Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 3 : Mexican Girls Stand Their Ground
(1896 - 1965) ~ Anarchist, Feminist Organizer and ILGWU Leader : ...an anarchist, feminist labor organizer and vise president within the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Born Rakhel Peisoty in Derazhnia, Ukraine in 1896 to a family of grain merchants, Pesotta was well educated during her childhood and, influenced by People's Will, would eventually adopt anarchist views. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "Soon after the 1929 stock market crash 30,000 persons in that city were jobless. Some organized the Unemployed Citizens' League, which set the pace for similar self-help groups all over the United States. Harvesting fruit and vegetable crops on a sharing basis, it set up various co-operative enterprises, which, however, were opposed by business men, who feared these would cut into their profits." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "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." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "In the brief span of its life, the IWW produced men who became internationally known and whose names were torches of inspiration in many lands. Most of them paid a high price for their fame, some with their lives." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
EARLY IN OCTOBER the dress manufacturers were firing workers right and left, on flimsy pretexts, and especially ousting individuals known to be active in the union. Several shops locked out their employes. By Monday, the 9th, hundreds were on the streets with no jobs. A strike was clearly being forced upon us.
Carrying out the mandate of the dressmakers' mass meeting, the union leadership agreed upon Thursday, the 12th, as the date for the walkout, and the organization committee was called to meet after work Wednesday. Meanwhile the union issued leaflets asking all Los Angeles dressmakers to "get ready for the general strike," saying we wanted to make it short and effective through 100 per cent unity. We cautioned them against the danger of being stampeded by the tactics of the opposition union, which had been sniping at us with handbills calculated to confuse the issue.
It must be borne in mind that next to its following in New York City, the Communist Party had its largest unit in Los Angeles, perhaps an indication that its members, after years of exhausting service in the East, needed the balmy air of California. Even there the long hand of the party directed all their movements.
The period of World War I and the 1917 Russian revolution gave birth to the Communist International as an instrument of world revolt. This organization, generally referred to as the Comintern, officially "dissolved" in 1943, had been organized along military lines. Its policy was to set up Communist "cells" in every part of the world to serve as links between the government of Russia and the wage earners and farmers of every land. The general membership of the party was never taken into confidence by the Communist "high priests" in Moscow, but the chosen top leadership in each country was given each new line as an order to be carried out. This was invariably dictated by the needs of the Moscow government, and a new line often brought a complete turnabout: what had been taboo six months before became the new line, regardless of whether it was feasible to carry out such a policy locally.
Members who dared question or disobey a new line would be summarily expelled or brought before a court of their own for judgment. Usually they would be subjected to humiliation, and in some instances, they would even disappear without trace. One such case often pointed out was that of Juliet Stuart Poyntz, at one time connected with the ILGWU educational department, but afterwards for many years an active member of the Russian Secret Service. She walked out of her room in New York City early in June, 1937, ostensibly to return in a short time, and vanished completely.
Some who were expelled from the party formed Communist "splinter" groups, which made a great deal of noise without developing much strength.
The Comintern established a so-called Red Trade Union International, designed to set up "revolutionary" trade unions the world over. For this purpose, the Trade Union Educational League, headed by William Z. Foster, came into being in the United States. In time a Needle Trades Workers' Industrial Union evolved, with the aim of "ruling or ruining" every labor organization in that field.
Some party members were instructed to remain with the existing unions, while the rest were assigned to function in the dual union. In the period between 1925 and 1933, the Needle Trades Workers' Industrial Union succeeded in demoralizing our International, among others, and tearing down every important gain we had made in three decades. Stock tactics of the dual union were to sow distrust in their chosen leadership among the rank and file. Derogatory epithets hurled at decent officials in widely distributed newspapers in various languages were picked up by labor's enemies and used as weapons against unions generally.
Discouraged members dropped out of both organizations, crying: "A plague on both your houses!" The employers reaped vast benefit from all this internal dissension.
There was a small but raucous branch of the dual outfit in Los Angeles, taking in all needle trades groups, and its leadership frequently denounced us and our campaign.
Plans for the strike, with no mention of the day set, were submitted by our delegates to the Central Labor Council, which voted endorsement and pledged full support. J. W. Buzzell, the council secretary, Mae Stoneman of the waitresses' union, and several A F of L organizers spoke at strikers' meetings and gave us other valuable cooperation.
Various tricks were used by the employers in attempts to hamstring the strike movement. One man came seeking "information" for a magazine which we later found to be non-existent. We gave him copies of our literature.
One of the factory owners asked me to have breakfast with him. He had taken part in a recent conference, and claimed to be a liberal. I knew enough never to talk alone with any one from the other side in a labor conflict, so I asked Paul Berg to go with me. We met the man in the Pig'n Whistle, a colorful and popular eating place on Broadway.
"I want to make a friendly suggestion to you," he said over the coffee.
We listened. "You ought not have a general strike," he advised us. "It would be very bad. It would create great bitterness and work hardship on many people. It would be much better to call strikes in individual shops, one by one, and settle with each, then the others would meet with you and sign a collective agreement."
"That's a fine idea," I answered.
He beamed upon me.
"An excellent idea," I assured him. "We'll do it. On Monday we'll call our first strike÷in your shop."
His face clouded with alarm.
"Why in mine?"
"Because you are sympathetic to our cause. You would sign an agreement promptly, your workers would go back to their jobs, and that would set an example for other employers."
He objected strongly to my revision of his plan.
"Maybe it isn't such a good idea," I told him. "Our union will have to use its own methods."
The organization committee comprised about 200 persons, cutters, operators, pressers, finishers, and other workers. When the committee met on Wednesday, Vise-President Feinberg and I, chairman and secretary, respectively, explained that all preparations for the walkout had been completed, except for eleventh-hour details. A headquarters was ready; a commissary had been set up to feed the strikers, and a legal committee appointed to bail out any who might be arrested, and have them defended in court. Chairmen of the standing committees knew exactly what they were expected to do.
All members of the organization committee were instructed to come to the union offices at 5 a.m. next day÷"to distribute leaflets and for other duties."
The truculent voice of a frequent dissenter was raised. "When do we strike?"
"You will be told that when you come in the morning."
We knew that though he was a member of our union, he also belonged to the Communist organization. Several such dissenters were in our ranks. Easily identified, their technique was the same in every industrial city I visited. Systematically and vociferously they disagreed with the majority on all questions. No one observing their methods could doubt that their purpose was to disrupt our ranks. We placed them on innocuous committees where they could do the least possible harm.
On Thursday at 5 a.m. every one was on hand. Ten thousand copies of the strike declaration had been printed. English on one side, Spanish on the other. Each committee member took a bundle of these to distribute in front of the buildings in which dress factories were located.
DRESSMAKERS' GENERAL STRIKE DECLARED TODAY! read the large black-type heading on the leaflet. Addressed to "all our union members and nonmembers, all cutters, operators, pressers, finishers, examiners, drapers, sample-makers, cleaners, pinkers, and all jobless dressmakers," it called upon them not to enter the shops, but to "go in an orderly manner" to strike headquarters at 1108 South Los Angeles Street.
"The bosses have forced this strike upon us," the declaration said, "because they refuse to recognize our organization and have refused to concede our just demands....
"Present working conditions in Los Angeles are unbearable. Never has it been so hard for a dressmaker here to earn a living as it is today. The general depression on the one hand, and the sweatshops on the other, have made it possible to break down all standards and make our jobs more insecure than ever before.
"We must make the 35-hour week universal in order that every dressmaker shall have employment We must establish the guaranteed minimum wage scale for every worker in the industry to assure us a living wage. We must establish the right to the job....
"We must have a powerful union to enforce union standards in every dress shop every day of the year....
"Down with the sweatshops I On with the strike! On to victory I "
When all the others had dispersed, shortly after 7 o'clock, I proceeded to strike headquarters alone, forgetting about breakfast. I unlocked the door, turned on the lights, and looked around. Everything was in good order.
I stepped outside to wait. Los Angeles Street was deserted and silent. Minutes dragged by, painfully. Once I held my watch to my ear to make sure it hadn't stopped.
The watch hands at last reached 7:30 . . . 7:31. The silence remained unbroken. It pressed down on me. I felt as if I were standing in a vacuum. I could hear my own heart beat.
7:35 . . . Still no one in sight. Doubts assailed me. Suppose something had slipped? Suppose the workers didn't respond? Suppose only a few came out. I knew of other strike efforts where the ground had been well prepared that had failed dismally. What effect had sniping by the Communist-led dual union had upon morale? Had the bosses succeeded in intimidating their employes?
I looked up at the loft building I had rented. It looked so huge, so monstrous÷and I had been concerned lest it not be big enough for our needs! Again a chill went up my spine, and I felt very small÷much smaller than my five feet two.
The minutes dragged on. I stood still, facing the Broadway corner, a block away. I no longer looked at my watch. I could only wait, numbly.
Suddenly the silence was broken. Several girls turned the corner, then more girls and women, then a throng, laughing and talking excitedly. Some from the Clare Dress Company, all smiles, were waving at me. Soon they were pouring into strike headquarters by the hundreds. The Clare Company's employes had been the first to strike; they were all here.
Workers from each factory assembled for separate shop meetings in the smaller rooms. Hall attendants registered each on an individual shop list which gave the name, address, factory location, price of garments worked on, wages received. Each group elected a shop chairman. A striker's card, to be presented daily at headquarters to be punched, would serve as identification, entitling the holder to meals in the commissary and a weekly cash benefit.
As soon as this necessary clerical job was done, the strikers were sent back into the garment district to swell the picketing.
Reporters came, looked over the crowd at headquarters, asked questions, picked up copies of our leaflets, visited the picket lines, and telephoned stories to their offices.
Simultaneously the dual union also issued a strike call, but the dressmakers flocked into our headquarters.
Some time that afternoon I was called outside, where I found a woman talking to a group of Mexican girls.
"This union is a fake," she told them. "This bunch will mislead you. Come to our place where the masses are."
A Mexican youngster looked at me, puzzled.
"You ought to take her suggestion," I said laughingly. "Go over a d take a good look. Maybe she is right."
"There are enough people here," the inexperienced girls answered. "If they stay here we will, too."
Mass picketing went on throughout the day in front of all the dress factory buildings, in the heart of the downtown shopping district. Traffic frequently stopped for minutes at a time while crowds of shoppers watched the spectacle.
In the evening, when the demonstrations were ended and the strikers had left headquarters, I met with the staff. We compared notes and mapped out a schedule for next day. Scanning the list; of factories and registered strikers, I was satisfied that we had succeeded in shutting down the Los Angeles dress industry.
Every one on the staff was tired but happy. The spirit of the strikers was excellent. The Mexican girls and women, who were by far the majority, acted almost like seasoned unionists, bearing out my expectations fully.
I met also with the commissary committee No meals had been served that day, for all the workers had brought their own lunches as usual. We would begin serving breakfast and lunch at headquarters next morning.
On Friday some of the dress factories "opened under police guard." This simply meant that the police were present again, as on Thursday. The word opened didn't mean much, for we knew that not enough dressmakers appeared for work anywhere to keep production going.
Arthur Booth, executive secretary of the manufacturers' association, issued a statement averring that the demand for recognition of the union was the only point of difference between the employers and the ILGWU. This was just one of our demands, the strike committee replied; 40 per cent of the girls and women in the Los Angeles dress shops were being paid less than $5 a week, although the manufacturers had signed the President's Reemployment Agreement providing for a minimum of $15 a week. The minimum under the state law was $16! The committee offered to produce hundreds of checks for $3 and $4 to prove our charge of widespread wage chiseling.
"We want union recognition," we said, "so that we can enforce the NRA rules in our industry and see that evaders of the code are made to abide by it "
On this second day and throughout the whole strike, each picket line was a lively parade. The girls came dressed in their best dresses, made by themselves, and reflecting the latest styles. Many of them were beauties, and marched on the sidewalks like models in a modiste's salon. Stories and pictures appeared in the daily press, and the general public got a better understanding of our difficulties. At a mass meeting Friday afternoon in Trinity Auditorium, 1,500 strikers cheered the announcement that the Cloakmakers' Association had signed an agreement with the union, conceding the union shop and all other demands. A few obstinate employers had refused to sign, but 1,600 cloakmakers had been victorious, and would not have to strike.
The commissary, now in full swing, was in the hands of a competent committee headed by four strikers, Sophia Malis, Nellie Saltzman, Mary Millazzo, and Morris Kaplan. Most of its members had had practical experience in feeding large groups in workers' clubs to which they belonged. Breakfast consisted of an orange, coffee, rolls, butter, and jam. Lunch included sandwiches of meat, peanut butter, or cheese, salad, fruit, coffee, or milk. Occasionally we served tamales for the Mexican strikers.
Each day at least 200 loaves of bread were necessary to make more than 2,000 sandwiches. We bought coffee, sugar, cream, and milk, but other provisions came to us either as unsolicited gifts or through the persuasive efforts of a "chiseling committee" which canvased butchers, grocers, and vegetable and fruit markets, and pleaded our cause.
Members of the Unemployed Councils used their own trucks to bring surplus fruits and vegetables which they obtained by working in the orchards and truck farms in a "Save the Crops" cooperative movement. A special committee of Latins from the union, interviewing merchants in the Mexican quarter, found them generous.
When the newspapers reported that we were feeding such a large number, many poorly clad men and women, who had never been inside a garment factory, came to our headquarters and sought to register as strikers. A question or two quickly revealed their lack of knowledge of our industry. We regretted having to turn away hungry people, but we had strikers to feed and a desperate cause to fight for.
As enrollment proceeded, we got added light on the prodigious number of marginal or surplus workers in the dress field. Hundreds listed themselves as unemployed operators and finishers. They had worked little in the trade, and were more properly classifiable as housewives, grandmothers, juveniles. Many could operate an ordinary home Singer machine, but that was all. Among the "finishers" we found women long past 70 who occasionally went to work with their grandchildren. The juveniles, under the legal employment age of 16, got past the uncritical eyes of the foreman or forelady with the aid of high heels, heavy make-up, and spit curls, when rush orders had to be filled.
We also were visited by an emissary from the Catholic Welfare Association, who asked especially how we were handling the food situation. With a good deal of pride, we showed him through our well-equipped, spacious kitchen and dining hall, and led him into a freight elevator that had been made stationary to serve as a storeroom for edibles. The visitor said his organization would like to donate some provisions÷without publicity. And presently it sent us 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of peanut butter, and 50 pounds of coffee.
Each morning at 10, I held a meeting with the hall attendants, shop chairmen, assistant chairmen, and members of shop committees. Then they would meet with strikers from their respective shops, keeping them informed of the latest developments.
By the time the strike had been running two days we learned that many of the strikers were facing a serious plight. They needed more than meals at headquarters and carfare. They needed relief÷food or cash, or both. By the third day a considerable number reported that their gas, electricity, or water, or all three, had been shut off for nonpayment of bills. The number of families was large enough, and the timing by the utility companies was such, that mere coincidence would not explain the situation. Pressure evidently had been exerted behind the scenes.
We found that a sizable percentage of the strikers, particularly married women with unemployed husbands, had been receiving aid from the county welfare bureau while working in the dress factories, because their wages did not cover the cost of feeding their large families.
To help those in immediate need, the commissary committee began putting up bags of food for home use. These contained milk, coffee, bread, sugar, rice, peanut butter, tomatoes, lettuce, apples, cheese, and oranges.
For a few days the Spanish-language cultural society's radio station served us well. It carried concise bulletins about our campaign to a wide audience. Then the theater owner who operated the station told us sadly that he had been ordered to stop giving us time.
We pondered what to do, whether to make a fight about it. Some of the Mexican girls solved our problem. At their suggestion, we bought time from another station, El Eco De Mexico, in Tiajuana, just across the border, which would not be subject to interference. That gave us what we needed. The Tiajuana broadcasts were made daily at 7 a.m. Spanish-speaking workers all over Los Angeles learned of the progress of our strike before starting for their jobs each morning.
Overnight the dress manufacturers used a new device in an effort to break the morale of the strikers. They wrote to those who had walked out that unless they returned to work Monday morning, October 16, all the dress shops in Los Angeles would be closed for two months
We met the issue squarely in a new leaflet, declaring that this threat was an admission that the strike was a success.
"The fact is," we pointed out, "the employers could not keep their shops closed for two months, for rent and overhead would keep piling up and they would lose their trade. We've heard that argument before from others÷but they always recognize the union in preference to going out of business."
From : Anarchy Archives
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