One of Them. Iv

AFTER my controversy with the boss, I impatiently awaited the lunch, when the machines stopped. I ran over to the union office. With tears in my eyes, I told them of what happened. The complaint clerk made out a complaint to the association against my boss. He advised to call the girls to a meeting. With meeting cards in my hand, without any lunch, I returned back to the shop. It was early enough to go in. I looked for the girls downstairs. No one was around. I went upstairs. There on the cutting-table sat the foreman, all the girls around him, and he amused them with his tales.

‘Come on here,’ said he to me, ‘you may also listen to it. When I was in the contracting business for the cloak manufacturers, I had to deal with the Union. Once, when a business agent came around to find out if everything was in order, I invited him out to have lunch with me. There in a saloon I treated him with a few beers, so that after lunch he was not able to walk out. When he stepped outside, he fell like a dead one on the sidewalk. Then I called my workers to show them who their leader was. I also told them that for one beer he would sell the Union. That’s what a union is,’ he concluded.

But I stopped him. I could not stand any more.

‘A thing like that never happened. If it did, you played a very mean trick on that poor man!’ I cried out. ‘Girls, don’t listen to him — he wants to poison your minds, that is his only aim!’

It’s hard to describe how I spent the rest of that day. He called me a ‘ damn liar.’ He wanted to make the girls believe that I was an agent from the Union, that I was paid by the union leaders in order to press out money from the girls for union books.

Such a mean lie! I could not control myself any longer. Tears burst out of my eyes. I took my hat and coat and wanted to run, run away to the end of the world, so excited was I; but the girl Mollie held me back.

‘We don’t believe him, we know his aims all right,’ she said. ‘Don’t go; this place will remain as it was. The girls will stay with you.’

Half an hour before the power stopped, the foreman called me and Mollie over to his table. He was all changed. His manners, his voice was so soft, so polite, that made us wonder. In a begging tone, he began, —

‘You see, girls, the boss does not care to keep up his shop. If he is to pay higher wages to the girls, he is not able to keep up a foreman, and as his son is not able to run a shop, he ’ll give up the business altogether. He can make a nice living without these few machines. The one to suffer will be I! I’m only a poor man, I have to support my family. What am I to do, if he does give up?’

‘Poor man!’ I pitied him. After all, he was only a tool in the hands of the boss. He also worked very hard. The boss’s son would walk around all day long from one table to the other, without knowing what’s what. He did not even know where a spool of thread was to be got when a girl asked him for it.

And he was the one to get the profits. The foreman who had managed the shop, and who has done the cutting also, only got as much as it could be taken off from the girls’ ‘worth.’

After work I waited for the girls, to take them to the meeting. Sadie, the forelady, fearing to spoil her future career by going to the meeting, refused to go. Another girl followed her; the three Italian finishers were also afraid to go; so that we only had nine girls at the meeting.

I succeeded in explaining to them the situation as it was. I assured them that, if the boss gave up the business, it would not be for the reason that we want too much, but for the simple reason that his son is not able to manage the business; so let him do it. Such brilliant jobs they could always get.

They elected me as shop delegate, also in the price committee, together with Mollie.

The next morning when we came in to work, the old boss was already in. He also changed his policy in talking. He already was informed that we had a meeting. Without addressing anybody, he began to talk.

‘Oh, I have nothing against the girls selecting a chairlady. Let them also select a price committee, but they could do all that without a union. They need not belong to the Union and spend their money.’

I came over to him and introduced myself as the shop chairlady. I told him that we also have a price committee, and are ready to settle prices, but with a man of the Union, because we want to have an expert in settling prices for the first few styles, for we never settled prices before, and are liable to make mistakes.

The boss realized that further argument was useless, and he finally agreed.

Until a man from the Union could come up, we continued with the work.

On Sunday, when we came in to work, I asked the foreman to give me some work that I could work on it without interruption. I wanted to time myself, to make a sort of a test, and see if I could possibly settle the prices myself without any help from the Union. I wanted to do justice to both sides. The girls should be able to go on with the work, without any loss of time, and the boss should have his work done in time.

On Monday, when I had the work finished, I came over to the foreman to speak about the price. Somehow we agreed on the price of the style I tried out. All were satisfied. The day passed very happily. On the settled work, I made ten cents more, according to my former day’s wages; my two helpers made much more than their regular day’s wages.

In the evening the foreman told me to remain to settle some more work. I did so, but instead of prices, he spoke to me of something else.

‘Listen, miss!’ — I was the only one whom he addressed as miss. ‘ I know you are a very sensible girl, and you deserve to get more than the others. You need not bother with the Union. I myself will give you a chance to work yourself up. See, as you are on piece-work now, you can keep your two girl-helpers as before. You’ll pay them as much as I paid them till now. Think what you can make on them: the work will all go through you, and they’ll work through your hand! You need not be afraid that they’ll refuse. If they refuse, I’ll get other girls — there are always plenty of them!’

Would any one throw stones at me, I would not feel as much pain as I felt while he spoke. It was the worst kind of an insult I could ever feel. He wanted to give me a chance to advance myself! In what a way! In a way of cheating the girls! In the same way as I was and still am cheated!

I was like a mad one. I kept on talking until I noticed the foreman and young boss laughing at me and at my speech. I was ashamed of myself. Their laughter made me feel that I said a lot of foolishness. When I came home, I cried from anger at myself.

At last the deputy clerks from the association and the Union came. I was called in the office. In my broken English I tried to explain to them everything I knew. After me the foreman spoke. In a soft, gentle voice he spoke. Hearing him talk in the office, it could hardly be believed that a man like him could use such violent language as he used in the shop to the girls. He denied all I said. He told them for how long he had been foreman in the shop, that the girls never kicked about anything, that peace prevailed until I came, that I was also satisfied until the system of week-work was changed; since then I began to make trouble in the shop because I don’t want to work piece-work.

‘It’s a lie!’ I interrupted him. ‘I’m glad that the system is changed. I only wanted to have a man from the Union to settle the prices for us!’

I was maddened by the foreman’s false statements. He lied through and through, and I could not help interrupting him; but by interrupting him, I only succeeded in discrediting myself, for the clerk of the association stopped me.

‘Why, that girl is unbearable, she possesses an awful temper!’ said he to the clerk of the Union. ‘After all, he is the boss, and she should have more respect for him! She is too fresh!’

‘Oh, if you only knew him!’ said I, and burst into tears, for it pained me that I was not given the privilege to be heard as he; he was more trusted than I; besides, I was so disappointed. I expected to get full justice when the clerks came. I expected that they would adjust the prices; they would tell the boss he should not agitate the people against the Union, they would order the foreman to be more polite to the girls. All they did was to tell us that we, together with the boss, should select a girl to test the garments.

Both clerks failed to see the impossibility of selecting a girl in our shop. All the girls, without exception, were as week-workers very much underpaid. If any girl was to make a test, and be paid by the hour according to her former salary, we would surely not be able to make out anything. But I was not given any chance to explain it to them, for they left in a hurry.

When I stepped back into the shop, the girls were all waiting impatiently for news. Their eyes were fixed on me, questioning. Before I could open my mouth, the foreman followed me.

‘Well, girls! Even the clerk said that she was fresh, that she had a bad temper. He also said that I’m the boss here, and she has nothing to say! ’

So he interpreted the clerk’s sentences, and wanted the girls to believe him. From that day on our quarreling began. The next morning the first thing I did was to remind the foreman of selecting a test girl. We were only four girls who were competent enough in the work, so that only the four could act as testers. Among the four of us he selected Sadie and wanted nobody else. How could I agree to her when she was such a good worker and only got twenty cents an hour? My arguments did not do any good. He would again call me trouble-maker and fresh girl.

When I went over for work, the foreman kept me waiting, purposely to make me lose time. At lunch-time I ran to the Union again. There I cried for a long time until I was able to talk. The people up there comforted me. To them it was not new. Hundreds of girls used to come to them with the same grievances as I. But those did not cry any more. They were used to the illtreatment of the bosses and foremen.

I went back to work. Before I had time to sit down, the foreman began.

‘ Well, what did your Union tell you? You think I’m afraid of you, eh? The more you complain, the worse for you! I shall give you such work that you can’t make two dollars a week!’

That day he would give me only such bundles as had to go to the hemstitchers. I would only have for halfhour work in a bundle, and wait for another one. That afternoon, when I asked for such a bundle that I could work on it without any interruption, he refused to give. I complained to the boss. The boss took out a bundle from a girl’s basket and put me to work on it. To the foreman I heard him saying: —

‘You better stop torturing the girl too much!’

Too much! The boss seemed to have a limit as to how much they could trouble me — he was afraid to trouble me too much!

At three o’clock the clerks were up again. When the complaint was read before the boss, he said he knew nothing about it. He tells the foreman to treat everybody alike. If the foreman does treat me unfair, he’ll see to it that he does not.

In the presence of the clerks we selected a test girl. She was Mollie of the price committee. They told us that, in case we would not agree on the test, they’d have a man sent up to make the prices.

When they left, the boss came over to us and said, —

‘Of course, you wanted the clerks and you had them! But I’m telling you again that you may have a thousand of clerks to make prices for you, I would not pay a cent more than I pay you now! I cannot afford to pay you more, for I sell my merchandise cheap and I can’t raise the price on it.’

‘Then why don’t you tell that to the clerks? What’s the use of bothering around and waste people’s time for nothing?’ asked I. ‘ If you are a member of the association, you can afford to pay as much as the other members do; if you can’t — all right, give up your business! Somebody else will have to make up the work and we’ll get our jobs all right!'

‘A-ah, is that what you want?’ cried the boss in anger. ‘You want to drive me out from business — you socialist, you anarchist that you are!!! Go, go to Russia, fight with the Cossacks!—I’m telling you girls again,’ he continued, ‘if I have to pay more, I ’ll give up the business! If you suffer after, it won’t be my fault, but hers!’ He pointed his finger at me.

‘You, Mollie, go ahead, make the test and let see how it’ll come out.’

Mollie was given two waists to test. At the same time the foreman gave two waists to Sadie. He did not trust Mollie, though he said that she was a good respectable girl — and so she was.

She tried her best to make the test a fair one. Sadie saw her chance to show her devotion to the boss with that test. She rushed the work terribly, but when she saw that she was not ahead of Mollie, she had the girl next to her help her out. I watched them all. Sadie had her waists finished ten minutes before Mollie. Of course Mollie’s test was not accepted. According to Mollie’s test, the waists had to be priced at 46 cents apiece; according to Sadie’s, the waist came out at 35 cents. All the boss wanted to pay was 30 cents.

When the expert came, he priced the waist at 50 cents. He said that a waist like that was paid everywhere at 50 cents. The boss refused to pay either price. He claimed it was impossible for him to exist. He made a proposition to have the work made in sections. The garment should be divided into collars, cuffs, bodies, sleeves, belts. Each part should be settled by the dozen, and each part should be made by one girl.

I did not agree to it, neither did the union clerk. I tried to make the girls see the danger in section-work for them. No skill is required at sectionwork. Anybody could learn in a week or less to make a certain part of the garment. The girls, not being skilled workers, will always have to depend on that only shop, and, of course, will never be able to take a stand against any wrong which will occur to them, for fear to lose their position.

The association and the Union at last took more interest in that case. For three days clerks would come and go, come and go; they could not come to an understanding. At last the boss announced that he would give up the business.

Again I had a meeting with the girls. All the will-power I possessed I used to the utmost that evening in convincing the girls of the great mistake they would make by working in the shop on the old conditions.

In the morning, when we had our work finished out, we told the foreman that we would only work there if we were to have a strictly union shop with union conditions. He announced that no more work would be cut and that we were free to look for positions. I took all the girls with me and went to the union office.

The next morning, when I came to the union office to meet my girls who waited impatiently for results, the manager of the independent department had called up a few shops, inquiring for positions for the girls. The first two positions he got I sent up two girls, one competent worker and the other a learner. Before I sent them away I took work from the competent girl to take care of the others. A few I sent through the paper, and they found jobs themselves. Mollie and her sister I sent to the shop where I first learned the trade. As I once already mentioned, that boss was a good acquaintance of mine, and through my recommendation they got employment there, where one of the sisters is still working. I and another girl were still out.

The next day, I received a letter from Mr. Baroff of our Union, informing me that he got a job for me as a sample-maker. I quickly ran over to the office. There the other girl sat waiting for me; she also like me was still looking for work. As I promised to all the girls to help them in finding jobs, if the boss should give up the business, I felt that I had no right to accept the offered job, while a girl who held me responsible for her idleness was still out of a position. But I also needed the job, I needed the position to support both of us, myself and my brother; how could I give away the job to her? And still I did. I preferred to suffer economically, rather than be blamed for irresponsibility.

My present pessimistic state of mind developed not only from my own sufferings but also from the life around me. The general conditions of the people I lived among filled my heart with misery. My head was always puzzled with the question of inequality in this universe. I was unable to decide what remedy should be applied in order to equalize the world. One thing I understood: that the present capitalistic system must be changed, that the wealth created by people should be divided among those people. But whether the change should come through peaceful education or revolution, I felt not ripe enough to decide.