Chapter 8 : Police Guns Bring General Strike to 'Frisco
Bread upon the Waters
Police Guns Bring General Strike to 'Frisco
AFTER PROLONGED NEGOTIATIONS our dress agreement, modified, was accepted by 15 of the 18 mid-town manufacturers. It provided for a union shop, 35-hour week, minimum wage scales in line with the NRA Dress Code, two weeks' trial period, workers to elect a shop chairman and shop committee to handle complaints and grievances, equal distribution of work during slack season, and impartial arbitration machinery in case the union and employer could not adjust differences amicably. It was understood that the workers might join the union without interference by the employers.
One manufacturer explained that his employes were "conscientious objectors" who flatly refused to join up. They were Russian emigres who feared that by joining our union they would have to follow the Communist line.
I suggested that I go to his factory and speak to them.
"No, thank you! " he answered. "I know what you'll tell them. I'd rather send them to your office."
Next afternoon about three dozen arrogant women walked into our headquarters. They were annoyed, impatient, in a hurry to get home.
Gisnet read to them the main points of the agreement. They sat cold and hostile. He tried addressing them in Russian. They were contemptuous. He had been away from Russia more than 25 years and his pronunciation was faulty.
When I took over, I made it clear that they had better take their time, for working hours were not in question at the moment. Henceforth they would work regular union hours as specified in the agreement, 35 hours a week, instead of all kinds of hours as before; when the boss asked them to work overtime, they had not dared refuse for fear of losing their jobs.
I explained what our union had accomplished in three decades; pictured the miserable sweatshop conditions and unlimited hours which had taken toll of garment workers' health in many cities ant towns. After years of tireless effort, we had succeeded in establishing decent conditions in our industry in almost every garment center across the land. San Francisco was the latest area in which a collective pact had been won by the silk dress workers, and those who sat before me were the beneficiaries of our campaigns.
They began to show some interest. I ended by asking: "Are there any disagreements, or questions? Please speak up. This is your union, and free expression of opinion is respected here."
The first question, from several at once, was about the dues. I explained that we would take them into the union without any initiation fees, that the weekly dues would be thirty-five cents. My answer satisfied them.
Then a middle-aged woman, later identified as ãthe gheneralshaä ÷the general's wife÷began to talk in badly broken English. I advised her to speak her own language.
Vividly she described the sufferings of her family since 1914, when they fled from their comfortable home in central Russia to escape the horrors and hardships of the far-spreading war. Later the Revo lution and the civil wars had taken their inherited land-holdings.
They fled to Japan and thence to America via Vladivostok, where her children had to work as dishwashers for their food, and now poor and disinherited in a foreign land, they were again being "drive into a union," which to her mind was akin to a Communist organization.
"Gospodee pomilooy!" she lamented. "We are poor emigres, with out a home or a country. What will become of us now?"
Her story was heart-rending, but it was nothing new. I had hear it many times from others. My own people had been driven from pillar to post, from country to country, and for centuries. I tried to comfort her, explaining that ours was an economic organization and not a political party; that we were acting in accordance with the United States Constitution, which upheld the right of workers toband together for their own benefit; that we were protected by law and that she would now benefit from our new agreement. She would work regular hours, be home in time for supper, and receive a living wage; and her status as an immigrant would not be jeopardized. Moreover, when she was ready to apply for citizenship, our office would help her.
Several of the younger ones spoke up, in good English. They now seemed to realize that it would be better to have the union backing them; and they dwelt upon various troubles, such as intimidation, discrimination, and unsanitary conditions in their shop.
"Isn't it worth the price of your monthly dues," I asked, "to be able to come here and air your grievances without fear of losing your jobs? This is what we call industrial democracy."
The meeting concluded on an amicable note, and we all became fast friends. Though the point was not pressed, they willingly signed application cards.
I didn't tell them that the dual union had just issued a characteristic leaflet, headed The Fast-Traveling Sales-Lady, and branding our new agreement as a sellout. Its text read in part:
Rose Pesotta is an excellent saleslady. She had showed her skill in helping to SELL-OUT the Dressmakers' strike in Los Angeles, from whence [sic] she came to San Francisco. Here, after several weeks of bickering, wire-pulling, and back-door deals she finally, with the help of Feinberg, Gisnet, and the other A. F. of L. big shots, succeeded in selling an agreement to some Dress Manufac- turers....
"Now, Rose Pesotta announces that she is going over to OAKLAND to PUT IT OVER there, as well as in CHINATOWN. Here we see a skillful SALESLADY, TRAVELING FAST."
Next morning Paul Greenberg, one of our members, who was sympathetic to the dual union group, came into my office and showed me a copy of that leaflet.
"What do you say to that?"
"I take it as a compliment," was my cheerful reply. "It gives me credit and puts me among the best salesmen."
"Well, take for example the recognition of Soviet Russia," I said. "Your crowd tried for years to sell the idea to our government, but failed. Then along came a fast traveling salesman÷Litvinov÷and bing! he sold the idea to President Roosevelt."
Naturally I compared the case of our union in San Francisco with that of Russia. The local Communist-led dual union had been in existence several years. Repeatedly it had attempted to gain the confidence of workers and respect of employers, without success. Finally, we arrived on the scene and succeeded in winning an agreement without loss of time by the workers. Now our union would move ahead at full speed.
"So why should I feel insulted?" I concluded. "I am proud of the fact that we achieved our ends where your outfit failed."
Paul mulled this over. "You are right," he said, to my surprise. "I realize now that in our propaganda against union officialdom we overlooked a vital fact÷that organizers are not really union officials, but emissaries who are performing an important duty. I like your spirit."
Today Paul is one of our devoted officers in San Francisco, an able lieutenant to Henry Zacharin, head of the joint board there.
The charge of selling out to the employers was made by the Communist against our union officers and organizers many times, no matter how good the settlements obtained in strikes or non-strike campaigns. The Needle Trades Workers' Industrial Union, which existed chiefly on paper, covered up its own shortcomings by the smoke-screen of its attacks on our union.
A diverting incident occurred in one of the larger dress shops, the owner of which professed to be sympathetic toward Soviet Russia. But most of his employes were "White Russians," in the political and not the geographical sense, and the local Communist group assailed him for not employing party members.
His reply to his comrades was a masterpiece of party-line thinking.
"As a good Communist," he said, "I shall always exploit the enemies of Soviet Russia, never its friends, and since Communists claim to be its only friends, I cannot conscientiously exploit any of them."
I had reason to believe that he was talking with tongue in cheek.
Returning from a speaking trip to Portland and Seattle on May 11, I found the longshoremen on strike. They had reached the limit of their endurance, and despite opposition by the ILA's officers had walked out. Then the teamsters struck, and the seamen and licensed officers quit their ships in sympathy; and the strike spread up and down the Coast. By May 15 not a freighter left any American Pacific harbor, an unprecedented circumstance.
We of the ILGWU talked with groups of the strikers, pledged our financial and moral support, urged them to call upon us for advice if needed, offered our headquarters to them for meetings, and promised that we would bring their strike to the attention of our International convention in Chicago. Little did we dream that it would lead to a general strike which would rock the whole Pacific Slope.
I spent a great deal of time now on the Embarcadero, historic water-front. The scene there was remarkable. Hundreds of men, able-bodied and willing to work, and asking only to be treated like human beings, were constantly shoved around by the police. Frequent clashes resulted.
On July 4 the Industrial Association announced that the port would be reopened next morning. At dawn nonunion trucks brought in to remove freight were overturned by strikers who were trying to guard their jobs against scabs. Tear gas and guns were used by the police. Two strikers were killed, many wounded. More than 8,000 workers followed the cortege to the cemetery.
Out of the far-reaching indignation against those killings, sentiment for a city-wide general strike to support the longshoremen grew quickly. The general strike came on July 17; that afternoon 127,000 men and women stopped work. No street cars ran, no taxis. Trucks ceased moving except for milk deliveries. Small stores and gasoline stations were closed and only 19 restaurants were permitted to stay open.
Mayor Rossi asked the populace to keep their heads, saying there was ample food. Pressure was put upon the municipal street-car workers, who, as civil service employes, faced loss of their jobs if they remained out. They returned to work on the 20th, and the same day the general strike committee, by a scant majority, ordered the strike ended.
Though this walkout was backed by all A F of L unions in San Francisco, it did not have sanction higher up. William Green, president of the A F of L, attempted to discredit it by saying it was "only of local character, possessing no national significance."
For 10 more days the water-front men continued picketing. Meanwhile their employers offered a new agreement, and in that and other West Coast ports, the unions voted assent to arbitration. On July 31 after being out 10 weeks, the longshoremen returned to their jobs. The arbitrators subsequently gave them a six-hour day, 95 cents an hour for straight time, and $1.40 an hour for overtime, with hiring halls jointly controlled.
The general strike in 'Frisco gave tremendous momentum to unionism all along the West Coast.
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