Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 16 : Out on a Limb in Seattle

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(1896 - 1965) ~ Anarchist, Feminist Organizer and ILGWU Leader : 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.)


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Chapter 16

Rose Pesotta

Bread upon the Waters


Out on a Limb in Seattle

In other cities a small strike against three minor firms, involving no more than a hundred workers, would have attracted little attention. But in Seattle it aroused a tempest. The employers yelled blue murder. I was amazed at the speed with which the whole anti-union machinery of the city was set in motion against us.

Large advertisements appeared in the daily press, frequently occupying a full page, attacking the ILGWU and giving false information. Signed either by 19 employers or by an anonymous "Citizens' Committee of 500," these ads bore arresting headlines, like: Even Dillinger Never Harmed a Child.... We Are Victims of a Handful of Radicals.... The 'Strike Baby' is on Your Doorstep Again and This Time It's Quintuplets.'

"Ideal conditions" had existed in Seattle dress factories for 20 years, the employers blandly averred. Feinberg and I were described as "persons with communistic backgrounds who have been sent to Seattle and are attempting to disrupt these conditions." Our strike was linked in the publicity with four other strikes÷oil tankers, food distribution, flour milling, and wood box manufacture.

The Committee of 500 panhandled business men throughout the community to pay for those advertisements. Some of the smaller merchants, however, were sympathetic toward us and refused to contribute to the union-busting fund. We showed up the misstatements of the committee in detailed articles in the labor press and in widely circulated leaflets. We charged that it comprised less than 50 members, instead of 500, and that it was an offspring of the Chamber of Commerce.

Lawyers for the Olympic company got from Superior Court Judge Malcolm Douglas, ostensibly in behalf of 23 of its employees, a temporary injunction against our union, its officers, organizers, and members.

This was of course a challenge. We did not stop the picketing, but intensified it. Eight days later we went into court to answer a "show cause" order. We contended that we had been acting within our legal rights in our methods of calling public attention to the strike. Judge Roger Meakim agreed with us and dissolved the injunction.

Late in March we learned that Nelly Dwyer and Sharger were willing to "look over" our proposed agreement, and we sent each another copy. But nothing came of this, because of pressure from the larger crowd behind them. Early in April we held a conference with both, and their attorneys, who objected to everything we suggested. We offered to submit the whole case to arbitration, but again they said no.

While the temporary restraining order hung over our heads, there had been some colorful excitement at the Nelly Dwyer factory. Mrs. Dwyer spent much of her time out in front arguing with the pickets. One sunny morning half a dozen over-ripe tomatoes were thrown from a crowd of onlookers across the street. and one landed on Mrs. Dwyer's cheek.

Standing near, I saw the tomato reach its target. As I was about to express regret, she pointed me out to a policeman and demanded my arrest. With obvious reluctance, he took me into custody.

The gratifying news spread quickly to every dress factory; at last they had got the "outside agitator" who had caused all their troubles At the police station I was questioned, photographed, finger. printed, and placed in a cell. I asked for breakfast and newspapers. The noon editions carried statements that I was to be deported.

But early that afternoon I was released without having been booked on any charge. I hastened to the Olympic picket line, where the girls hailed me joyfully. Some of the thugs on guard had glee fully told the pickets that I would be sent out of the country. Later they admitted sadly, "It's no use. She's been naturalized. We can't deport her."

Several weeks later a picket arrested at the same time as I, Mrs. Mary O'Brien, 58, was fined $5 on a charge of throwing the tomato which struck Mrs. Dwyer. She denied the charge, telling the judge "it appeared as if tomatoes came out of the sky." I learned that the son of one of the strikers, an excellent baseball player, was the culprit.

Statistics published by the "Committee of 500" varied widely. Once it said we had come in to organize 1,500 garment workers, and again it said 2,200. Our chief aim, it asserted in an ad headed Tomatoes, Strikes, and Paid Lady Agitators, was to collect 25 cents a week dues from the supposed 2,200, which would mean $28,600 a year. "Probably," this masked group said, "the Seattle women would spend this $28,600 for food and clothes for themselves, their babies, and their dependent families. And probably the officers of the Lady Garment Workers in New York would spend it traveling around the country and throwing tomatoes at women and girls in other cities."

Actually, we pointed out, there were only about 1,000 workers in the local cotton dress industry, with which we were concerned.

Not only were we being fought by the whole Seattle Chamber of Commerce crowd, but the employers in the dress field now had nation-wide backing. All over the country the National Cotton Dress Manufacturers' Association was strenuously resisting every attempt to organize legitimate unions, and its members were widely violating the NRA Code.

In each Seattle garment factory a mimeographed notice was posted, assailing the ILGWU as "a proponent of revolution through the general strike," and harking back to the red-baiting Lusk Report of 1919. One device of the employers was to charge me, as the prime mover in the organization campaign, with all sorts of offenses. They did not do this openly, but by means of a whispering campaign, designed to sow distrust and dissension in the dressmakers' union.

Hearings of these whispers, I was far from comfortable: there was no telling to what lengths the employers would go.

One evening when I was alone in my apartment the phone rang, and a man introduced himself as a friend of an ILGWU officer in Chicago. He was visiting in Seattle and wanted to meet me. Might he call that evening?

I said I'd meet him in the lobby of the Spring Apartments. Then he explained that he would be in disguise, with a brown beard, and would wear a red carnation I Of course I did not keep the appointmeet. And we warned the girls on the picket-lines and at meeting' to beware of strangers.

By this time the local labor movement had begun to sit up and take notice of what we were doing. Compared with general practice in Seattle, we were moving rapidly, conducting a militant strike and educating numberless workers by our example. Seatlle unionists were surprised to hear that the ILGWU often settled important general strikes in a few days. They sadly remembered picketing which went on and on until it lost all its fire and became treadmill routine.

After weeks on the picket-lines the strikers, all women, had be come robust and gained healthy complexions. Their spirit was excellent and they were getting valuable education.

I had trained a dozen or more of the younger ones to make smooth short speeches, so that whenever a request came from women's clubs church sewing circles, labor unions, or other groups for information about the strike, these girls could present our case convincingly.

The garment employers organized "shop unions" or "guilds," as they chose to call their company unions. Workers were given the choice of signing yellow-dog contracts or losing their jobs. Many who signed came to us afterwards to express regret. They dared not: refuse for fear of being thrown on relief again. Paradoxically they expected us÷a handful of strikers outside÷to win while they were working inside, helping the employers in their efforts to break the strike.

Acting on our complaint, the NRA's Regional Labor Board held hearings late in April on both the Dwyer and Olympic strikes. Testimony was heard by a panel comprising Judge Roscoe R. Smith, chairman, and Max Silver and Harry Listman, respectively repre- sensing industry and labor. We were given a favorable decision, the board ruling that our union had a majority in both shops, that we had a right to bargain for the employees, and that the companies had violated Section 7-a of the Code. But the employers refused to abide by that decision, and the case was referred to the National Labor Board in Washington.

New workers were steadily taken into the three factories, the em- ployers figuring they would have a majority if an election were ordered. Their attorneys had not advised them that only employees working on the eve of the strike would be eligible to vote.

The charges of chiseling filed against Rosenfeld Brothers had been found correct, and the National Labor Board ordered the firm to pay $2,800 in back wages and reinstate those discharged for union activities. Elated, I pinned all my hopes on the board's forthcoming decision in the Dwyer-Olympic conflict. Around the 20th I had word from Washington that our case would come up shortly. Knowing how strong that case was, I had every expectation that the decision would be in our favor.

But at noon on May 27 newsboys were crying extras: "NRA decided unconstitutional/" The United States Supreme Court had so ruled.

The National Industrial Recovery Act, passed by Congress on June 13, 1933, had been designed "to remove obstructions to the free flow of interstate and foreign commerce . . ., to induce and maintain united action of labor and management under adequate governmental . . . supervisions, to eliminate unfair competitive practices, to promote the fullest possible utilization of the present productive capacity of industries, . . . to increase the consumption of industrial and agricultural products by increasing purchasing power, to reduce and relieve unemployment, to improve standards of labor, and otherwise to rehabilitate industry . . ."

Employers all over the country defied the NRA. They seized upon a loophole in Section 7-a, which did not clearly define the right of workers to belong to labor unions of their own choosing, and many of them fostered company unions.

Curiously enough, the big corporations avoided making a test case of this law. It remained for an obscure firm of poultry merchants in Brooklyn, New York, the Schecter family, to make that test. Whether the Schecter Company was used as a cat's paw or served the big fellows accidentally, is beside the point.

The Schecters were convicted of violating the Poultry Code. One count was that they had sold poultry without proper inspection; another that they had delivered an unfit dead chicken to a butcher. Carrying an appeal to the highest tribunal, they contended that theywere not engaged in interstate commerce, and that accordingly this federal law could not be applied to them. The Supreme Court ruled that the attempt, through the Code, to fix wages and hours of the employees of the Schecters in their intra-state business was not a valid exercise of federal power; and that the Code system had been adopted pursuant to an unconstitutional delegation by Congress of legislative authority, which transgressed the doctrine of States' Rights.

One result of all this was that we in Seattle were caught out on a limb.

The time difference between Washington, D.C., and the West Coast is three hours. In the East the news that the NRA had been ruled void came in mid-afternoon. Employers there made no immediate move to change the status of their working forces. But in Seattle some of the manufacturers told their employees at lunch-time, within the hour after the news flash on the Supreme Court's action, that they would return at once to pre-NRA schedules÷longer hours, with wages to remain as they were. And by the time the Wagner bill was introduced in Congress as a substitute for the Codes, local manufacturers were widely cutting wages and increasing hours.

Our general executive board, meeting in Philadelphia, assailed the demolition of the Industrial Recovery Act. President Dubinsky stamped it as "a great victory for big business and the reactionary forces of America," and announced that he was asking the board to set aside $250,000 for strikes in the cotton dress industry.

"The NRA is no more," he said in a radio address. "There remains only one kind of protection, and one dependable force to which the workers can turn, and that is their organization, their trade union movement with its irresistible weapon of the strike! "

We prepared for a long siege in Seattle.

How could we settle the strike on our own ? How could we contrive to meet, on an equitable basis, with the three employers who fronted the fight against us? They were a curious trio, each far apart from the other two, except for their present bond of sympathy÷Nelly Dwyer, rolling her eyes and calling on Heaven to witness the goodness of her motives; Sharger, athletic, jovial, joking with the girls; Ted Rosenfeld, formerly operating necktie factories in New York and St. Louis, and forced out of those cities because of his opposition to unions. Complaining of this once to our pickets, he said: "Where am I to go next?" One of them snapped back: "Why not Puget Sound ?"

Calling the membership together, I explained what the Supreme Court decision meant. Urging them to keep unbroken ranks, I promised that the International would never fail them.

Our strike was entering its fourth month, and the pickets needed a chance to relax. So I arranged to have each take a week's vacation, her regular strike benefit being paid. Some were released when they found employment elsewhere, but several married women, whose husbands were now making good wages, decided to remain on the picket-lines. I dispatched Violet Daniels, one of the Nelly Dwyer girls, to the Summer School for Workers in Berkeley, California, with the hope that this would lead to her becoming more active in the local. The others I managed to keep interested in our educational, social, and recreational activities.

Early in June, new and shady tactics were used in attempts to discredit our strike. One morning we arrived at the Nelly Dwyer shop to find many windows broken. We were told that a time bomb had been exploded inside. Then we heard that another bomb had been thrown through a window of the Rosenfeld plant, but had failed to explode. Later there was an "unsuccessful" bombing at the home of Mr. Carson, the Olympic president.

The Committee of 500 came out with more big ads, making no direct charges, but implying that all this was part of a "ruthless warfare" brought about by "radical agitators."

We refused to be disturbed, pointing out to inquirers that in many strikes thugs hired as "guards" set off dynamite in the night to prove the necessity for their continued employment. Even the police were skeptical now and did not arrest a single suspect.

The local in Portland, 195 miles away, displayed keen interest in our doings. Occasionally Clifford Mayer and Manly Labby visited Seattle, and we in turn sent groups to Portland. During one suchtrip there, at a social gathering, I was told some woes by a member whom I had met only a few minutes before. "Sister Pesotta," she said, "you simply can't trust these Jews. Our chairman is one of them," and she went on detailing his misdeeds. "I hope you are not a Jew! " she concluded.

"I certainly am! " I answered.

Red-faced, she tried to apologize. To put her at ease and to set her mind straight I gave her a short lecture. "Please don't feel that you owe me any apology," I said. "I understand your feeling, and it's quite possible your chairman acted wrongly. But don't think he did it because he is Jewish; that doesn't always follow.... Let me cite another instance÷that of your former manager, Ernest Leonitti, who betrayed you."

I reminded her of what he had done. A member of her local, Leonitti had served a year as its manager.

But at the last election he had been defeated by Clifford Mayer, and almost immediately accepted a job as personnel manager in one of the big factories. His first act in his new capacity was to change the system there from week-work to piece-work÷a change the union had tried for months to prevent.

"You know," I went on, "that Leonitti prides himself on being a good Catholic. Would you advise me, as a Jew, to say, that it was because he was a Catholic that he betrayed your cause?"

She mumbled something in answer and continued her apologies, promising never again to be so narrow in her viewpoint.

Though Rosenfeld Brothers, the necktie manufacturers, declined to hold any official conferences with us, Ted Rosenfeld, the firm's secretary-treasurer, frequently talked with some of the strikers. They had been the first to walk out on a cold rainy March day, and now in July they sunned themselves leisurely on the factory's green lawn as they picketed.

Once Rosenfeld asked: "How long are you going to keep this up? Don't you ever intend to return to work?" Whereupon one of the women answered: "Our International is rich. The union pays us every week, and it's going to pay us as long as you operate a scab shoe. So why should we worry ? We'll leave all the worrying to you."

After fourteen weeks the heads of the firm apparently realized that they didn't belong with the cotton garment group, and were helping fight other people's battles. In a heart-to-heart talk with Ted Rosenfeld, we convinced him that it was time he did something for himself.

He agreed to sign a contract, on one condition÷that the two copies of it be placed in escrow. This meant turning these over to a third party, trusted by both sides, who would put them in a safe deposit vault. I was satisfied that no matter where the contract might be, there was no danger of the old conditions being reestablished in the Rosenfeld factory; for after four months of education on the picketline, our strikers knew their business.

So the agreement was signed, and the strike declared off. Most of our demands had been granted. With one conflict cleared, we strained anew to settle the other two strikes. We were sure that Nelly Dwyer and Sharger were thoroughly sick of the fight. Likely they would have signed with us then if they had not been "hog-tied" by their connection with the Associated Industries and the National Cotton Dress Manufacturers' Association.

Meanwhile the season drew to an end. Most of the dress shops already had closed for the summer, and these two also ceased operations.

Now my troubles were intensified. Worried strikers were fearful that they would never get jobs again at their trade. Whispers were spread around town that the strike bound firms would settle if the union leaders were local instead of outsiders.

I realized that my presence no longer had any value, and explained the situation in letters to my home office and Pacific Coast Director Feinberg, who agreed it might be well for me to retire from the scene. Accordingly I went on a vacation late in June, boarding the S. S. Ruth Alexander for San Francisco and Los Angeles. En route I spent a stimulating day at the Summer School for Workers in Berkeley, where several of our union members, from the four large West Coast cities, were in attendance. Among these, beside VioletDaniels, were ever-young Helen Richter and Julia Huselton from Los Angeles.

Concerts in the Hollywood Bowl helped me forget the turmoil I had recently been through. And on one unforgettable day I witnessed the dedication of the Sigman-Schlesinger memorial library at the Los Angeles Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Duarte, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre range. This had been erected in memory of two late presidents of the International, Morris Sigman and Benjamin Schlesinger. Refreshed and sun-tanned, I returned to Seattle after three weeks' absence, and found that Dorothy Enright and Harold Hibbard had carried out instructions to the letter. I went at once to greet the pickets at both factories.

Nelly Dwyer now appeared in a mood to settle, and we submitted a tentative agreement to her. She objected to parts of it, saying she preferred to write her own contract. We felt that she was simply stalling for more time.

As days passed with nothing achieved, and no end to the whispering campaign, I saw it was time for me to make a final exit. The employers would then have no legitimate excuse for not settling with the union. So on August 1, I bade my friends and coworkers goodbye and departed for the East. Local affairs were left in the hands of Rosenberg and Glazer, Dorothy, and Harold. Feinberg had promised to make periodic trips to Seattle and do all he could to facilitate a settlement.

My last evening in Seattle was spent at a Central Labor Council meeting, where tributes and farewells were exchanged. I contended that while we had not won our strike, neither had we lost it. The local dress manufacturers would long remember our picketing, I maintained, and they'd never want another walkout. After I left, the strike gradually petered out, and the women and girls on the picket-lines drifted back into the shops.... But they were no longer meek. They had learned to speak out against injustice and stand up for their rights. Six years later Local 184 acquired new strength, reasserted itself, and won a two-year collective agreement with the Pacific Northwest Association of Needlecraft Manufacturers, which contained almost all the provisions we asked for in 1935. This agreement was signed by practically all the men who escorted the scabs into the Olympic plant on that memorable morning. By that time, however, the Olympic company was out of business.

From : Anarchy Archives


November 30, 1944 :
Chapter 16 -- Publication.

February 09, 2017 16:02:31 :
Chapter 16 -- Added to

March 15, 2020 09:20:10 :
Chapter 16 -- Last Updated on


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