Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 20 : 'Outside Agitators' Strive for Peace
(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.)
EDWARD F. MCGRADY, Assistant U. S. Secretary of Labor, had come to Akron by plane, spent two days in intensive conferences with company representatives and the strike committee, and departed on Friday, February 28. He left a recommendation with the committee that the strikers return to work and let the issues be settled by arbitration.
A meeting was scheduled for that evening in the strikers' hall. Around 8 o'clock Sherman Dalrymple, the rubber workers' international president, Frank Grillo, the secretary, Germer, Hapgood, and other leaders arrived. The strikers crowded in, anxious to know of the latest developments. From what I had seen and heard on the picket-lines, corroborated by the tenseness of feeling now, it was evident that some of the strikers were ready to do almost anything if the agreement reached with the company was not satisfactory.
Reporting on the negotiations, John House told of McGrady's recommendation, and to my surprise, announced that a vote on the proposal would be taken÷by secret ballot. Busy with the rank-andfile all day, I had not known that a ballot had been printed. There was an instant outburst of indignation, everybody talking at once.
Hastening to the platform, I grabbed the "mike," asking House in a whisper to let me finish the meeting. Then through the loudspeaker I said:
"Sorry, gentlemen, we'll have to postpone this matter until later. We have with us this evening a group of young people, members of a WPA acting company, who have come all the way from Cleveland to entertain us. They are working people and must return home immediately after their performance, so please clear the platform and let them proceed."
The crowd applauded and the show went on.
Taking the strike leaders into the office, I explained that it was a mistake to have brought up the McGrady proposal at all; that my observations had convinced me the rubber workers would not accept it. From years of experience with the Goodyear company, they knew that its policy in any conflict with labor was to haggle and stall, tire the workers out, and give them nothing in the end. This time, knowing they had the full backing of organized labor, the strikers were determined not to be bulldozed or cheated.
Tommy Burns, who had just come in from a conference, agreed with me, and the others quickly saw the point. Nothing more about the McGrady plan was said that night. After the WPA entertainers got through, we had a program of instrumental music and singing.
Next day, Saturday, more than 4,000 persons, including hundreds of women, crowded the Armory at the largest union mass-meeting in Akron history. Thousands stood outside.
Watching and greeting those who came in, I knew from their faces and comments what the outcome would be. They would not be satisfied with half-way measures.
Among the late arrivals was a slim, well-dressed young woman in a fur coat. "Will you please tell me where the deaf mutes are sitting?"
Not knowing there were any present, I repeated her question to a strike committeeman, who pointed to a section of the balcony where some two dozen men were seated. The young woman had come to interpret the speeches for them. Later, from my place on the platform, I looked up and saw her sitting on the balcony rail. She was busy "talking" to her own audience, who watched the movements of her right hand in sign language intently.
After the adjournment, I asked her how she happened to have that ability.
"Both my parents were deaf mutes," she replied' "and finger-talk was my first language. Now I listen for this group at meetings which interest them÷'lending my ears', I call it."
Gratuitously she performed a great service to men who otherwise would have been shut out from affairs important to their lives. They were part of a colony numbering about 1,000. Akron employers regarded deaf mutes as diligent and steady producers and had made a special appeal to employment agencies to recruit them. The colony has since increased to 5,000.
That morning the union had announced a recommendation by the strike committee "that the matter of calling a meeting to vote on the question of arbitration be held in abeyance until the strikers have had time to become fully informed on questions involved." Their legal rights under arbitration were to be shown in a brief being prepared by one of the union's attorneys, Judge Ernest E. Zesiger.
But it was clear from the temper of the Armory mass-meeting, of which President Dalrymple was chairman, that the rubber strikers were determined not to go back to work until they had a tangible and equitable agreement with the company. When the McGrady plan was mentioned, a great chorus shouted "No!" and thousands of voices began singing: No, No, a Thousand Times No, I'd Rather Be Dead Than a Scab!
Wilmer Tate, president of the Akron Central Labor Union, and member of the strike committee, was cheered to the echo when he assured the throng that his organization would stand solidly behind the Goodyear workers, and that the CLU would meet that night to plan unified action.
In the evening the Central Labor Union officially authorized the calling of a general strike of all Akron organized labor, if any move was made to reopen the Goodyear plant by force or if force was used to break the picket lines. Thus more than 100 unions were ready to walk out. That would tie up all the city's transportation and close scores of industrial plants.
A committee of non-strikers urged Governor Martin L. Davey to intervene. He telegraphed: "Believe very unwise to interfere."
Meanwhile, Mr. Litchfield and the Goodyear "loyal" employes remained in the plant. The company president, in radio broadcasts over a special telephone hookup, and in paid advertisements,.demanded that the "forces of law and order" remove the picket lines outside and reopen the plant gates. But they stayed closed. The pickets continued at their posts.
There were reports that when the food supply of the "prisoners" ran out, additional provisions were dropped from airplanes.
From my first day in Akron I saw that women would play a vital part in the strike, and perhaps even be a decisive factor in the settlement. True, women workers in the Goodyear factory were comparatively few, so the number of feminine strikers was not large. But mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of the striking men were there and we were getting important help, particularly in the commissary, from women employed in the Firestone and Goodrich plants.
These women were for the most part good looking and well groomed, with carefully manicured nails and permanent waves. Some of the younger ones might well have qualified as Powers models, so shapely were they.
When Germer appointed me as entertainment chairman, I had selected a dozen interested women to serve with me. In any long drawn-out strike, entertainment is vital, to keep the strikers from becoming discouraged or bored. The old Myles Royal theater, on the edge of the strike zone, was rented, and we began recruiting talent from among the rank-and-file, holding nightly performances.
A member of the entertainment committee, whose husband was a House of David Post picket, said to me:
"I know this theater well. Our Klan glee club used to meet here."
"Klan?" I echoed, with a poker face. "What Klan?"
"The Ku Klux Klan."
"What kind of an organization was that?" I asked, still without a smile.
"A social and educational society," she rejoined, in the manner of one explaining a local custom to an outsider.
When these impoverished people first came from the Southern mountain regions to Akron they brought with them their prejudices and superstitions, and fell easy prey to the dark forces which set out to mold their opinions. The Ku Klux Klan used them for its own purposes. Though the Klan had disintegrated, some beliefs it had planted among them still clung. We had to cope with these attitudes, and correct them where we could.
Once I deliberately ran full tilt into one of their aversions.
On a mean slushy day Hapgood, Skip Oharra, Ben Schafer, and I were visiting the picket posts.
As we entered one chanty the men began to laugh.
"We were just talking about you," a short man with heavy eyebrows said to me, "trying to figure out your nationality. Is it Spanish, Italian, or French?"
"None of those," I replied cheerfully, "I'm a full blooded Hebrew."
They were embarrassed; some looked stunned.
"Why are you so surprised?" I asked. "You probably thought all Jews were bankers, millionaires, exploiters, bloodsuckers. They're not. I'm a wage earner, like yourselves; and there are millions like me in the United States who work for a living."
Some of them had not known, they admitted, that Jews were industrial workers. They had heard that all big bankers were Jews, and that Jews owned all the big industries.
"Is Henry Ford a Jew?" Powers Hapgood put in. "Is Paul Litchfield a Jew? Or Harvey Firestone? Or J. P. Morgan? Or John D. Rockefeller?"
Our discussion went on at length. Before we left these men from the hills had a new attitude toward the subject and agreed that Jews and Gentiles alike needed strong organizations to back them in winning a living wage and decent working conditions. On subsequent visits to that post, I found the men there especially cordial.
At the entertainments, hill-billy songs were favored. There were excellent voices among both the men and women; and when they harmonized to the accompaniment of a guitar or banjo, Hollywood might well have taken notice.
To my delight, we quickly began to hear original lyrics set to old mountain music÷words applying pointedly to persons and events connected with the strike.
Sarah Gribble, one of the strikers, composed a parody on the popular refrain: She'll be Comin' 'Round the Mountain, celebrating the sheriff's discomfiture over the continued presence of the pickets at the Goodyear gates. I had its author sing it from the Armory platform, and her performance brought down the house. The audience rocked with laughter as she sang:
Flower'll be coming 'round the chanties, yes he will;
Flower'll be coming 'round the chanties, yes he will;
He'll be shiv'ring in his panties when he's coming 'round the chanties,
He'll be shiv'ring in his panties, yes he will.
Another favorite, sung with many variations by almost every crooner at our gatherings, was a sentimental ballad of a past decade:
You'll be nobody's darling,
Nobody's darling but mine.
Our entertainers were of all ages. Elderly fiddlers and accordionists played, men and women close to seventy took part in the oldtime dancing, displaying great agility, and young boys and girls gave us tap dancing, yodeling, and guitar music.
Ballads sung by the older people were plaintive, and they put a wealth of feeling into lines like these:
When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I'll bid farewell to ev'ry care
And dry my weeping eyes.
But for the most part the songs were high spirited and often amusing.
One afternoon while on my way to the last of the strike posts I saw a picket, in hunter's cap and jacket, standing on a railroad track which led to the big dirigible balloon hangar, then being used as a Goodyear warehouse. A freight train was heading toward the guarded break in the company's high wire fence. The picket flagged it down.
Railroad men got off the train and opened the doors of the cars. Other pickets, emerging from a nearby chanty, looked into the cars to make sure that no raw material was going into the plant.
Shooting the scene with my movie camera, I remarked to one of the railroad switchmen that it was like a frontier inspection of travelers somewhere in Europe.
"What does the railroad company think about trains being stopped like this?" I inquired.
"It hasn't said anything officially on the question," the switchman said. "But even if it did, that wouldn't make any difference to us. We're union men, too, and we wouldn't go against the strikers."
After two weeks President Litchfield ended his self-imprisonment in the plant, established headquarters in the Mayflower Hotel, and issued a public statement.
"The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company," he averred, "will not sign an agreement with the United Rubber Workers of America under any circumstances."
Before the day ended I learned why his endurance had broken down. Two of the strikers, both old-timers, one tall and scrawny, and the other short and squat, had stationed themselves under his office windows. Armed with a guitar, they sang for two hours straight a parody on Old McDonald Had a Farm:
"Old Man Litchfield had a shop, E-i, E-i, O!"
At the end of the two hours, the head of Goodyear couldn't take it any longer.
Early in March the Goodyear company union's publication, the Wingfoot Clan, came out with a full page attack on Germer, Krzycki, Hapgood, John Brophy, and myself, headed in big black letters: "OUTSIDE AGITATORS TAKE OVER STRIKE LEADERSHIP." Brophy, organizational director of the CIO, had lately arrived on the scene. Each of us was assailed in turn, and we amused ourselves by comparing the amount of space allotted to us. The company's adherents wouldn't admit that Powers Hapgood was "a real radical," because of his family and Harvard background, and insisted on classifying him as an "intellectual pink." Powers always regarded that as one of the most damaging things that could be said about a labor organizer.
"'Outside agitators are keeping Goodyear workers from their jobs,' spokesmen for the Goodyear Industrial Assembly charged late today," said the Times-Press on March 4. "Jesus of Nazareth also was considered an 'outside agitator'," Tommy Burns replied. In the union's radio broadcasts, one speaker after another hammered home these three sentences: "The two agitators in this strike were Good year hours and wages. They are native products. They are not imported from Moscow."
Meanwhile we "outsiders," accused of endeavoring to provoke violence, were straining to keep the situation peaceful. For here were strikers ripe for violent action. Goaded almost beyond endurance, they had stopped work as a last resort. The foundation of the strike was built up of a thousand indignities and resentments, abortive attempts at organization, memories of sellouts. Our job, therefore, was to keep hair-trigger tempers from going off. One inflammatory speech at the wrong moment÷and the result might easily be mob rule and bloodshed.
Leaflets we helped prepare were designed toward the same peaceful ends. One was headed: "RADIOGRAM: ALONG THE EASTERN FRONT." Edited by N. H. Eagle, president of the Mohawk local, this gave the day's strike news with this advice:
"Be orderly! Be peaceful! Be polite! Be sober! Our record is clean.... Let's keep this America's most peaceful and orderly strike."
But the opposition was aware of the men's tempers just as we were; and deliberate attempts were made to bring about the situation that we dreaded.
Rumors spread throughout Akron that Pearl Bergoff, America's No. I professional strike-breaker, had brought a train-load of finks ÷hired thugs÷from the East, and that they were held on a siding just outside of town, ready to come in at any moment. All the strikers were warned to be watchful of strangers, and to make every effort to avoid unnecessary trouble of any kind.
We challenged Mr. Litchfield's contention that the present strike was a local affair holding that wages, hours, and working conditions of Goodyear employes were rightfully the concern of union workers everywhere.
The company carried on an unceasing campaign to discredit the strike and besmirch its leaders. Page advertisements were liberally used, and radio broadcasts, statements by non-strikers declaring that they wanted to go back to work and were being prevented by "a lawless minority," demands for "enforcement of law and order," demands for state troops, and widespread whispering of disruptive rumors Even though the arguments of Goodyear and its partizans were often illogical or downright dishonest, it was not easy to counteract them.
Certainly we could not match the money the company was spending for newspaper space, radio time, and in less legitimate ways. The main thing we had to spend was ourselves, and this we did without stint.
Germer, Krzycki, Hapgood, Burns, Schafer, and I met frequently for hurried talks, compared notes, and spread out wherever the lines required tightening.
To fortify the strikers' cause, the committee wired to New York asking McAlister Coleman, ace labor publicity man, to come to Akron. Long active in behalf of labor, especially in the coal fields, his experience promised to be particularly valuable to the rubber workers. Graduating from Columbia University in 1909, he began newspaper work as a reporter on the New York Sun, and later covered strikes and trials for the New York World, made investigations for the American Civil Liberties Union, edited miners' papers, and wrote an excellent biography of Eugene V. Debs. "Mac" came quickly, and got busy at once, putting out effective news releases on each day's developments, and devising action to create news if at any time it was lacking. A tireless worker, he was an agreeable addition to the scene.
There were daily meetings in strike headquarters, mass meetings in the Akron Armory, and the members of our committee spoke to various gatherings around town÷the Central Labor Union, individual unions comprising many trades, consumer groups, women's clubs, students, and others. Leo Krzycki was a convincing speaker, logical, simple in utterance, illustrating his talks with odd humor, making the strikers hold their sides laughing. Powers Hapgood, more somber, and clean-cut in his statements, used his talents to advantage in speeches to any audience that he was called upon to address. Germer, dean of the committee, had to be always on hand, for any emergency. Ben Schafer fitted in wherever he was needed.
Systematic personal contact with the strikers and their families was carried on, as the best method of keeping the strike lines intact, and of allaying any misgivings that might arise among the rank-and-file because of the company's sniping at us. Above all, it was vital that they be reminded often that they were not alone in this fight. Following the McGrady fiasco, the negotiators were in conferences for days, apparently making no progress. Our job was now doubly difficult. With no tangible assurances to offer, we had the problem of keeping the strikers optimistic without lessening their militancy.
When the conferees were deadlocked, gloom and unrest spread along the picket-lines. One could easily read the thoughts of the men in the posts: ". . . No wages coming in . . . rent to pay . ., gas and electric bills . . . a payment due on my car . . . how long can I hold out?"
It was then that my movie camera proved its worth. It gave me entree anywhere; everybody wanted to pose. At first I had been joshed about it. But after my first picture shot had been developed and I had shown it with a projector, the union leaders realized that this could be a potent factor in the strike. Ordering several hundred feet of film, the strike committee encouraged me to take as many action shots as possible. Later these were provided with titles and spliced into a composite strip of 1,000 feet, of which a duplicate was made, the URWA retaining one copy, and I the other.
In my speeches, whenever the point was timely, I explained how our union and others had been built up from a mere handful of members. And all of the CIO spokesmen invariably voiced unbounded confidence in victory for the strikers.
Aggressive campaigning to organize the other rubber factories, notably Goodrich and Firestone, where many women were employed, was carried on by the union. We organizers met with these prospective recruits, who came from all three shifts, and gradually they were lined up in the URWA. With our aid, some 2,000 members, 20 per cent of them women, were enrolled in the Firestone local. L. S. Buckmaster, native of Indiana, was its president, with Tom Owens as secretary, and E. H. (Jack) Little as treasurer. Owens, credited with being a descendant of Robert Owen, the British social reformer, was born in South Wales, where he worked as a coal miner from the age of 10. Coming to this country as a young man, he had dug coal in Indiana and Illinois mines. L. L. Callahan was president of the Goodrich local. All these men worked steadfastl y to build up their ranks and to assure increasin g aid to the Goodyear strikers.
One Sunday hundreds of the new members gathered in the Perkins high school auditoriu m to take the "obligati on" to the union. I was invited to address them. President Dalrympl e asked both the old and new members to stand up, and with right hands on their hearts they repeated: "I solemnly pledge . . ."
That ceremony has never failed to stir me deeply.
From : Anarchy Archives
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