Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 26 : Union Fights Union in Cleveland
(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.)
THERE WAS A LONG raw scar on Louis Friend's right cheek. It worried me as he and others met my plane at the Cleveland airport. He had been slashed with a knife eight days earlier when a back-to-work flying wedge had forced the reopening of the Stone Knitting Mills in the face of our strike. This followed a surprise announcement that the company had signed a "contract" with another union, led by Coleman Claherty, an A F of L organizer, who, cutting across our jurisdiction, had formed federal locals in each of the four struck knit-wear factories.
Riding downtown with Friend in his car, I heard what had been happening in Cleveland:
"We've been having a tough time," he said. "I'm happy you could come."
Claherty, who had been ousted by the rubber workers in Akron, had arrived in town that spring in the hope of finding a new berth for himself. Also there was a disgruntled woman formerly connected with our union, who was looking for an emotional outlet, and a place for herself. Both had gravitated to the knit-wear field, in which our people were conducting a campaign, with more than 1,000 members enrolled.
In the previous August the A F of L had suspended our International for giving active support to the Committee for Industrial Organization's drive to unionize unskilled mass-production workers. In February, 1937, our Ohio manager, Vise-President Abraham Katovsky, whose headquarters were in Cleveland, was waylaid by a gang at night, terribly beaten, and left half-dead. For months he had battled for his life in a hospital, and now was convalescing in Bermuda.
During the big New York general dress strike in 1933, various knitwear mills became involved, and a special local, No. 155, was formed to take care of their needs. Later the ILGWU and the United Textile Workers Union reached a pact of mutual co-operation in that field. A Joint Council was formed to supervise the signing of agreements for the whole knitwear industry, with Louis Nelson, manager of Local 155, as one of its prime movers.
In Cleveland, committees from knit-mills came to Abe Katovsky pleading for help. He issued circulars and was ready to begin enrolling these workers in the union, when a representative of the Textile Workers' Union brought in a woman, Lexie Waites, introduced her as the TWU secretary and recommended her highly as an organizer. After she had been active a few months in Katovsky's office, he found himself surrounded with spies and dropped the entire matter. But some of the knitwear workers remained with the union.
Later Lexie Waites became critically ill. Close to death, she signed an affidavit on March 12,1936, confessing that she had been planted in the union as a spy by Philip and Ferd Frankel, attorneys for the Cleveland Knitted Outerwear Association.1 With advance notice of the union's intentions, the employers had been able, in previous years, to thwart attempts at unionization.
At this time the Textile Workers' Organizing Committee organized by the Committee for Industrial Organization, began to invade our territory, ignoring the pact of mutual co-operation between the ILGWU and the Textile Workers' Union. It became too complicated to explain to the workers the difficulties involved, and our union made repeated protests to the CIO. At our Atlantic City convention in 1937, John L. Lewis, then head of the CIO, said in a speech: "As to the knit goods and yarn, you can write your own ticket." But even after this statement, conferences between the TWOC leadership and ours were of no avail.
In Cleveland, while Abraham Katovsky hovered between life and death in a hospital, organization among the knitwear workers was going on peacefully, but the TWOC organizers continued to raid mills where the employes were already enrolled in our union.
Attorneys Philip and Ferd Frankel, seeing that they were now getting involved with the CIO also; called in the Claherty crowd and promised to hand over the whole Cleveland knitting industry to the A F of L on condition that separate federal locals for each mill would be formed. These they hoped later to convert into company controlled unions.
The situation had become so hot that the TWOC withdrew from the scene.
Sometime in the spring of 1937 groups of knitwear workers from four mills came breathlessly to our office, each with the same story. The foreladies in those mills had directed all the employes to step down to the lunch room, where they found several men, who introduced themselves as A F of L organizers. These men urged them to join "a real union affiliated with the A F of L and not a CIO Communist union like the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. That's nothing but a Jew-union dominated by Moscow." And they announced that they had already signed contracts with the mills covering all those employed there. None of the workers had been consulted about it.
Quick action by the ILGWU was necessary, the season being nearly over. The first mill was struck on June 11, and within two weeks all four factories were shut tight. At once our union brought its case before the National Labor Relations Board, claiming a majority of members and the right to bargain collectively for them. While it awaited a hearing Claherty, with a gang of thugs, attempted to reopen the Stone Knitting Mills. They were repulsed by 150 pickets.
Several days later they came better prepared--the thugs armed with blackjacks, and aided by 14 police on horseback and 80 cops on foot, the cops carrying nightsticks. The mounted police tried to clear the way for the entry of a group of strike-breakers by riding their horses through the picket-line. A bloody riot followed, 120 persons being injured. Women pickets, swept inside and up a stairway in the stampede, were thrown down the stairs as soon as their presence was discovered, and many girls were mercilessly clubbed by the thugs and the cops. Knifed in the face, Louis Friend was knocked unconscious. Some of the wounded were treated by nearby doctors, and others were sent to hospitals.
The Stone factory was reopened with a skeleton crew of "loyal" workers--the office staff, the foremen and foreladies, with some of their favorites, and former seasonal employes.
Now Claherty and his crowd were threatening to reopen the other three plants the next Monday. We would have to think fast
Enroute downtown, we stopped at the Federal Knitting Mills. Its eight entrances were stoutly guarded by our pickets, three shifts being on duty daily, 160 on each eight-hour detail. We looked in, too, at the Federal strikers' kitchen, where hot appetizing food, Hungarian style, was ready day and night.
I registered at the Hollenden Hotel, and went on to the union office, where the local leaders were busy with strike problems. There I found myself, in spite of their misfortune, in a congenial, wholesome atmosphere.
Vise-President Charles Kreindler had arrived on the day of the opening of the Stone factory, sent for the emergency by Dubinsky. Originally a Cleveland cloak cutter, he had headed our organization there for years. More recently, he had been in charge in Baltimore, as well as manager of Waistmakers' Local 25 in New York. About 50, tall and dark-haired, his brotherly attitude was a comfort to all of us.
Nathan Solomon, a former cloakmaker, now secretary of the Cleveland Joint Board, had assumed full charge there in Katovsky's absence. Louis Friend, bulky, carelessly dressed, and looking like an Irishman, with his wavy red hair, divided his time between the picket lines and his usual routine as business agent. His good nature brightened the strike scene.
Emil De Leo, clean-cut young Italian knitter from Pennsylvania, who was one of our NRA fledgling organizers, on the staff of Knitwear Local 155 in Brooklyn, had been lent to Cleveland for the duration of the strike. He proved a distinct asset. Tall, slim, and invariably with a red rose-bud in his lapel, De Leo has an agreeable voice and sparkling eyes that no young girl could miss.
Bernadine McGruder, young teacher, who had been on the WPA educational staff here, was local educational director for the union. She cruised in her flivver from one struck mill to another, looking after the special needs of the women and girls, cheering them with her contagious Irish humor. She saw that unpaid bills were cared for, took strikers who were ill to doctors, made sure their children attended school regularly, and did the purchasing for the commissary. Angie Bykowski, our Polish organizer, a husky, blond girl, gave unfailing attention to the newly organized knitters.
The joint board's office staff--Ruth Ashenfarb, Sophie Chait, Florence Fleisher, and Betty Weber, a Stone worker, were unsparing of their energies. Beside their regular routine, they put in long hours at extra typing, mimeographing, and anything else needed. Often on duty nights, Sundays, and holidays, they felt that victory for the knit-goods workers would benefit all.
More than 2,000 workers, chiefly girls and women, were out in this strike. For the most part, they were immigrants, or children or grand-children of foreigners--Serbians, Slovenians, Polish, Hungarians, Austrians, Macedonians, Italians, Bulgarians, Germans, Ukrainians--in fact, they included a sprinkling of every mid-European and Balkan nation. The peasant faces of the elder women and men were grim and worn with toil. They had long worked for a bare subsistence wage, and there was no mistaking their feelings toward strikebreakers and the gouging habits of the employers.
Some of the older ones had worked in the mills more than 30 years. Of Hungarian birth, the owners had employed their co-nationals from the beginning. And like the Chinese in San Francisco, the workers had regarded their bosses as benefactors. When told that wages were low because "times are bad," they had trusted these men from their own land, not knowing that their employers continued to make ample profits.
All four factories had a large labor turnover. Inefficient and uneconomical from a standpoint of production, such a turnover was desirable for these mill owners, as it long had been for the big automobile companies. Labor surplus spelled insulation against labor troubles; if there was always a big reserve of idle workers to call upon, those in the plants would not "get too cocky" about wages and shop conditions.
I had brought a substantial check with me from New York, which enabled the strike committee to increase its cash relief allotments to needy strikers. We had to provide food for families; help pay rent, in some instances to avoid eviction; cover bills for electricity or gas, turned off for nonpayment; pay installments on cars, which would be seized if the purchaser defaulted; and even make payments on mortgages to avert foreclosures on homes.
Late that afternoon Julius Hochman, one of my fellow vise-presidents and general manager of the New York Dressmakers' Joint Board, also arrived. In the evening we addressed a mass-meeting, at which the strikers, crowding the Public Auditorium ballroom, made clear their determination to win.
While our office was downtown, on East 12th Street, the four strike-bound factories were in four widely scattered parts of Cleveland Thus it was necessary to establish temporary quarters near each mill, where the strikers could hold their meetings, relax between shifts and eat.
For the Federal, Stone, and Bamberger contingents we rented small vacant stores, while the Stone strikers also were invited by a Negro pastor to meet in his church. Near the Friedman factory a militant woman striker turned her house over to us for the duration. A Serbian priest, too, let us use his church as a gathering place.
The strike commissary was set up in the Hungarian Social Hall, several blocks from the Federal mill. In a well-equipped kitchen, squads of women strikers prepared food, which was delivered in cars to the four picket-lines. Thought of those tasty dishes makes me hungry even now--hot soups, with piquant flavor, Hungarian goulash, home-made sausage, produced dexterously with curious gadgets and broiled to a turn, big loaves of health bread. Soft drinks and coffee were added. On that fare I gained ten pounds that summer.
Rose Topercer, a bright little Hungarian girl, was the chairlady of our Bamberger members, with Anna Rains as her assistant. Tall Catherine Ziegler headed the Federal group, with Leona Wolfe as her aide. Nick Hayden, a Serb, was chairman at the Friedman scene. Beatrice Schreiber was chairlady of the Stone group.
Because the local people had had no experience in conducting a strike of this size and seriousness, and the union offices were so far away, we decided to station an organizer at each plant to assist them, and to keep up the strikers' morale.
De Leo was assigned to the Bamberger situation, Marie Duke, organizer from New York, to the Stone mill, Bernadine McGruder to Friedman-Blau, while I went to the Federal factory. Daily also Bernadine and I spoke at meetings of all four groups.
Early on Monday, July 12, I was in front of the Federal knitting mill on Detroit Street, which ends about a block away from that point. Headquarters for the Federal strikers were in a vacant store= building diagonally across from the factory, which was on a corner of a car-line intersection. Directly opposite strike headquarters was the Eighth Precinct police station, its front facing the mill. The strikers gathered on the sidewalk, waiting anxiously, but the police had driven us off to the far end of the street.
Presently a small group of men appeared around a corner half a block away. They were quickly recognized by some of our people as those who had urged them to join the A F of L union. Then a squad of police with several dozen other men, and perhaps a hundred women, hove in sight, the civilians wearing big A F of L buttons. They headed straight for the main entrance of the mill, with another police squad behind them. The factory doors swung open, and the strikebreakers marched in. Some were brazen, but some looked shame-faced as they heard a din of jeering shouts in a dozen languages from the strikers who had been roped off and held at a distance by mounted police.
"Back-to-work" processions also forced the opening that day of the Friedman-Blau-Farber and Bamberger-Reinthal factories, where our organizers and pickets faced similar groups of thugs and "loyal employes" wearing the large A F of L buttons. Many of these, the strikers told me, had never worked in those plants.
When the four factories were shut down, the workers now on strike had refused to return until the mill owners signed a collective agreement with our Joint Board. The management then turned over their voluminous lists of reserve peak-season workers to the Claherty group, which sent letters and telegrams to all, promising them steady jobs under its so-called "union-agreements" with the owners.
All day on Monday, mass picketing continued. Late that afternoon the strikebreakers were escorted out of the mills. Our pickets were handled roughly by the cops and I made a protest.
Next morning the Federal mill strikers, except for six pickets permitted in front of the main entrance, were kept nearly two blocks away by a cordon of mounted police, while the "loyal" employes were conducted inside.
I had asked William J. Corrigan, our attorney, to be on hand to observe the hard-handedness of "the law." So he was among the pickets as they were pushed around.
When he protested, he was instantly arrested, and so was I. As we were led through the street toward the station, I saw Captain Edward Flanagan, precinct commander, motioning to the two policemen to turn us loose. But they failed to notice his gestures. We could hear a great outcry of voices from hundreds of strikers, indignant at our arrest.
In a few minutes reporters and press photographers hurried in, and stories and pictures appeared in the Cleveland afternoon dailies. Corrigan pointed out that the police had no right to arrest us, for we had not violated any law. Earlier he had informed Mayor Burton that the police had acted illegally in limiting the strikers to six pickets at the Federal plant, and that the union would immediately begin legal action to remove that ban. After an hour we were released, without being booked on any charge.
Reading some of the press reports published before my arrival, I learned that Thomas A. Lenehan, secretary of the Cleveland Federation of Labor, had given active support to the anti-union employers. He had helped reopen the struck plants, mobilizing members of the building and metal trades, teamsters, gasoline station operators, and other unions.
Soon after the Stone factory was reopened and our members beaten and slashed, Lenehan boasted that his organization had "got a lot of co-operation from the police, which we never received before. I was surprised at their courteous treatment; we've been used to being the bad guy. We'll continue our fight in spite of newspaper criticism."
The paradox in all this was the inconsistent attitude of top A F of L officials. For years they had denounced company unions as dummies used to defeat organization by the Federation. But when our leaders protested against A F of L organizers holding meetings on company property, charging that they were now fostering company unions, their reply was characteristic of that period: "Those workers chose to remain with their mother organization." They spoke as if some of the "loyal" employes had not fought this "mother organization" two years earlier--when the ILGWU was still within its ranks.
I was puzzled at first by the attitude of the A F of L officials here, for even after the suspension of the ILGWU from the Federation, its local executives had continued to be friendly to our people everywhere.
Introduced in the Hollenden lobby, by Kreindler, who had known these men for many years, I said to one of them:
"So this is what you fellows are doing now--giving aid and comfort to labor's enemies I You know that bunch never wanted their mills organized. Yet now you help them against our union, and you even hire thugs to slug our women--"
"You can blame your own crowd for this."
"What did you expect, after those leaflets attacking us?"
That was new to me, and he explained. Early in the strike some leaflets had been issued in which verbal brickbats were hurled at the Federation. One of these boasted: "We'll dump the A F of L into Lake Erie."
"We'll show 'em I " Federation leaders replied.
I looked up the leaflets which had boomeranged with such velocity, and found that, in the feverish early days of the strike, the copy for it had been written by a young and confused outside volunteer, and was used in Katovsky's absence.
Certain A F of L union heads in Cleveland, however, were exceedingly uncomfortable over the part played by some of their fellows in the reopening of the four plants. I know this because a man important in the affairs of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters showed me a telegram received by local leaders from Daniel J. Tobin, its president. Tobin's wire, sent from the International's headquarters in Indianapolis, on June 29, said:
Presumably, the local pressure upon the teamsters had more force than this telegraphed request of their international president.
Later I talked with other local A F of L leaders who were discomfited by the knitwear situation. They now regarded Claherty as an "outsider" who had wedged himself into Cleveland, their unions having become willy-nilly involved, although none of them had any grievances against the "Lady Garment Workers," apart from that ill-advised leaflet.
Keeping a multi-lingual group together in a strike often calls for herculean efforts. Old racial conflicts come up, tempers flash over little things.
Yet the great majority of the knitgoods workers in Cleveland did stick together. Some of the women were as hard-boiled as Army sergeants. I had never seen a group of workers more courageous and determined. Long exploitation, misery, and humiliation had forced them to submerge their inborn pride, and had had a deep effect on their natures. But they were learning through bitter experience the meaning of unity and solidarity, and were forging ahead against all odds.
For years they had worked intermittently at thankless jobs, never certain of their earnings, always waiting for hand-outs from other sources. Kept on the employers' lists of "availables," many were given only a few weeks of seasonal work in a year. In the dull months the employers were not interested in knowing whether their "available" workers had food or were starving.
Once during that strike a factory owner warn,ed a veteran Hungarian worker, in front of his mill, that if she didn't return soon he would hire somebody else and she would starve.
"All the years I worked for you," she answered, "you never asked me if I had enough to eat. Why do you worry about me now?"
And another woman, a Bulgarian in her forties, was asked by her forelady what she had gained in ten weeks on the picket-line. "I learned to speak English," was the reply. "Isn't that worth striking for?"
Most of these older workers, peasants, tillers of the soil, had been lured to this country by agents abroad who brought them directly from. their villages to the Cleveland knitting mills. Some had odd lingual development. For instance, a Russian woman, placed between two Hungarians who usually spoke in their own language, of necessity had to learn Hungarian, and later had to learn English in her spare time.
One Serbian, father of nine children, some of whom worked in the same plant with him, had been employed there for 35 years-- and in 1937, before the strike, received only $18 a week.
Some workers here had raised a second and even a third generation while employed on a seasonal basis. I remember a Ukrainian grandmother who worked as a warper, her daughter, who had joined her in that craft, and her husband, all working in the same mill. Now the daughter came to the picket-line with her smaller children, one in a baby buggy.
When not on the picket line, most of the older women and some of the younger ones sat in the sun outside strike quarters and did hand knitting or crocheted doilies, table cloths, bed-spreads, handbags, baskets, or edgings on handkerchiefs. Crocheted baskets I have seen only in Cleveland. They were dipped in a solution of sugar and hot water and then were stretched over a flower pot or fruit bowl. When the solution dried, the baskets, now stiff, stood up alone as home ornaments. Presenting me with some of their handiwork, the makers pointed out that if the crocheted baskets became soiled, they could easily be washed and "starched" anew with sugar.
On July 15 the Regional Labor Board began its hearings, before.
Trial Examiner Irving G. McCann, to ascertain which union was to be certified as bargaining agent for the workers in three of the four plants--the Stone Knitting Mills, Federal Knitting Mills, and Bamberger-Reinthal.
Attorney Corrigan made a dignified and forceful case for our union. His argument was based on two pertinent clauses in the Wagner Act:
Our witnesses told their stories clearly. The two Simon girls, cruelly beaten when the Stone mill was reopened, gave graphic pictures of the events of that morning. Born and raised in a mining town, they spoke in simple language, which must have touched all but those who were trying to defeat us.
On the other hand, the presentation by our opponents set a new mark for audacity. Coleman Claherty was their chief spokesman, His testimony stamped him as a cynical, rough, and ignorant creature, mainly interested in holding onto his own job at any cost. Under cross-examination, he admitted that his organization had made a one-year closed-shop agreement with the Federal Knitting Company before it had a single member in that plant.
After the hearings, the case went to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington.
Because of the continuing attacks on our pickets, we staged a demonstration on Wednesday, July 21, with more than 1,000 workers marching, to the music of a 15-piece brass band, to the City Hall. We petitioned Mayor Burton to see that enforcement of the law was applied to both sides, not just to the strikers. He promised to act at once if any further violence was used against us.
On the afternoon of August 2 a joint conference attended by representatives of three striking groups--steel, textile, and our International--was held in the chambers of Judge Joseph H. Silbert, before whom all cases of "labor vandalism" were heard. We contended that he'd better call in the mill owners and their hirelings, who, in carrying out the Mohawk Valley back-to-work formula, had imported strike-breakers, professional sluggers, industrial spies, and vandals. We placed the responsibility for the current reign of terror squarely at the door of the employer who had brought in this unsavory army.
When I returned to the Federal mill, I found our pickets agitated by the presence of a gang of roughnecks, with several women among them, whose being there bode no good. Some were drunk.
Hearing that they were planning something drastic, I hurried into a stationery store, and telephoned Mayor Burton that some new kind of violence was brewing. Now, I told him, was the time to show us what his powers as mayor were.
When I opened the phone booth door, four strange women blocked my way. Dodging to escape a blow in the face, I felt a stinging pain above my left eye, and pain, too, in my left knee. Warm liquid streamed down over my face, blinding me, and I toppled over.
As in a dream, I heard people's voices around me. Then I was lifted to my feet, my arm was gripped firmly, and I was made to walk, hobbled by a torn skirt. I became aware that Captain Flanagan had led me across the street to the police station, and helped me into an ambulance, which took me to a hospital. There a surgeon in the emergency ward put several stitches above my eye. Apparently I had been cut with a razor..
Two steel strikers Steve Kohler and Joe Cavaluchi--had ridden in the ambulance with me, and were treated for injuries inflicted by some of the roughnecks. They had come to our picket-lines to visit friends.
Weak and lightheaded, I walked out of the emergency room to find Marie Duke, Bernadine McGruder, De Leo, Kreindler, and Friend, waiting to take me to the hotel.
1. Charles Kreindler recalled that in 1911 the same two lawyers had planted an agent provocateur in our Cleveland office, to break the cloakmakers' strike. For the Lexie Waites confession see a report by the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee on Cleveland. Its title follows: Hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Education and labor, U.S. Senate, 76th Congress, First Session, pursuant to Senate Resolution 266 (74th Congress)...Part 38...Washington, 1939. Pages 15089-15100.
From : Anarchy Archives
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