all of it, paying to his helpers what he deems necessary. Subcontracting was very ruinous to the industry as far as the workers are concerned; as the subcontractor’s earnings depend on the output of his assistants, he tries to make as much as he can. The labor of a garment was extensively subdivided; each worker in the set was given only one part of the garment to make, so that she quickly specialized in that part and increased her speed. But the subdivision of the work gave no chance to the worker to learn the whole trade sufficiently to change her place for a better one; thus they were always dependent on the man for whom they worked, receiving from him from three to six dollars a week. The speed with which he drove them injured their health. They were also the cause of lowering the prices for the individual skilled workers.
A minimum wage for week-workers was fixed.
Operators were to be paid by the piece; they were given an increase, so that no average operator would earn less than thirty cents an hour on piecework. The standard price per hour was to be finally fixed after investigations by the wage-scale board in the following six months.
I was very much inspired when I had finished reading over the ‘Protocol of Peace.’ It seemed to me as if everything was accomplished. The workers had at last compelled the manufacturers to recognize their rights. Each paragraph began, —
ties are desirous.’
I thought the workers in the union shops must be happy, for they have everything to protect them. But my later experiences convinced me that it was not so, that the Protocol of Peace was stronger on paper than it was in reality.
Besides the Manufacturers’ Association there were a number of manufacturers who did not belong to it, and they signed separate agreements with the Union. They were called the Independent Union Shops. I thought that in the union shops the bosses just carry out every clause agreed to in the protocol; but I soon found out that the workers had to fight for every bit that was coming to them according to the agreement.
I struck a job as an operator on West 25th Street, a union shop. The line of work was a medium one; piece-work prevailed in that shop. I did more observing than sewing the first day, for I never before worked in a union shop and I was anxious to find out how the people feel in one. And this was the result of my first day’s experience. The difference between a union shop and a non-union shop is that in a non-union shop the boss himself makes a price, the people in the shop having nothing to say; the boss can discharge a worker at any time he pleases and feels like it; he can change the system in the place as often as he finds it beneficial for himself, without considering that he might injure the workers. In a union shop the people have a price committee to make prices with the boss; they have a chairman or chairlady to represent them in the shop; no system can be changed before the Union is notified.
All seemed to be well, but it was not. It is true that the worker has a right to complain against the wrong actions of the boss; but as not all the workers as yet have courage enough to complain against their employer, as most of them just stay behind a few brave people, and let them speak in the name of all, the consequence is not at all favorable. The boss would think that the workers as a whole don’t care, that they are contented; but the few more or less brave workers — kickers, or trouble-makers, as the boss calls them — those raise a discontentment of the people, those are the ones who make the fights, and naturally, if the boss finds it impossible to discharge them, he makes their life so miserable that they are bound to leave themselves. I did not see much in that new place, but I learned enough in the many shops I worked for in the next year and a half. In that shop I did not stay long.
In the meantime, I began to attend the regular member meetings of the Waistand Dress-Maker’s Union. I was very interested in following the news of the different shops, but not much could be learned at the member meetings. Instead of discussing the order of the day, or giving shop reports, time was taken by a few men who always tried to disturb the meetings. They were very ignorant. If it happened that a complaint of a worker was lost by the Union, they explained that the union leader sold the case to the manufacturer. They would always accuse, without any facts at all, accuse the union leaders of dishonesty; but they would never give any remedy as to how to get rid of those leaders who injure the organization. I cannot even now explain the true motive of those few boys, for poisoning the minds of the members with such false statements. They either envied the position of the union leaders or were influenced by their bosses through the sort of lectures I often heard. There were many members who strongly protested against those people for killing their time, but it was impossible to get rid of them. It was awfully disgusting. I knew none of the leaders at that time, but I understood that they could be blamed with lack of ambition, they could possibly be blamed for not understanding the people thoroughly, but by no means for dishonesty.
The next job I got on Spring Street. It was a very small place. I had to make samples and do the draping. The boss liked the work very much. In two days later he came over to me, and told me that he needed somebody to watch over the few girls, but as his place was very small, he could not afford to keep a forelady, so he wanted me to take charge over the operators. The finishers, he said, he’ll look after them himself.
I immediately refused. How could I, having just passed through so many different shops and seen the rude treatment by the foreman or forelady of the employees, become a forelady myself? That would mean to carry out all the instructions of the boss, for I could be no forelady if I would not obey his orders. I would have to hurry the girls with their work, I would have to bargain with them in prices and give them less than I should. I would have to order them to work overtime when the boss wants to.
‘Oh, no, not me, I could not do it,’ said I to my employer.
‘ Then I ’ll have to look for somebody else, who will do it,’ he said.
I got another job that very same day. It was on Madison Avenue. I remember the place was so light and clean. The foreman, a tall, middle-aged man with a kind gentle face, treated the people fairly. For the few days I stayed there, I never heard him holler at a girl. He would speak to everybody in just the same manner as he addressed the boss. He would come over every minute to me, encourage me in the work, show me how to do it, for it was a very good line of dresses and I felt a little nervous as everybody does the first days. He gave me thirteen dollars to start with. On Saturday after work, I came over to the foreman, asking him if I could possibly get my pay now, for I was in an awful need and could not wait till Tuesday, the regular pay-day. The foreman told me it was against the rule of the house to pay before Tuesday, but he would make an exception with me. In a few minutes he took me in the office telling me to wait till my pay was made out.
As I waited, the boss came in, a handsome young man with very dark bushy hair and big round blue eyes. ‘What is it you are waiting for, young lady?’ asked he.
I excused myself for asking my pay on Saturday, and explained to him why I needed the money.
When the bookkeeper had my pay made out, she left. I still waited; I did not know why I did n’t get my money! The boss sat by his desk writing. I had no courage to disturb him and ask for my pay, so I sat and waited. At last he stood up, straightened himself and sent a smile to me. He took my pay, looked at it, asking me, ‘Is that all you get?’
‘No,’ I said; ‘I get thirteen, but this is only for two days and a half.’
‘But, my dear girl, that would not be enough for you! Don’t you need more than that?’
A thrill ran through my body when I noticed how he was measuring me with his eyes while he spoke. I felt what the glance in his eyes meant. It was quiet in the shop, everybody left, even the foreman. There in the office I sat on a chair; the boss stood near me with my pay in his hand, speaking to me in a velvet soft voice.
‘Goodness, nobody round!’ thought I, trembling with all my body. Instinctively I stood up out of my chair and stretched my hand out for my pay.
‘Wait a moment, I’ll give you some more’; and as he said that he grasped me in his arms.
I screamed, and with superhuman strength I threw him from me, running into the hall. Luckily, the elevator boy opened the door in the same moment as I rushed out of the office; I ran into it. When I was downstairs I was in a mad state. I ran down the streets, not seeing its directions. It seemed to me as if someone would run after me trying to catch me. When I reached home, I was so pale that the people in the house became anxious about me.
In my room I closed up the door, hid my face in the cushion, and cried all afternoon. How I hated the men, all of them without exception! I stood before the mirror and studied my face, trying to find if there is anything in it that awakes a man’s impudent feelings towards me. I hated my youth, for it caused me so many painful humiliations for the last few weeks. Never till then did I realize what it meant to be a woman. When I walked out of my room, I thought that all the men who were in the house looked at me with the same rude looks as that boss, and I suffered terribly. I tried to sit down in a corner, unnoticed of the people. My money I left with the boss; I had not time to think of it, as I rushed to the elevator to escape in time.
How happy would I be, if I could take revenge of that mean man! If I could only discredit him so that he should never again be able to insult a working-girl. But how was I to do it? I had no witnesses to testify to the truth. I myself with my broken English could hardly explain what happened. Besides, I thought, if I work in a place and was called to court, my firm would suspect me in something bad, and send me away. So I left him alone, and never went there to collect my money, though I was in frightful need.
In the evening before I went to bed, I cried again.
‘ What’s the matter now? ’ asked my friend Fannie.
She knew nothing; I was ashamed to tell her the truth.
‘ I lost my pay on my way home,’ said I.
‘Oh, you careless girl, could not you be more careful with your money?’
‘Yes, I was careful, very careful; that’s why I lost it,’ said I.
‘ Why don’t you get married, Leeza? ’ she asked me. ‘If I had as many admirers as you, if I had as many chances as you, I would do it long ago. You are young, full of life, so pretty you would make an ideal darling wife!’
I smiled. ‘Is marriage the remedy for a shop-girl? Oh, no, Fannie, you are too bright to think so yourself,’ said I. ‘Then the kind of man I’m to marry is likely to be a poor wageearner; he is also exploited, and our life would be miserable under the present state of conditions. You are right if you say that I can marry a wealthy man. I know I have all the chances to it; but Fannie, this is not the outcome, and where is love then? You know that love does not choose the wealthy any more than the poor! And if you know me, you also know what I think of marriage without love. Besides all, I believe in the economical independence of the woman. Conditions must be created so that the girl should not be driven from a shop by its horrible conditions. The long hours in the shop, the unsanitary conditions, the small wages, the so-often-repeated slow season, drive the self-supported, unprotected girl sometimes to life of shame, sometimes to suicide, and more often to marry anybody who happens to propose to her.’
All the next day I felt awfully broken-hearted. I could not get over it. I was very nervous and suffered with headache. After dinner, a young fellow, a good acquaintance of mine, came to visit me. He invited me out to Bath Beach, assuring me that the seashore will take all the aches away. I went with him. He was such a nice fellow, he always treated me with the highest respect; but being that I was so embittered against men, I even took him as one of those who sees only ‘woman’ in me. I treated him terribly that Sunday. Poor boy, he could not understand my capriciousness. There in Bath Beach, I was introduced to an aunt of his; when she learned that I was looking for work, she gave me a card to her brother who was a jobber on waists and whose aunt kept a small waist-shop in the same place. She assured me that I’d positively get a job when she sent me.
As I dreaded to go into a shop through the paper, I went with the card that the woman in Bath Beach gave me to her brother, and got the job.
The first few days I was so absorbed in my work that I did not even notice the people I worked with. I was taken in by the foreman, who was the cutter and everything else. I spoke to nobody except to the girl who sat next to me, when I had to ask anything of the work.
Being absorbed in the work, I nevertheless raised my head from time to time to observe the surroundings. The place was on the first floor. It extended from Seventeenth to Eighteenth Street. In the front on Seventeenth Street was the shipping department where the ready-made merchandise was sent in from the contractors and shipped from there to the customers. The front on Eighteenth Street was taken by the office and show-room. The very dark middle space that was left gave shelter to the small factory, consisting of one cutting-table, one machine-table, a small finishing-table and a pressing-board. The windows in the middle walls on both sides faced narrow courtyards. The sunshine could never strike through, the buildings being so high and close to each other. We had to work by gaslights from morning till evening. The windows and the sink were covered with dirt an inch thick; they were never cleaned. The table with the machines stood close to the wall, and we had plenty of dust to inhale from the windows and the yard, also the smell of the rotten sausages of the Busy Bee restaurant, which was in the next basement.
There were sixteen machines; eleven of them were occupied and the rest waiting. Altogether we were fourteen girls working — three finishers, who did also the cleaning, examining, and ironing.
The main boss of that waist-house, being the jobber, was out the most of the time. His son, a young man of twenty, was supposed to be the boss of our small plant, but as he seemed to know very little about waists, the Mr. Foreman bossed us himself in a way of an experienced sweat-shop manager.
In the middle of the week two girls left. They were the best operators. Sadie, the girl next to me, told me that they only stayed up there for the dull season. Now, when it got busy, they went back to their old places. ‘For, you see, in a union shop they make more money in busy season,’ said she.
So it was no union shop there — my chances!
My mind was full of thoughts. I forgot in myself. Also I forgot that I made up my mind to think of the work only — that nothing else should bother me. I could not keep the promise to my own self. I saw the few girls around the table, and I thought of them! They were all so young, not more than from seventeen to twenty years of age. And what did they get? Three, four, or five dollars a week; perhaps some of them got a little more than that. And how they were rushed, and scolded by the foreman, who some time would use such a language that a Russian Cossack would blush! And how did they live?
When the week was over, I asked the foreman for a price. He nearly fainted when I told him I wanted fourteen dollars a week; a girl should not want so much! It was fortunate enough for me that the two girls left in the middle of the week; the foreman, being very busy and having few skilled workers, was afraid to lose me too. So, after two hours’ bargaining, I remained there for thirteen dollars a week, but was strongly forbidden to tell anybody in the shop of the ‘absurd’ amount I was getting. I was the highest-paid worker in that little shop. So, after many weeks of my Don-Quixote-like adventures, I at last settled down in that small, dark, dirty place at 41 West 17th Street!
A great deal of my thoughts was now occupied with my shop. The five weeks I stayed there were enough for me to get acquainted with everything. It was a model of a sweat-shop in the full sense of the word.
We worked in sets. Each skilled operator had two or three learners to work with. The learners would work, each one on a certain part of the garment, and the skilled operator would complete the waist.
Those poor girls were purposely never given a chance to be shown how to make up a complete garment, for two reasons. When a girl worked continuously on one part of the garment, the work went quicker. A girl not being experienced in the trade would meet with great hardship in finding another job, so that the girl who worked in a set is always dependent on the boss she worked for, and has to be very careful how she talks up to the foreman, for fear to lose their ‘brilliant’ job.
To me the foreman spoke in an unusually polished language for him. It was because I was the highest-paid worker in the shop. But the greatest respect he began to pay me when he once learned through the papers that I was to play on the stage. Our dramatic club had given performances every once in a while. ‘So, so, you are to be an actress — it’s fine, very fine,’ would he say proudly.
He would often tell the girls that I was an actress. The girls also would respect me a great deal. That helped me in gaining their confidence. I often tried to convince them how much better it would be for them if they would all get together and join the Union. They would gladly do it, were they not afraid of the boss.
There was another girl in our shop, a very experienced worker, who just came for the sake of her sister. Her sister had just come from Russia, and though she was a dressmaker from home, she did not know how to work at first, for the system in the shops is so much different from the system in the Russian private dressmaking places. That girl, Mollie, got twelve dollars a week, and her green sister, five. After two weeks Mollie’s sister began to give out as much work as Mollie herself, but she still got the same pay, for she was called a learner, and a learner was only raised every season. I called Mollie’s attention to it. She spoke to the foreman about her sister getting a raise, but she was only laughed at. Both of us decided to report to the union office and ask their help. We were now six girls who were ready to join the Union, and we thought we’d get the rest later on.
On a Friday evening, it was just a week before Labor Day, we went down to the union office. There by the complaint window of the independent department, I gave full information about our shop and asked, if possible, to have a committee sent to take us down on strike, so that we would get the people to join the Union and then put our demands before the boss. The man by the window promised to attend to it.
Every day of the next week I waited for a committee, but such did not come. On Wednesday evening I went to the Union again. The man by the window told me they were too busy, that we have to be patient enough and wait.
On the next morning, when I sat by my machine, two strange men, together with the old boss, entered the shop. They looked all around, tried the lights, made some remarks about the windows and the sink. The girls all wondered what it could be. I surely thought they were people from the Union, and told the girls so; but they were not, for in a few minutes we were told to stand up and march out when a whistle will blow. Later I learned that they were sent from the Board of Sanitary Control to make fire-drills with us.
I was puzzled. How does the Board of Sanitary Control come to send her people to a non-union shop? I knew that the board was created by the Union and the Manufacturers’ Association, and had nothing to do with the non-union shops.
Sunday morning when we came to work (we did not work Saturdays), the foreman had some news for us. He informed us that the boss was going to change the week-work system for piece-work right after Labor Day. All the girls, with the exception of a few, were shocked with the news. As the foreman would always tell them that they did not deserve the money they were getting, they feared that on piecework they would make still less.
At one o’clock, when we went down, I tried to comfort the girls. I told them that now was the fittest time to make a union shop; that we would get a price committee to settle prices; and I assured them that they would make twice as much as they made till now.
On my way home, I thought of the change the boss was going to make. I also reminded myself that I read in the Saturday’s paper that the Manufacturers’ Association sent out letters to all its members who practiced the week-work system and informed them that by the request of the Union, they have to change their system to piecework.
‘My boss must belong to the bosses’ association, then,’ said I to myself, for he would not have had his system changed so suddenly. And how could he have those men from the Board of Sanitary Control, if he was not a member of the association? The more I thought of it, the more I concluded that it must be so.
On Tuesday morning when we came in to work (Monday we were off), the foreman made the preparations for the change. As we sat waiting for work, I converted Mollie to my thought. She shared my opinion, and we made up our minds to go right after work to the Union and find out.
In the evening we went over to the Union. By the complaint window of the association department, I found that my boss really was a member of the association. Now when I made sure that he was, I feared no more to be fired. I was a member of the Union and they could not discharge me for union activity.
So when I came in the next morning to work, I walked over to the foreman and told him all I knew about the boss, the change of system, and the shop, and that now if he wants us to work piece-work, he must send for a man from the Union to settle prices for us; otherwise we would not work.
The foreman stood looking at me in embarrassment. To him everything came unexpectedly. He knew nothing of our preparations, and my explanation took him unawares.
‘Who told you to go to the Union, you foolish kid? The boss has nothing to do with the Union — with all those fakers! It is true that the boss belongs to the association, but what do you need the Union for? The poor girls don’t have enough to eat; how could they afford to pay dues and fill the union leaders’ pockets?’
I was tired of that song already, I heard it so many times from different bosses and foremen; so I stopped him in the middle of his inspiration.
‘Please,’ said I, ‘don’t mix the leaders in. I never saw them and they have nothing to do with our present demands! We ourselves want to have a union shop. Your boss cares to belong to a bosses’ association, we care to belong to a workers’ organization! Besides, if you are so kind and sorry for the girls, why don’t you pay them for their worth? You always hurry them, rush them. You drive them like slaves, and what are you giving them in return ?
Three dollars a week in addition to scoldings! You make them believe that they are not worth even that much.’
I was enraged, and gave freedom to all my feelings, which were heaped up for the six weeks I worked in there. If the foreman had not interrupted me, God knows how much longer I would have spoken; but he stopped me.
‘Look here,’ he said, ‘I thought you were a nice, respectable girl. I did not think you could be so fresh. We don’t want you to make trouble in this shop. If you don’t like it, you can go. You are only a new hand in here. Those girls are working in here more than a year, some more than two years, and they never spoke to me like that. I was to them like a father — and they ’ll admit it, too. I did not think you’ll have the nerve to agitate the people against me and the boss!’
All the girls were sitting by their machines shivering like leaves. They were afraid the boss would fire them wholesale. For the first time in my life I saw such cowards as they were. When the foreman turned to them, asking if they have anything to say, they all bowed their heads, no.
‘See,’ he said to me, ‘nobody cares for a union but you. Take my advice and go to the machine and mind your own business! We’ll fix up the price without a man from the Union.’
All that time the boss stood at the door of his office and listened to everything. It seemed that he made up his mind to leave all to the foreman, for he said not a word. In half an hour later he came out, and passing through the tables, addressed the foreman.
‘What was the noise you made this morning? You know that I don’t like trouble in my shop. If there is any girl in here who is displeased, let her go. Nobody keeps her in here. I want no market in here.’
He spoke in a way as if he knew not who that girl was, though he saw me speaking to the foreman.
The foreman pointed to me.
‘There she is! She wants to call the people on strike. She is the one who keeps them back from work.’
Now I stood up.
‘I don’t keep them back from work!’ cried I, ‘ but we have a right to know what we are working for. When we were week-workers, we knew how much we were getting; now we are pieceworkers, and we also want to know how much we can earn. It is not more than right we shoidd know.’ Then I added, ‘Don’t you know that in each protocol shop there should be a chairman and price committee from the workers to settle prices with the boss?’
He grew mad.
‘Who are you to make rules in here, you little kid? You are only a child, What do you know about rules? Do you think you are dealing here with Russian Cossacks? Go to Russia and fight with the Cossacks! I would not allow you to make me revolutions in the shop and spoil the people!’
In that choking atmosphere, working by gaslight, which inflamed the eyes so badly (almost all the girls had inflamed eyes from the gaslight), with not a single ray of sunshine all day, there we sat and worked for others. I often, sitting in the shop and working by the gaslight, forgot that there is a sun, which gives warmth to the world, which gladdens so many lives with its light, which brings light and happiness wherever a ray is sent out to.
(To be concluded)