Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 5 : Our Union on the March
(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.)
• "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.)
• "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.)
• "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.)
STRIKERS CROWDED THE CORIDOR outside the hearing room in the Los Angeles City Hall on October 31, opening day of the arbitration proceedings, ready to testify when called. Vise-President Feinberg and Harry Sherr, attorney for the ILGWU, presented our case. Feinberg told of a whispering campaign against the union, by employers who contended it did not represent the dressmakers for whom it professed to speak.
Arthur Booth, executive secretary of the manufacturers' association, asserted that "there has been no clash between the employers and employes in the dress industry on wages, hours, or working conditions."
Our witnesses testified that the employers were operating a blacklist; had dismissed workers for discussing unionism and attending union meetings; and had shown marked favoritism to nonunion workers in an effort to break the union's strength. One cited a recent statement by Mrs. Mabel Kinney, chief of the State Industrial Welfare Commission, that "since the NRA, workers are reporting conditions which previously they hesitated to disclose. Many of these conditions are of a nature that no department of the state government could ever find unless reported by workers who are being exploited."
Clementina Gonzales, dress finisher, swore that she had been discharged by the Fernion Frocks shop when she demanded the legal minimum wage. The press reported that she said she was fired "when she asked for more pay," which was only half the truth.
A new Dress Code, designed to supersede the blanket agreement already signed by employers, was announced by the National Recovery Administration on November 4. Effective on the 11th, it called for wages ranging from $14 to $45 a week and from 50 to 90 cents per hour, depending on the degree of skill involved, Collective bargaining was provided for, child labor and home work prohibited.
Manufacturers in the South and Middle West and on the Pacific Coast demanded a hearing and proposed a 50 per cent differential from the Code's wage rates. Charles S. Katz, attorney for the Los Angeles employers, was sent to Washington to press their case. They based their demand for this outrageous differential on a sweeping claim that their employes were "sub-normal" and thus not entitled to the minimum wages specified by the NRA.1 We issued a leaflet holding that it was the bosses, not their employes, who were subnormal. We urged the local dress factory owners to "learn how to read," for evidently they were unaware that their Chamber of Commerce had published statistics to prove that workers in Southern California were 18 per cent more efficient than those in any other part of the country!
On Saturday, November 4, the arbitration board held its final session. Feinberg, Attorney Sherr, and others spent several hours in the City Hall arguing the union's case, while the girls were kept busy at strike headquarters, on the picket lines, and on committees. A decision by the board was looked for in the afternoon. But at evening none had been reached. We worked on until 11 p.m. without any word. Then we went to the City Hall.
The outside doors were locked, but the board was still in session, so we waited on the steps for our representatives to come out. Shortly before midnight they emerged, weary and forlorn. The board had issued a decision, and it was not what we had hoped for. Feinberg handed me a typewritten copy.
I glanced through it quickly and slumped down on the steps again, unable to speak. I felt as if I had been struck by a lash.
The decision was an "order" calling off the strike. It read:
"The Board of Arbitration appointed by the National Labor Board at Washington, orders as follows:
"1. The present strike in the garment industry is to be called off and the status quo existing prior to October 12, 1933, restored. The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, on behalf of its members, shall in the first instance take up all complaints with the employers and/or the employers' representatives and in the event of any dispute or disagreement the dispute shall be referred to this Board of Arbitration . . . and in case the Board shall decide that an employee has been unjustifiably discharged the Board may impose such fines or penalties in the form of back or future pay as it may determine.
"2. The members of the Silk and Wool Dress Manufacturers' Group of Los Angeles are to restore the relations existing between employer and employee . . . to the status existing prior to October 12, 1933; employes then employed shall be received back in the shops and shall have an equal share of the available work in the shops; the working conditions shall be those established under Section 7-a of the National Industrial Recovery Act; the wages of the employes to be those provided in the Code for the dress industry as signed by President Roosevelt on November 1, 1933, and applicable to the Western area of the United States."
To a novice, the specifications that working conditions were to be governed by Section 7-a of the NIRA, and that wages were to be those in the Dress Code, might indicate that we had won something. But without a signed agreement between the employers and the union, who would enforce the board's "order"? Certainly not the local NRA office, from all that we had seen of its operations! Moreover, aware of the unscrupulous policies of the dual union, we knew that the Communists would immediately make new efforts to disrupt the ranks of the inexperienced Mexican dressmakers.
Thoughts and questions pounded against my brain: "After all our efforts, is this all we have to take to our membership? What will they say ? How can we convince them that we cannot go against a decision by a government board ? . . ."
Sitting in a restaurant, our spokesmen explained the situation slowly, exhausted from a day of debate with the employers and the board members. They had done their best, I knew. Though greatly disappointed, I had faith in the integrity of the board and believed that it had no ulterior motive in reaching its decision.
Feinberg, Berg, and Sherr told us about some of their verbal exchanges with the opposition. Then we decided to get some rest and hold a special meeting next morning (Sunday) with the strike committee, before submitting the board's decision to the whole body of strikers. The committee was notified by telephone and telegraph.
At 10 Sunday morning we assembled at union headquarters and soberly discussed what could be done. Older unionists from the East remembered that when the waistmakers called their big strike in New York in 1909 they had much less behind them than we had now. There was no law then to back them up.
Sophie and Bessie Goren told us that in Philadelphia girl strikers fainted in the union hall when informed that they must return to work on a "preferential shop" basis without a union. Later, after years of effort, they had succeeded in solidly unionizing the waist and dress industry. It was argued now that it wasn't always possible to achieve a real union agreement with the first strike in a community.
We agreed that at our regular afternoon mass meeting on Monday, the board's decision would be submitted to the strikers.
I contended that the vote on acceptance or rejection of the decision should be by ballot. The rest of the committee didn't think it necessary. Their attitude worried me throughout the night. Whatever my own feeling about the arbitration board's decision and the prospects it presented for the future, I wanted it voted upon fairly, and without any attempt to stampede the strikers. The responsibility for the vote must be placed clearly on record. I had seen too much skullduggery practiced in oral voting.
On Monday I went to strike headquarters early, after visiting the picket lines. I asked Bill Busick to make up a stencil for a ballot in both languages stating the issue and bearing two hollow squares labeled Yes and No, and to mimeograph it without any one else knowing. Then I sent for some rubber stamps bearing the word Voted.
The press had carried the news of the board's ruling and it was talked over on the picket lines and at shop gatherings in headquarters. At 2 p.m. the big assembly hall on the third floor was crowded with strikers.
After the ruling had been read to the membership, several speakers discussed it from different points of view. We explained to the listeners, practically all novices in strike action, that this was not the kind of agreement that our union had wanted, but that, due to circumstances beyond our control, a governmental agency had been brought into the picture.
"If we accept this decision," the strikers were told, "we are confident that, with the stamina you have shown on the picket lines, you will win your fight in the shops. This decision by a board which is not for either side gives us a basis for organizing the dress industry of Los Angeles legally.... If we get back into the shops, we can go ahead with organization activities at full steam."
In the back of the hall, I could see some of the known dissenters milling around and holding hurried conferences in whispers. I knew what was being planned: they would shout down the board's proposal in an oral vote.
Somebody yelled: "When do we vote?" From all sides came cries: "Why do we waste time?" . . . "Let's take it to a vote now!" . . . "How are we going to vote?"
Then I sprung my surprise÷and it was a surprise even to the rest of our own leaders.
"Voting will be in a democratic way by secret ballot," I announced, and I made each word stand out so that every one in the hall could hear me. Microphones were not yet in general use. "Only those who carry a strike card from this headquarters which was punched this noon are eligible to vote."
Cries from all four corners again.
"I forgot my card."
"Then you can't vote," I answered.
"I left my card in my other clothes."
"We'll do without your vote. No one can vote without a card." I knew very well that our strikers had their cards punched every day. This was necessary to entitle them to meals, carfare, and cash strike benefits.
My answers quieted the dissenters. And now I appointed a special committee of 10, chairmen and active members in important shops, to supervise the vote, count the ballots, and report the result. Several of these tellers were known to be sympathetic toward the dual union.
The committee sat at tables placed at the exits. As the strikers passed the tables they presented their strike cards, and were handed ballots to fill out. Their cards were stamped Voted, and they dropped their ballots in slotted-top boxes provided for that purpose.
The vote was 5 to 1 in favor of the arbitration board's decision.
Under that order, which was ratified by most of the manufacturers, approximately 75 per cent of the strikers were to return to work that week on a 35-hour work-week basis, with NRA minimum wages. We would continue picketing however, at some 20 shops which had not accepted the board's ruling.
Next morning I was busy in our Ninth Street union office when a Mexican girl hurried in to tell me that a policeman had just arrested another girl for distributing leaflets. She had brought one of the leaflets with her. I knew before I looked at it that it was not ours, for we had issued none that day. It was headed: "Smash the Sellout!"
The Mexican youngster was waiting anxiously for me to do something.
"Lolita," I said, "that girl is not a friend of our union. She doesn't want any help from us."
Reading the vicious words of the leaflet, I marveled that any group which loudly proclaimed its devotion to labor could act like this in so serious a situation. I realized anew that in our fight we must use a double-edged sword. We had to battle not only the employers but this fringe of irresponsibles in the labor movement.
Designed by obstructionists who followed the current party line strictly, with utter disregard for the welfare of the workers in our industry, the Communist union's printed attack, addressed to the dressmakers, read:
"Instead of utilizing your splendid struggle to beat the bosses to
submission, your officials have handed you over to the mercy of an
arbitration board, to the mercy of the so-called impartial citizens!
. . . They have decided for the bosses and against you. They have
given you nothing....
"For three weeks your officials were maneuvering with the bosses behind your backs. While in words they did not agree to a truce, they weakened your picket lines and tried to stop your militancy.
"Dressmakers: Were you ever consulted whether you were willing to give over your fate, your conditions, and the question of union recognition, to arbitration? Every voice of protest against arbitration was suppressed by your officials with an iron hand....
"The Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union warned you against these misleaders. Now these misleaders have sold you out. . . . Now is the time for you to act. You, the rank and file, must take over the leadership of the strike....
"Arbitration never gave anything to the workers. Struggle on the picket lines did!
"Down with the decision of the arbitration board!
"Down with the fakers of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union!
"Drive out your misleaders....
"Rank and file leadership is the only guarantee against sellout and defeat!"
The ILGWU leadership was too busy trying to settle the strike to answer this or similar attacks.
Unfortunately there was little work in any of the local dress factories at this time, and the employers took advantage of the situation by refusing to reemploy the more active members of our union. Often, too, they tried deliberately to provoke employes to insubordination by giving them inferior work and by other discrimination. Now a new and devious method was designed by some of the employers to get around the wage minimums. Workers who had never made the minimums because their bosses did not pay fairly for work done, were advised to go to the State Industrial Welfare Commission and sign slips stating that they did "not claim full competence" in their work, and thus did not expect to make Code wages.
A Russian woman, a hand finisher formerly employed in the shop of Joseph Zukin, a leading manufacturer who had fought us bitterly but had to sign up, told me her story. The Zukin firm refused to reemploy her, on the ground that she was too slow and wouldn't be able to earn the $16 minimum. She was told instead, about the yellow slip that could be signed at the Welfare Commission office. Her husband suggested that she get a certification as a handicapped worker. She was young, good-looking, and obviously sturdy.
"But you're not physically handicapped," I protested. "You're perfectly healthy."
"Yes," she admitted, "but my husband said that I could claim that I have rheumatism."
Then she could get work in the Zukin factory÷at a starvation wage.
We became aware also that the employers were using the Bureau of County Welfare as a weapon against our union. Hundreds of the girls who had taken part in the strike brought us letters written to them by that agency, a Unit of the Los Angeles County Charities. A typical letter, received from the Belvedere District Employment Relief Office, read:
"We have been informed that you will be reinstated in your
former position at the Kay Joyce Frock Company, 834 South
Broadway, providing that you resign from the Union for which you
have been on strike.
Will you please notify this office concerning the action you are taking with regard to this matter?"
We proceeded to set up separate headquarters for the newly organized dressmakers. I rented a vacant old two-story warehouse on Main Street near 10th, close to the garment district. It had to be renovated and partitioned to provide offices and rooms for shop meetings and study classes, and the upper floor was made over into a spacious meeting hall.
Meanwhile the dressmakers held meetings to elect an executive board. With the charter for a dressmakers' union on hand, all we needed was to insert the names of those elected, making them charter members of the new local. Nineteen names in all appear on that document÷the first elected officers of that local÷Mrs. A. S. Enright, who was chosen as chairman of the board; Bessie Goren, recording secretary; Anita Andrade, Paul Berg, Ruby Burrows, Jessie Cervantes, Emma Delmonte, Ramona Gonzales, Sophie Goren, Rose Harrington, Julia Huselton, Frieda Lance, Anna Meyers, Mary Milazzo, Lola Patino, Carmen and Marie Rodriguez, Jack Whitley, and Helen Wier.
Thus dressmakers' Local 96 of the ILGWU was born, and a new trail was blazed in the Los Angeles industrial wilderness.
Bill Busick remained on our staff as organizer, editor of our publication, and educational director. Harry Scott became business agent, and Paul Berg, who helped so ably during the strike, returned to a factory to earn his living. Claudia Benco, one of the most able chairladies in Clare Dress, was later elected secretary of the local.
Education of workers in our union is never confined to study classes, and many of the dressmakers who had taken active part in the strike still had a lot to learn.
It was my function to install the new board and officers at a meeting which packed our hall. Near the front I noticed a Mexican woman and her daughter, as much alike as two peas in a pod, who had served staunchly on the picket lines. Soon after the ceremonies began, the mother opened a bundle, and the two began turning over collars, cuffs, and belts for silk dresses. Later I asked them what they had been doing.
The elder woman smiled ingenuously. "You told us not to do any home work. But all this work from the shop has to be done. So we bring it here."
I explained to both that "no home work" meant no work to be taken out of the factory, and that they must be paid for every hour of work done.
Foes of the union continued their attempts to undermine us. In the slack period, when unemployed members were worried about tomorrow's meals, our enemies sought to alienate them from the dressmakers' local.
One day, while I was busy in the new headquarters, I heard a disturbance in the outer office. I found a little Mexican girl with her strapping young husband, loudly demanding that the dues clerk refund the 50 cents she had paid as her initiation fee before the strike.
I asked why.
"Because," the girl answered pugnaciously, "all bosses are Jews and all Jews are bosses, and they won't give me a job."
"But I'm Jewish and I'm not a boss.".
"I don't want to belong to your union anyway."
"All right," I said, "come into my office and I'll take care of you."
I saw that the girl was emotionally unstable. Inviting them to sit down, I engaged her in conversation.
"Were you a striker?"
"Did you get strike benefit?"
"Three dollars a week."
"Yes, two tokens a day, and my husband got some tickets for gasoline."
"Did you get food while on strike?"
"I ate every day, morning and noon, at strike headquarters."
"Any food to take home?"
"Yes every week two bags of bread, coffee, peanut butter, sugar, and fruit."
I added up what those items would cost her.
"Tell me honestly," I said, smiling, "don't you think you got enough for an investment of only 50 cents ? Look at what you got! " I showed her the figures; they added up to more than $15. She didn't answer, but sat there dejected and ashamed.
The dues clerk brought in a half dollar, and I offered the coin to the girl. She broke into tears and refused to accept it.
I learned that she never had a decent job, having been fired repeatedly after working a single day. She was unemployed when the strike started, and joined up hoping to get work. Now the bosses told her that because she had been on strike they would not hire her. She had nothing against our union, she said, but "people" had told her to come and demand her money back.
I lent her a doliar and had her register with our unemployment division, which would find a job for her when the busy season began.
She could repay the dollar when she was working again. The couple departed with fresh hope.
A long procession of such girls came in daily with their worries. Hand in hand with our program for expanding the new union, we had to do social service work, as well as combat a degenerate economic condition which pervaded the Los Angeles garment industry.
The arbitration board had designated two of its members, Rabbi Isaacson and Father Cunningham, to handle any grievances from either side. To the arbitrators the whole thing was new; it did not occur to them that their decision would be followed by a pile-up of complaints.
We discussed this at our staff meetings.
"What are we going to do now? What will we do about all these complaints of discharges, discrimination, and intimidation coming in from every shop?"
"We must collect all the complaints," I answered, "and submit them to the board for immediate adjustment."
"But will they be able to adjust them all?"
"Of course not. But we must insist that these grievances be attended to. The board members will be overwhelmed, and will finally call on us to show them how to handle them. Then we will have the proper solution: 'Give us a union agreement and we'll handle them ourselves! "'
As it turned out, that is exactly what happened.... And to our gratification' knowing his fair-mindedness, Father Cunningham subsequently was appointed by the NRA as Dress Code Authority for that district. He also was selected as impartial chairman.
Our union Was on the march in California.
1. Late that fall the Dress Code was amended, the Pacific Coast groups being given a differential of 30 per cent Thus the wages they had to pay under amended NRA rules were 88 per cent less than those paid for the same work in the East.
From : Anarchy Archives
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