Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 15 : Employers Double as Vigilantes
(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.)
• "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.)
• "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.)
Bread upon the Waters
Employers Double as Vigilantes
A HANDFUL OF CLOAKMAKERS diligently helped me in my visits to prospective members, yet our progress was snaillike. Clearly someone was required here who knew the workers in the dress industry. After a wide search I persuaded Dorothy Enright, a dress operator who had spoken up pointedly at my first Seattle meeting in 19',4, to come in as my assistant.
Daughter of a pioneer who crossed the plains and mountains to the Northwest in a covered wagon, and mother of a grown son (though she looked much younger), she was worth her weight in gold. She owned a car, knew every nook and corner of the city and its environs, and having worked long in our industry, was on friendly terms with almost every garment worker in Seattle.
She needed coaching in union technique, and enrolled for a course in stenography and typing at the University of Washington in order to be able to take dictation. I was already taking a course there myself, and so we drove to the campus together each morning. As the weeks passed Dorothy steadily gained confidence, and I encouraged her to approach the dressmakers on the subject of unionism.
We talked with scores of possible members, working fast and intensively, and in five weeks we succeeded in signing up enough women to enable the local to elect a president, secretary, and an executive board. The membership began to grow in healthy fashion, and presently I wired asking Vise-President Feinberg, our Pacific Coast director, then in San Francisco, to come to Seattle. Speaking at a meeting of more than 200 dressmakers, he was stirred by the response he got. Feinberg made several attempts to meet with some of the employers, but they referred him to Captain J. Thomas Dovey, manager of the Associated Industries of Seattle, an effusive mixer who was ready to discuss anything under the sun except coming to terms with the union.
We drew up a tentative agreement, based on our standard collec- c tive contract, and mailed it with an appropriate letter to every dress manufacturer. None of the employers even acknowledged this. So I sent a spokesman to call upon them÷Beverstock, whom we had engaged to help us as local representative of the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau. That agency, headed by Henry Melnikov of San Francisco, specialized in negotiating agreements for labor unions in all the Western water-front cities. Beverstock, too, was referred to Captain Dovey, who shot questions at him, asking whether he was an American citizen, what education he had had, and what his status was in this particular case. When Dovey found he was dealing with a Stanford University graduate who had a thorough knowledge of economics, constitutional rights, and labor legislation, he ended suggestively: "There's always a good job for a willing young man."
As soon as the local was firmly on its feet, we gave attention to the matter of education. Genevieve Beverstock consented to conduct evening classes in public speaking and current events at the YWCA. After class, the girls would put in an hour of gym and finish with dancing. Genevieve had an agreeable low voice, and spoke so clearly that everyone in a large hall could hear her. She was one of the most competent teachers I came across on the West Coast.
Apart from my own need of relaxation, recreation proved a vital element in holding our dressmaker members together. In play we could forget our daily struggle, catch our breath, and be made whole again.
We had Saturday evening dances in the Labor Temple. All trade unionists were welcome at these without charge, and dancers and spectators were often augmented by men drawn by the music from the basement saloon, hang-out for many because all other unions kept their offices closed on Saturday nights.
Such affairs served as an effective means of getting acquainted. There was a variety of entertainment, the children of our dressmakers exhibiting talent which included fancy roller skating, singing, accordion playing, and tap dancing. Our Scandinavian members contributed by presenting native dances.
Everyone in the local brought things to eat÷hearty sandwiches, home-made cakes, pies, and cookies. Having no time to do any elabo- rate cooking in my kitchenette, I made it a point always to supply the beer. Beginning with one keg, I ended with six.
At one of the Saturday night gatherings I noticed a weathered old seaman sitting in a corner, sipping his beer and quietly watching the dancing. I had heard him called "Smithy." Sitting down beside him, I asked if he was enjoying himself.
"Yes, ma'am," and he thanked me. It wasn't often that good times were free. "I was thinking of the dancing I did when I was a young man."
"In the Klondike÷in Dawson City."
Dance-hall gals, and it cost a dollar to dance three minutes. He had other memories, and I signaled for more beer.
Smithy dropped in at my office often and told me engaging tales of his experiences.
Ohio-born, he had owned a shoe-store in Seattle, sold it, sailed with two partners for Dyea, each carrying 1,500 pounds of equipment. It took them a month to carry this over that terrible icy trail, Chilkoot Pass, into British Columbia. Cutting down trees, they built a boat, traversed several lakes, survived the rapids of the Yukon. But they got to the diggings too late in the year to do much prospecting, and wintered in Dawson, 15 miles away.
They drank and gambled, won and lost and won again. Tex Rickard's joint was one of their hangouts. Fresh food was so costly and scarce that Smithy fell ill with scurvy, and had to go home in the Spring. He met up with a fellow named Jack London, homeward bound for the same reason. Both of them "looked like hell." London's name meant nothing to him then, but later he read Jack's stories about the North, and recognized many incidents in them. And he had seen Jack Holt in the movies, and recalled him as a youngster to whom he gave a job sawing wood for a day when he was flush.
Smithy intended to return to the Klondike when he got well, but he "didn't have the guts" to face the hardship and the cold, and went to sea instead.
Shipping to China, he later sailed on all the oceans. He was proud of the fact that "Andy Furuseth himself" signed him up in the Seaman's Union in San Francisco. At 60 he had quit the sea, but he still carried a union card. "Andy's a prince," he said. "Any time I go broke I can always call on him."
"What happened to your partners in the Klondike?" I inquired.
They found little gold in their original claims, Smithy explained. So they moved on to Nome, in Alaska, where the next great strike was made, cleaned up big there, and brought fortunes back, enough to carry them in comfort through a long life.
"But one of them spent it all in five years on booze and women," he said, "and dropped dead on the street. The other died in the poorhouse in Spokane. I was the lucky one."
In the Spring we enjoyed communal dinners in the Labor Temple, and as the weather grew warm, we had picnics on the shore of the Sound or elsewhere in the open. These were attended by a hundred or more persons, the girls bringing members of their families and different kinds of food for lunch. I marveled at the variety of edibles provided by the Scandinavians.
Goody Jorgensen made hot waffle sandwiches; Norwegian cheese, slightly melted, was the filler. Delicious ! Ruby Lund brought potato salad with a flavor all its own. Ethel Stevenson ("Steve") came with exotic cakes. Esther and Roy Tremelling were specialists in chili beans. Roy also was a past master in tapping a keg of beer, keeping the foam at a minimum, an art in itself. As always, my offering was the beer. And invariably I had my movie camera with me and filmed the merry scene.
Realizing that this would be an extended campaign, I was ready to quit Seattle and leave the situation in the hands of the local people, under Feinberg's supervision. This would eliminate the complaint about "outside organizers." But things were moving too fast. Several employers, undoubtedly acting in concert, had discharged girls who, on advice from the union, had reported Code violations to the local NRA office. It was agreed that we would demand their reinstatement.
At this point, however, I had to telegraph Jennie Matyas in San Francisco, asking her to come at once to Seattle. I had developed acute laryngitis and a fever, and couldn't speak above a whisper.
The employers flatly refused to reinstate the girls. So we decided to "stop the shop" of Rosenfeld Brothers,* where the lay-offs had begun and where a majority of the workers were eager and ready to follow our union. This was a men's neckwear shop and not strictly within ILGWU jurisdiction. But a delegation of Rosenfeld workers had come to one of our meetings, complaining about wage chiseling in violation of the Code, and bad working conditions, and implored us to take them in. I had asked the advice of Feinberg, and he said: "Take them all in, and later we'll see÷"
Early Wednesday morning, March 6, we appeared in front of the Rosenfeld premises. I was running a high temperature, and a cloth saturated with camphorated oil was wrapped around my neck. We succeeded in stopping the shop.
The news spread around the needle trades section and toward evening workers from other factories came to the union office, urging that we stop their shops next.
Among the most persistent were girls employed by Nelly Dwyer Inc. and the Olympic Garment Company.
Working conditions in the Dwyer factory were bad. Lighting was inadequate and large electric motors ran without safety shields, so it was dangerous to pass them. Floors were swept only once a week, getting so littered with pieces of cloth that girls stumbled and fell. One girl was repeatedly burned on an arm by a steam pipe which had no asbestos covering. Complaints about these conditions were ignored by the management.
Charges against the Olympic Company included favoritism in dividing work among operators, failure in numerous cases to pay the required NRA $13-a-week minimum, and lack of a properly equipped rest room for workers who became ill. Machine operators
had to walk up four flights of stairs, not being allowed to use the elevator, although the forelady, her two sisters (operators who were exceptions), and the office staff used it. We made a new approach to the Dwyer and Olympic firms, but they referred us to Captain Dovey. He declared that neither he nor those he represented were interested in negotiating an agreement with the union.
We tried another tack, having no wish to call a strike in either factory if it could be avoided. A shop meeting of the Dwyer workers decided that the best way to get Mrs. Dwyer to negotiate would be for the union members in her plant to stage a stoppage, since we had a majority there.
On Monday morning we met in front of the Dwyer shop at 6 :30 a.m. I went inside and explained to Mrs. Dwyer that this was not a strike, but that the girls were going to a meeting at union headquarters. Meanwhile, I suggested, she might find time to discuss the proposed agreement with us, in which event our members would come to work in a couple of hours. Once more Mrs. Dwyer referred me to Captain Dovey. We already knew his attitude, so a strike in the Dwyer shop was officially declared.
Mrs. Dwyer was aghast at the idea that any of her girls would: walk out. Hadn't she always treated them well, like daughters and: sisters instead of employes? The only evidence of this the girls could recall was that she had kissed a lot of them goodnight when: they left for home the previous Friday. A strange individual, this Nelly Dwyer, high-strung, emotionally-religious, often calling upon God in her conversations.
Other employers who had received a copy of our proposed agreement asked for a conference and expressed willingness to negotiate. On the day the Nelly Dwyer factory was stopped, we signed our first agreement with the Horowitz Dress Company, a silk dress firm for which Dorothy Enright had worked. The Horowitz workers came to the office of the union, heard the terms of the contract, and approved it enthusiastically.
News of our first settlement with a firm without interruption ofwork was highly encouraging to every member of the local.
Wednesday our members at the Olympic Garment Company followed the example of the Nelly Dwyer workers, and appeared outside the building in a body, but did not go in to work. I had an amicable talk with Frank Sharger, manager for the company, who came a little later. He knew the law, admitting that workers had a right to join a union of their own choosing. "If I were a workingman," he declared, "I would join a labor union as the only protection a wage earner has."
He voiced no objection to my calling his employes to a union meeting. We agreed that after the meeting I would phone him for an appointment and the workers would return to their jobs by noon. Mr. Sharger shook hands in a friendly manner, and I departed.
As arranged, we held a meeting and read the tentative agreement to the workers. They added some grievances to be discussed at the conference, appointed a negotiating committee, had lunch, and prepared to go back to work. I tried to reach Mr. Sharger, but he was "out." Throughout the afternoon I called his office repeatedly, and each time he was "out."
When I finally got him on the phone next morning, Mr. Sharger explained that Mr. Carson, president of the company, was in Dakota, and until his return a few days hence, he could give no definite answer.
When I asked him: "What about the workers?" he replied: "You can do as you please." I reported this to the waiting girls, and they decided to go home and take a rest. No strike had been declared in that shop, and from what Sharger had said, we still expected that an agreement with his company would shortly be reached. We did not suspect what forces were operating behind the scenes.
On Saturday several workers came ro the office and informed us that they had been visited the night before by the Olympic forelady and a companion, and had been asked to come in Saturday and vote on a shop union that was being formed. Things took on a new aspect. Over the week-end we sent out committees to call on all the nonunion Olympic girls and appeal to them, for the sake of all concerned' not to report for work on Monday.
That morning Jennie and I appeared in front of the plants with all those who had taken part in the stoppage. In a nearby stage depot we saw about 20 Olympic workers who had not joined us And in front of the factory were about a dozen well-dressed men.
We speculated on the reason for their presence. I went over and asked: "You're not going to take those girls into this shop, are you?"
No, they answered. Then they walked off toward the depot. Soon after that, however, the nonunion girls came out of the depot, and were escorted by these men into the Olympic building.
Immediately the men came out again, accompanied by Sharger. They wore deputy sheriffs' badges. Hailing me in his usual genial manner, Sharger introduced the whole group to me, one by one, as if this were a social function. They doffed their hats in acknowledgment. To my astonishment, they included most of Seattle's lead ing dress manufacturers, whose names I recognized because I had written to them.
"It seems strange to see all of you here," I said. "I had expected to meet you in conference.... But I'm even more surprised to find you acting as Sharger's vigilantes. He chisels on the workers, and now he doesn't even want to pay scab-herders! "
Then, in a more serious tone, I went on: "You may be deputized, gentlemen, and you may bring those people in and out if you like, but that won't settle this strike. Sooner or later, you'll have to come to terms with these workers. The union is here to stay, and the ILGWU never lost a strike yet. You'll remember us for a long time to come."
To us no strike is ever lost. Whatever the immediate outcome, we eventually win.
In accordance with NRA regulations, we formally notified the Regional Labor Board that all three shops were on strike, and asked for hearings.
All day we picketed the Olympic plant, our lines reinforced at noon and evening by the strikers' families. The closing hour arrived, but the non-strikers did not come out; they were afraid to leave that night. Their fears were of their own imagining, or perhaps of the employers' devising, for although our mass picketing had been lively, it had included no suggestion of violence.
Darkness found us still on the picket-line. Presently a big truck appeared, and a crew of rough-necks carried army cots, blankets, and food into the factory. This told its own story.
Bill Busick arrived from Los Angeles at 9, and marched with us until picketing ceased at midnight. I had telegraphed him to come so Jennie Matyas might return to San Francisco.
The non-strikers remained in the shop all week, being taken home Friday evening by hired gunmen who also had been deputized.
We had set up strike headquarters in the Labor Temple, and a commissary, where a committee was kept busy serving meals to the strikers and all who helped on the picket-lines. We fed them solid and filling hot food. A specimen menu for a week will indicate the thoughtfulness of the committee's planning: Monday: Chili beans, sandwiches, cheese, meat, lettuce, coffee.... Tuesday: Cream of tomato soup, sandwiches, farmer cheese with sweet relish, meat, let tuce, coffee.... Wednesday: Potato salad, sandwiches, salmon, deviled eggs, lettuce, coffee.. .. Thursday: Soup, sandwiches, meat, cheese, coffee.... Friday: fish, sandwiches, coffee.
Nourishing food is vital to the success of any strike. Picketing calls for energy; and in Seattle that spring we encountered much inclement weather. We had to face snow, raw winds, and frequent cold rains.
Our headquarters became a rendezvous for Seattle's union men and women. We held meetings daily, with prominent labor leaders as speakers, and thus added to the education of all who attended.
Supplementing the banners which the pickets carried, I made chest-bands for them, giving the name and address of each strikebound factory for the information of the public. The strikers wore these bands proudly wherever they went. One girl had a brilliant idea. She and several others, when relieved on the picket-lines, went daily to the shopping district and marched through the department stores, where the message on the chest-bands was seen by thousands of persons whose sympathy we needed.
Overnight these formerly subservient workers had changed radically. They had found themselves, had gained a new faith. They felt at last that the.= "belonged," as one of them expressed it.
"You know, Rose," said Hazel Vine, "before÷when I used to go to work, nobody noticed me, and nobody cared what happened tome. Now when I walk the street wearing this band, I hear people say: 'There's one of the garment strikers÷more power to them! They're putting up a splendid fight!' And I feel now that I know what I want."
* Fictitious names are used in this chapter for two of the firms involved in our strike, and also for individuals connected with them.
From : Anarchy Archives
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