Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 27 : The Mohawk Valley Formula Fails
(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.)
• "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.)
• "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.)
OUR KNITWEAR STRIKE was closely linked up in the daily press with two other CIO strikes one in Republic Steel, and another sponsored by the TWOC in the industrial Rayon and Cleveland Worsted mills. The principal scene of conflict in Cleveland was at the steel plants, dominated by Tom Girdler, arch-enemy of labor unions. Here 6,000 workers had walked out.
July 29, 1937, saw a mass demonstration by the steel strikers in the Public Square. The speakers included Heywood Broun, then president of the American Newspaper Guild; Homer Martin of the United Automobile Workers; Leo Krzycki, Powers Hapgood, and others. This meeting, however, was cut short by a downpour of rain, which drenched thousands of workers to the skin.
Next morning Broun, Louis Nelson of Local 155, and Hapgood visited our Federal picket-lines and cheered the girls and women there. Immediately Broun became involved in an argument with an insulting policeman. He reported the incident in his widely syndicated newspaper column.
Powers Hapgood had an odd experience on the same day. While we were walking to and fro on the sidewalk opposite the Federal plant, Powers saw Phil Hanna, with other A F of L organizers, escorting scabs on the other side of the street. The two had worked together organizing gasoline station workers several years earlier, and Powers hailed Hanna impulsively.
They moved toward each other, for a friendly handshake, when five or six of our sturdy women strikers grabbed Powers and pulled him back.
"No! No!" they insisted. "You cannot speak to our enemy on our picket-line! "
Later one of those women, Maria, of Slovenian peasant stock, and gentle in spite of her outwardly rough manner, whispered to me: "Rosa, here is something I brought for you. It is to protect yourself." From some hidden pocket in her circular skirt she brought forth an antiquated rusty "pistolette."
She pleaded with me, for my own good, to carry it always, "because every day there is danger for you here." Thanking her, I explained that I did not need anything of the sort, and gave her stern instruction to put that weapon away and never again bring it to the picket-line. Her anxiety for me was so moving, however, that I promised I would visit her some day and accept the pistol as a memento÷but I never got around to doing it.
As attacks on our pickets continued, the Fisher Body local of the United Auto Workers sent 500 men to reinforce our lines. The steel strikers also volunteered to help us, several dozen coming over. When they had tasted the wholesome food in our commissary and received a day's ration of cigarettes and chewing gum, they spread the word. Then hundreds of others hastened to our aid, and soon romances flourished between them and our girls, several marriages resulting. Gratified at first by this gesture of solidarity, I soon began to discourage the sending of volunteers, fearing the steel strikers might weaken their own forces.
I had been present when the CIO's Steel Workers' Organizing Committee, headed by Philip Murray, then vise-president of the United Mine Workers, officially opened its campaign to unionize the nation's steel workers. The scene was Homestead, Pennsylvania, and the date July 5, 1936. Burning sun-rays beat down on the heads Of 3,000 steel men and coal miners at this, the first union meeting held in Homestead since the last unsuccessful attempt, headed by W. Z. Foster, to organize steel in 1919. This audience cheered lustily the reading of a challenging document, "the Steel Workers' Declaration of Independence," voicing the intention of hard-driven toilers to exercise their inalienable right to organize into a great industrial union.
Forty-four years earlier, in this smoky suburb of Pittsburgh, union men had died in the Battle of the Barges÷a battle with 300 strikebreakers recruited for the Carnegie Steel Company by the Pinkerton detective agency: Some of the scabs, too, died that day÷drowned
in the muddy Monongahela÷but none of the Pinkerton crew got into the plant.
Old-time steel workers who listened to the speeches recalled the relentless war by Andrew Carnegie and his henchmen to preserve the open shop, and the repeated failures of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers to organize the steel industry. Some remembered, too, another day in 1892 when a young Russian revolutionist, Alexander Berkman, tried to avenge the deaths of the unionists by shooting Henry Clay Frick, chairman of the Carnegie company's board, who had brought in the scabs. Berkman served 14 years in prison for that act, and only a week before this meeting in 1936 had died, an exile, in France.
Several separate strikes were called when the SWOC began its drive. But it learned that the big companies, allied in the American Iron and Steel Institute, had agreed that if any member's plant was shut down the others would fill its orders at production cost. So Murray and his aides decided to enroll at least 100,000 steel workers, then ask for a conference with the employers.
The crusade moved swiftly. Battle-scarred organizers, drawn mostly from the UMW, enjoyed the complete confidence of the rank-and-file. An initiation fee of only $1 helped smooth the way. Long before the scheduled time the 100,000 mark had been left far behind.
To the amazement of many who remembered past anti-union wars in that industry, the mighty United States Steel Corporation suddenly consented in March, 1937, to sign an agreement with the union. Various legends are afloat "explaining" how Myron C. Taylor, high official of the company, was induced to meet with John L. Lewis and Philip Murray. One story which frequently crops up is that President Roosevelt interceded, asking Taylor to bring about peace in steel, later reciprocating by sending him to the Vatican as his "personal representative." Whatever the truth, this "happening of the impossible" was the greatest event in steel labor history.
But various small independent companies, led by Tom Girdler of Republic Steel, formed an "unholy alliance," widely known since as Little Steel, and announced that they would resist unionization to the last ditch.
After futile attempts to negotiate with this group, the SWOC, in May, declared a strike against Little Steel in dozens of cities in seven states. Both the Mohawk Valley back-to-work formula and brutal murder were used by the steel companies in thus conflict. Eighteen strikers were killed÷10 being shot down by the police in the "Memorial Day massacre" near the Republic Steel mills in South Chicago, Illinois.
Cleveland and Youngstown, where Girdler's corporation had large plants, were the chief centers of the strike in Ohio. In Youngstown hired gunmen fired from moving trucks on men, women, and children in the picket-lines. Two men were killed and many persons wounded. While the strikers buried their dead, their homes were ransacked in search of guns and dynamite. Troops sent in by Governor Martin L. Davey did not prevent city and county authorities from flagrantly violating the law to serve the steel magnates. In every Ohio city where that strike was on, "a striker could be arrested for having a pen-knife or a toothpick."
A steel striker is killed in Cleveland, a poor man of the Slavic group. He is found dead close to the Republic Steel grounds. Was it accident or murder? Some of us attend the funeral and lay a wreath on his coffin. Looking at the dead Slav's distorted features, I observe deep creases in the face and skull, wreckage the undertaker's artistry couldn't mend. He must have been crushed under the wheels of a truck.
Funeral services are held in front of his tiny frame house, unpainted for years. On the scraggly lawn, Alex Balint, steel workers' organizer, delivers an oration through a loud speaker attached to a tree, the only tree in that grimy neighborhood. The bereaved wife, children, sisters and brothers, look blankly on the assemblage.
Going to their picket-lines in the mornings, steel workers made regular visits to the Federal lines, where Charles Kreindler and I showed up daily at 6 a.m.
Some of the steel men could not understand how it was that two international vise-presidents were in evidence so early while their strike director, living out of town on the Lake Erie shore, seldom
showed up. Their commissary was deplorably short of food, and over week-ends their gasoline pump was under lock and key.
Repeatedly groups of these men came to me, asking advice. Their children, returning to school in the fall, needed clothing. Coal must be provided at home against the coming winter; and strikers needed replacements for worn-out shoes, clothes, and tires. They wondered whether the "Lady Garment Workers" would lend them a helping hand.
It was not my business to conduct a commissary or a relief department for the Cleveland steel strikers, but something had to be done for them. Otherwise their morale, low since Girdler started the back-to-work movement, would sink still lower, and that would have a bad effect upon our people.
I cast about to see how we might be of help.
A miners' policy committee was in session at the Hollenden, and I approached a group of them in the lobby. They were listening to Powers Hapgood, just returned from Lewiston, Maine, where he had been conducting a shoe strike.
When I asked who knew "Bozo" Damich, the director of the Cleveland steel campaign, one of the group exclaimed:
"Jeeze, of all the miners it had to be that guy I "
"What has he done?" I inquired.
"It's what he hasn't done that makes me sore," another miner put in.
"I had my hands full of that bird during the 1922 coal strike in Pennsylvania," Hapgood recalled, "and I said in public that he was 'Damich by name and damage by deed."'
Damich was a sick man, however, I soon learned, and in no condition to head such a strenuous campaign. His involuntary negligence made itself felt among the steel strikers, who, lacking guidance, wandered around aimlessly.
When the steel workers visited me again, I suggested that a committee ought to see their top leaders in Pittsburgh and tell them about Cleveland. They had no money to buy gasoline and food for such a trip, so I lent them enough cash to cover that expense, to be repaid when they got back to work,
Several days later the committee returned and reported to me the result of their mission.
On reaching Pittsburgh they found that the leadership was holding a meeting in Harrisburg, so they proceeded there and met John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, and others.
"But what did you ask for?"
Tom Lewis (no relation to the UMW chief) answered me with Irish indirection: "I said to John L.: 'Why don't you give us organizers like the Lady Garment Workers have? They don't live out in the country while their people are on strike. By God, every morning when I pass by their lines, I find two of their vise-presidents right there waiting for the pickets. We need people like them."'
"And what did John L. say?"
"He said: 'I know they have good people, but we also have good leaders."'
As a result of that visit, the Cleveland steel strike commissary was given a larger allowance and Damich presently was "relieved" of his duties.
Our strike went on. Captain Flanagan declared that our singing disturbed the mill-hands; we must either stop singing or go to jail. Knowing our constitutional rights free speech, free assemblage, and free singing÷we took up that challenge.
Hurriedly we decided on a plan. Eight singing pickets would go on the line at a time. Messengers in cars were sent to the other three mills to bring reinforcements. Having served my time in jail that morning, I remained outside the moving lines to direct action.
Emil De Leo headed the first eight pickets one man, seven girls ÷as they paraded back and forth past the main Federal entrance, singing with fervor. Several additional cops came quickly from the station across the street. For seven minutes the singing continued, starting with Soup and ending with Home or, the Range. Then the police closed in, arresting the eight. Immediately eight more pickets stepped into place, and the procedure was repeated.
Other singing pickets marched on the line. Each time they sang for seven minutes, then were carted away.
Succeeding groups varied the songs, bringing in The Star Spangled
Banner, Solidarity Forever, and Marching Through Georgia. And a parody on Mademoiselle from Armentiers got a big laugh from onlookers:
The cops are having a helluva time, parley-voo,
Trying to break our picket-line;
Now nobody was doing any work in the Federal mill. Scabs and bosses crowded together in the doorway and at the windows. Our pickets and the police provided a free show for them, for pedestrians, neighborhood children, and riders on passing street cars.
Seventy-four in all were arrested÷64 women and girls and ten men÷a noisy lot as they were herded into the station. They were booked under an old ordinance forbidding "noisy assemblage."
But the case was adjourned next day, and our pickets returned to the sidewalk in front of the Federal plant, singing anew, to the chagrin of the owners and their mercenaries. This time the cops didn't bother to make arrests.
From the day the Stone mill reopened, the police were constantly at Emil De Leo's heels. Each morning they would arrest him
"We'll send you back to New York," the police captain told him. "You'll wish you never came here." But De Leo repeatedly got sick to his stomach while in jail, and the cops had to get pills for him, and they stopped arresting him.
After my arrest with Corrigan, it became my lot to be "taken into custody" mornings. Tall, slim Flanagan, in his well-cut uniform held that it was "safer" for him if we organizers were not in sight when the strike-breakers were taken into the plant. We were convinced, however, that his real motive was to demoralize the strikers by removing their leaders, for he never pressed any charge against us. But they had to let me out of my cell each time a reporter would telephone insisting on talking with me.
Before long I grew tired of this routine, and decided to cure the captain of his annoying habit. Soon an opportunity arrived. One afternoon, when the thugs gathered in front of the Federal mill, and the scabs were escorted out, we staged another demonstration and I was promptly arrested As two blue-coats led me across the street, I lifted my voice and began raising a hullabaloo Passing trolley cars halted, and a sidewalk audience found diversion in the scene.
In the police station, standing before the desk sergeant, I kept up my vocal protests, demanding immediate release.
Then the telephone rang and the sergeant, answering, said: "I'm sorry, but she is hysterical, and in no condition to talk with you."
I tried to grab the receiver, and he kept it from me, saying that I was "too excited to speak to anyone."
That gave me a new cue. Talking fast, in a high key, I showered my indignation upon the police, scoffing at them for "being afraid of a woman."
Other members of the force hurried in to see what had caused this rumpus. And presently Captain Flanagan entered, with Kreindler and other officers of the union. Then I went after the Captain: "So you think you're a brave man? But you are not. You're a miserable coward, afraid for your own skin. I would not even say you were bribed. You couldn't sink so low for mere money. You are afraid of these thugs who are now breaking the strike, kowtowing to them, so you'll be safe."
Flanagan was pale and obviously unnerved as he faced that blast in front of his subordinates.
Kreindler tried to quiet me, but I pushed him aside. He and the others soon got me out of there, genuinely fearful about my mental state. They put me in a car and drove away.
The instant we were out of hearing by the police, I burst into peals of laughter.
"What are you laughing at, Rose?" Kreindler demanded.
"Those cops in general, and in particular the look on Flanagan's face. How did you like my act?"
Then I told about the phone call in the station, and the sudden inspiration I got from it.
The cure worked. I was arrested no more.
Impatiently we waited for the NLRB in Washington to issue its decision.
The board's report ordering an election came on August 8. Signed by Chairman J. Warren Madden, it criticized the methods used by the three managements after our union had presented demands for conferences to begin collective bargaining. It said in part:
"It is clear that the companies, in total disregard of provisions of the Wagner Act, interfered with and coerced their employes in the exercise of their rights of self-organization.... It is important to note that at each plant either officers of the company or supervisory employes were present at membership meetings where cards were distributed and filled out.... This interference and coercion on the part of the companies cast doubt upon the question whether a majority of their employes had joined the Federation of their own free will."
Our next job naturally was to line up potential voters. And preparing our members for the elections was no easy task. For we had to explain to them that although they were legitimate contenders for places in these mills, the NLRB had ruled that only those who had worked in the week preceding the strike were eligible to vote. In some of the factories where the stagger system of employment prevailed, part of our membership was not called to work that week. It was of course difficult for the voteless workers to see any justice in that rule.
We made a house-to-house canvass, and a triple checkup of strikers eligible to vote. At meetings we explained how the ballot was made up, and how to avoid spoiling and voiding it. Because these elections would be supervised by the NLRB, every vote would count in the result. Some of the women had never cast a vote in any kind of election, and it was necessary to dispel their confusion and fears
Often, too, we were confronted with domestic problems. Members of a family working in the same mill would be sharply at odds.
One forelady was compelled by her employer to join am A F of L federal local and went to work daily during the strike, while her sister, an active member of our union, marched in the picket-line outside. Suddenly the forelady's daughter took sick and died in a few days. A devout Catholic of Italian descent, she attributed that death to curses uttered by her enemies. As election day approached, a child of the striking sister also became seriously ill with scarlet fever. Her condition was supposed to have been brought on by a counter-curse We needed the mother's vote. I managed to get her to the polls in one of our staff cars, then sent her home quickly. Fortunately the youngster got well, and the mother remained loyal to the union.
When our strike started, some of the newspapers printed inaccurate reports and committees of girls from the picket-lines visited the offices of the offending dailies, demanding fair presentation of our side. I was told that Paul Bellamy, editor of the Plain Dealer, and son of Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward, was sympathetic, but that he didn't know all the facts about the situation. I phoned for an appointment, and next day we talked at length. Subsequently, the Plain Dealer was helpful, with objective editorials, one of which said that the ILGWU "shows the right attitude in announcing that 'we will live up to the decision of the NLRB."'
The three elections, comparable to those for political offices, were held on August 16, under the supervision of James P. Miller, Regional Labor Board director, with government representatives at each of the polls, and with each of the contending parties having its own challengers. The balloting went on from i a.m. to 6 p.m. Voting at the Federal and Stone plants was done in borrowed municipal election booths, while the Bamberger-Reinthal contest was conducted in a room in a nearby school.
In the Federal mill we won 2 to 1; in Bamberger-Reinthal the victory was ours by a scant margin. In the Stone factory we lost 2 to 1. The reason was that that firm consistently kept our members out of its plant, and so in the week the strike was called few of our people were at work there.
Despite our victory in two of the elections, the companies involved refused to reemploy our members, so picketing had to continue. And the physical conflict was not yet ended.
On August if i, the day after the balloting, one of the "loyal" Federal employes, a big woman, waited for me to pass the entrance of that plant, and with all her might socked me in the right eye. So now I had a "shiner," dark and swollen, and attended by much pain. But I had to be Philosophic about that, and stayed on the picket-line until the last scab had entered the factory.
Then one of the girls went to fetch a piece of steak for me. The nearest butcher had none, but gave her some hamburger. With a handful of this bound against my face, I managed to go on with the day's work. The raw meat was effectual; in a few hours the "shiner" had paled to yellow, and to the evident surprise of the scabs I was again in front of the mill gates when they left that afternoon.
Several days later a gang of roughnecks invaded the store where Bamburger-Reinthal pickets took lunch. The girls managed to get out and boarded the first passing street car, riding downtown to union headquarters for protection, while the roughnecks, yelling, followed in their own cars. Arriving at the union office, some of the strikers were hysterical with fear, while thugs outside the building staged a near riot.
As the days passed, it became more and more difficult to keep up the spirits of our strikers. Cool autumn weather reminded them of the approach of winter, when they would need coal and warmer clothing and additional food. More payments were coming due on cars and other things bought on time, and on mortgages. The union had to help its jobless members meet these problems.
Making a quick trip to New York, I suggested to our president that someone unknown to the manufacturers, one who had not been on the scene during those hectic months of strife, be sent to Cleveland. It was necessary to impress upon the employers the futility of their continuing the fight. We knew they had no love for Coleman Claherty, who had held out a promise of protection and industrial peace to them. The long conflict had drained both their profits and their vitality. They now realized that they had bet on a blind horse.
For that function I had in mind Elias Lieberman, one of our New York attorneys, and ILGWU legal representative in Washington at all NRA and NLRB hearings on our cases.
Here was a labor lawyer who had learned about industrial conflict from the bottom up. Born in Russia, he had come to this country as a student. Becoming a waist-maker, he joined our Local 25, and was its first "clerk." In those days that job combined the duties of manager, business agent, secretary, and office staff. Lieberm~m also was the first manager of our union's weekly publication, Justice, and itscounterparts in Yiddish and Italian. Working by day, he studied law at night, with great determination, and passed the bar examination with high marks.
Slim and well groomed, Lieberman has blue eyes and black curly hair, graying at the temples, and looks like a college professor. Quiet spoken, with a slight accent, and of convincing manner, he rarely gets excited. I knew of no one better qualified for this special job in Ohio. Dubinsky agreed with me, and immediately made the arrangement.
I took the first plane back to Cleveland, and Lieberman followed next day. He went over the situation with William Corrigan, and they mapped out a program. Then he and Kreindler began a series of separate conferences with local A F of L leaders, the employers, and Claherty. Lieberman studied these several contendants carefully, feeling his way with caution.
In the first of the conferences one of the employers flew off the handle, damning the local union leadership, beginning with Katovsky and ending with Kreindler and myself, and getting red in the face, as if he was about to blow up. Walking across the room, Lieberman touched the fuming one on the shoulder, and said gently: "You seem to be an excitable gentleman. It's not good for your nerves." The other quickly calmed down.
Lieberman pointed out that we had won elections in two of the plants, and that we unquestionably could show a majority in the Friedman-Blau-Farber case, in which our demand for a hearing was pending. He reminded the employers that the union could keep up its fight indefinitely, paying strike benefits to its members; that they, the factory owners, already had lost a large amount of business because of the strike, and that if a settlement were not reached they would lose everything.
Finally they saw the light, obviously being sick of the whole situation. And Lieberman worked out a plan which proved acceptable to all concerned. This embraced these provisions:
This plan, novel then, was subsequently adopted by the National Labor Relations Board in similar cases.
It provided, too, that a sort of tri-party council be established in each factory; that our strikers be reemployed as fast as their particular craft might be needed: and that no discrimination be practiced.
Abraham Katovsky had been recuperating for many months from the assault by the thugs. Now he returned to Cleveland, and the four of us from the East who had come for the emergency were about to go home when he had to be operated on for appendicitis. That delayed our leaving. It was mid-October before I could depart. Then I booked passage for France, to sail on December 1. Only by getting out of the country, it seemed, could I be sure of a vacation.
Meanwhile the national office designated Al Desser, one of our organizers who had lately conducted a successful organization campaign in up-state New York, to take charge of the Cleveland knitgoods situation. Tall and blond, Al has a Harvard accent, though from England and Canada. With his cultured English, it is always hard for him to convince new acquaintances that he was trained as a cutter in our industry and is not a college graduate.
Immediately after the knit-wear strike was called off, the union management used every means at its disposal to place as many workers on jobs as possible. Some were absorbed in the various branches of the cloak and dress industry; employment for others was obtained in outside fields. A sizable number was placed with a WPA sewing project. For several months the union continued to give financial aid to those who could not find work.
When Katovsky finally was able to resume his normal duties, he again took over the genera, management of ILGWU affairs in Ohio And he soon found that the settlement we had obtained in the knitwear strike was a hollow triumph, though it had been hailed as a distinct victory in contrast to defeats suffered by the steel and textile. workers. Our pact whitewashed the Claherty group, but the strikers received little if any benefit from it. The one shop where we had a clear majority, Federal Knitting, was liquidated shortly after the settlement of the strike, and the other shops failed to reemploy many of our members. Those who did go back to the knitting mills were, despite our union's repeated protests, compelled to give up membership in our union and join the A F of L federal locals as a condition of employment.
Also another agreement which our union had reached with the TWOC late in 1937 failed to work out. Supposedly this had settled the dispute over jurisdictional boundaries in the knit goods field. It provided that the workers in certain sections of the knitted outerwear industry came under the wing of the International. But the CIO, TWOC, and the A F of L federal locals continued their raiding tactics and disruption of our ranks.
In 1940, when the ILGWU rejoined the American Federation, Katovsky insisted on having full jurisdiction over all the sections of the industry that had been allotted to us. Immediately he encountered new obstacles, placed in his path by some of those who had worked hardest to break the 1937 strike. Despite active aid from President William Green and the heads of the Cleveland Federation of Labor, it took more than a year before we regained our jurisdictional place in the Cleveland area.
Once the path was cleared, Katovsky proceeded to reorganize our forces, and negotiated good union contacts with several large mills.
From : Anarchy Archives
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