Chapter 29 : Graveyard: Boston is Boston
REFRESHED AFTER MY HOLIDAY, I was ready for a new assignment. Two jobs were offered to me. Our small Dressmakers' Local 38 in New York wanted me to conduct a drive among the shops of the Fifth Avenue modistes. Women who made costly gowns, priced at hundreds of dollars, could hardly make a living on the low wages paid them. Firms which operated under union conditions on the Avenue could not compete with the open shop group. But Boston dressmakers pressed me to come there.
I chose Boston. At different times since 1916 I had lived in that city, working in season on waists and dresses and making my home with my sister Esther, who was raising a family. As a place to work, however, it had never appealed to me÷production methods were complicated, machinery antiquated.
The ILGWU branch in Boston was one of our oldest. Once a strong union, it had had many ups and downs. The internal war in our ranks in the Twenties and the depression later had played havoc with it. I saw that area as a neglected field, overrun with weeds.
Three pioneer Boston members÷Charles Jacobson, Benjamin Kurland, and Isaac Posen÷had served on our General Executive Board. Jacobson was once the International's acting president for several months. Their GEB member now was Philip Kramer, a cutter by trade. He and I once worked in the same dress shop.
Kramer is a remarkable fellow, a local boy who made good. Prior to 1932 various national officers had been stationed in Boston, but none had stayed any great length of time. Kramer, however, has been repeatedly reelected as Joint Board manager through twelve years, having been a business agent earlier. Young in appearance, and to my mind the handsomest man on the GEB, he is a member of the American Legion and widely liked in Boston, His great virtue as a labor leader is that he never makes any decisions until he gets the consent of the union elders, who like to be consulted on actions affecting their units In civic affairs he plays a notable role, being appointed to many important state and municipal committees.
In 1938 the problem of the dressmakers in Boston was critical. The local's treasury was depleted, the small membership dejected.
Late in January, after a GEB session in New York, I went by plane to the new job scene with three other board members Luigi Antonini, secretary-manager of our big New York Italian Local 89, Israel Feinberg, Pacific Coast ILGWU director; and Kramer. We spoke at a meeting of Italian Local 80. Its president, Federico Borsa, amiable cloakmaker, who capably conducted the local's business while working in a shop, called upon the membership to give me its unstinted aid.
It was gratifying that first evening to have seven members of Local 80's executive board volunteer for the coming campaign÷ Mario Turco, Minnie Polito, Elizabeth Gangemi, Matilda Minigleri, Esther Antonucci, Anna Finnaciere, and Alfred Scola. And Antonio Di Maggio, the secretary, and Antonio Di Girolamo, the business agent, promised wholehearted help.
Next day I acclimated myself by attending shop, local, and committee meetings. In the evening I was officially introduced to the Joint Board by its chairman, Joseph Garber, tall slim presser. I reminded them that in the ILGWU there was a saying: "Boston is Boston!"÷which was not complimentary÷and that it was known as a graveyard for organizers. Those who had worked in that city reported that all they got from the local membership was lip-service.
Because I was a different kind of organizer, I declared, the members of all the locals must work with me or I would leave in a month. And if it came to that, my report would advise the national office never to send another organizer into Boston. Wolf Winer, cloakmaker and perennial recording secretary, took down my remarks, and I knew that these minutes would be read before every local.
Those meetings were held in union headquarters, a dingy run-down building on LaGrange Street behind the Hotel Touraine, a block from Boston Common. Formerly occupied by a continuation school, it had known no paint in eight years, the windows badly needed washing, and the pictures and charters on the walls were brown with smoke and grime. As I walked down from the fourth floor, I inadvertently clutched the banister for a moment, and dust clung to my hand like a dark gray glove.
Naturally my first demand was for renovation. Any nonunion worker who attended one meeting here likely wouldn't return. The elders agreed to have the whole building redecorated when I pointed out that in the event of a strike we could use the upper floors for meetings instead of renting space elsewhere.
Carpenters and painters were hired and began work under my general direction. I had partitions torn out to enlarge small rooms, hitherto used chiefly for storing junk and for pinochle games. Toilets and wash-rooms, repellent with dirt, were scrubbed and put in decent shape. Furniture was brought from the basement, and I busied myself with cleaning and shellacking it to hasten our progress.
Old-timers, mostly cloak and skirt makers, looked on, shrugging their shoulders. Would this bring in new members? They recalled when a union meant something to its members; when some of them gave their weekly pay envelopes to the secretary, or mortgaged their homes÷the money going to defray union expenses. But now things had changed, they averred.
As soon as the paint was dry and the place took on a new and inviting complexion, I arranged an official opening, with plenty of salami, herring, corned beef, pumpernickel bread, sour pickles, and ample firewater to wash down the edibles. Executive members, shop chairmen and chairladies, and active rank-and-filers ate liberally and thawed out.
On Saturday morning a "committee" of three appeared at my office. Wouldn't the new organizer treat them to a drink? Of course she would. I gave them a $10 bill, expecting to get some change. They showed up again Monday evening, thanking me, having spent all the money.
When they came the next Saturday with the same idea, I agreed on one condition÷that they bring "the stuff" to union headquarters where all could share it. They accepted a second ten-spot and presently returned with drinks and food. We made another spread, and everyone who happened to come in joined us. These refreshments became a regular weekly feature.
And soon the members attending brought in nonunion workers as guests. These visitors, joining up, gave me valuable information about shop conditions.
My special job was to organize over a thousand nonunion dress workers. The dress pact would expire shortly, and we began making plans for its renewal÷this time without the customary general strike.
In the past the system of organization in Boston was simple: Every two years the collective agreement would expire. Then a general strike would be called, its purpose being to unionize the open shops, which offered keen competition to the union factories. After about two weeks of conflict in February bitter cold, those who already had contracts would renew theirs, and the rest would either fight it out on the picket lines, or close their factories for the duration and leave for Florida. After the strike was officially settled employes with union agreements would return to work with better standards and wage increases. Workers in nonunion shops also would be called back, under slightly improved conditions, only to find that the improvement soon wore off. It was a sort of tuneless merry-go-round.
Employers who actively resisted all attempts of our union to organize their workers did not understand that, by so doing, irreparable damage was done not only to their own business but to the garment market as a whole. Like ostriches burying their heads in the sand, they did not realize that as a result of their guerrilla tactics neither their group nor the union was the winner; that the Boston market was constantly shrinking, many buyers avoiding it because of inability to get orders filled on time. Moreover, when strikes occurred, they failed to see that they owed consideration to the community.
Our case had to be carried to the public at large. Seldom in recent years had we got a decent break in the Boston daily press, which rarely saw news in our union except when there were picket-line clashes or arrests in strikes. Fortunately, in earlier days I had made friends with several local newspaper men. Under the guidance of one of them, I wrote a carefully phrased letter to the editor of the Boston Traveler. It called attention to "the peaceful achievements" of the ILGWU, which usually did not get into the news columns, and its current campaign "to complete its organization in Boston without a strike, or even a threat of one, if possible."
That letter, though 570 words long, was printed in full, and readers bearing well-known names wrote me, commending our respect for public opinion and our sane approach to a problem which so often had led to violent conflict.
The existing agreement was an old-fashioned cumbersome document of twenty-six pages, with supplementary clauses, some nullifying others. Invariably this would be signed by only one member of a firm. Owing to the high mortality of such firms, which lived from hand to mouth, partnerships would be dissolved at the end of a season, their responsibility under the contract ceasing.
Immediately I set out to have the agreement form streamlined. I took it to our attorneys, George E. Roewer and Frank Reel, and they reshaped and greatly shortened it.
When that had been done Phil Kramer made the rounds of the garment firms, and this time he had both members of every partnership in the union shops sign our simplified contract.
From the start I had urged each local to form its own organization committees, which would work under my direction. Discovering that I meant business, they actually rolled up their sleeves and went to town. Morning, noon, and evening they busied themselves talking with nonunion workers around the market, in lunch-rooms, and in subways, visiting some in their homes, and brought them to the office "just to sign up."
The question of the correct approach to prospective members also was discussed at length with Anne Sherman, president of Dressmakers' Local 46, and various members of its executive board, including Rose Simkins, Manya and Anna Titelbaum, Mary J. Kearns, Jane Marra, Minnie Nathan, Agnes Nash, Mollie Nagel, Jennie Chiplovitz, Ruth Klarfield, Ida Gorman, and Rose Handelman. All these generated fresh energy for the campaign.
After work hours this group÷Italian, Syrian, Irish, and Jewish women÷went out of their way to urge nonmembers to visit our headquarters. At each meeting we would serve substantial sandwiches, sponge cake, and coffee to potential members, who admitted that this was their first knowledge that a union "also could be a nice place."
The pressers had their own difficulties. As a closely knit group maintaining their union standards, their wage scale was $49.50 a week. But new, small electric irons had lately been introduced in the big shops, replacing the old-fashioned large bulky gas irons and heavy electric irons, and employers found an ample supply of colored women pressers willing to work for $14 or $16 a week. These new pressers could turn out as many garments per day as the others, or even more, and offered keen competition in the industry. Naturally our appeal to them was mainly on the basis of wage-rates. We could not offer at once to raise their wages to $49.50, but a sliding scale upward could be worked out. As soon as the women learned how they were being cheated, they began to sign union cards, hoping soon to be able to earn as much as our men.
Their cause was fortified by setting up a special pressers' committee headed by three progressive Negro members of Local 12÷ Elena Clark, Ida Green, and Ethelle Andersen, who were supported by the leadership of their local÷Henry Tokman, Abe Schwartz, Frank Foster, Hyman Newman, Joe Garber, Hyman Weisberg, Sam Kramer, Morris Fox, Mayer Karesky, and others. They saw that only by getting the underpaid women pressers under the union wing could they safeguard their own jobs.
In the cutting departments we also had a serious problem. This craft requires a certain amount of training and skill, for employers want to save yardage and to avoid wasting any material. Hence the cutters have long considered themselves the aristocrats of the industry. But in Boston, as elsewhere, the employers had learned a new trick. Lads hired as errand boys, shipping clerks, or sweepers, would assist at the cutting tables in their spare time, with the cutter in charge teaching them. Gradually they would take over parts of the skilled cutters' work÷spreading material on long tables prior to having it cut to patterns, cutting the trimmings, making up the cut material into bundles. For this they received little remuneration Meanwhile skilled cutters with families would be out of jobs.
The cutters' local, under the guidance of Joseph Rosenblatt, and Jacob Ames, vise-president and treasurer respectively of the Joint Board, and Morris Kramer, Louis Kriesman, Sam Goldberg, Tom Boulos, and Jack White, took up its task with determination. As soon as a cutting department in one factory signed up as a unit, designated our union as its collective bargaining agent, we would meet with their employer, who would reluctantly sign a memorandum agreeing that this department was temporarily recognized as an appropriate unit until the NLRB could rule on the question, and that the workers had a right to belong to Cutters' Local 73.
By the end of spring we had enrolled all the cutting departments of the shops on my list. Other crafts followed in line.
Our Boston branch of the International was divided into two distinct units the cloak, skirt, and dress joint board, which had to do with the higher priced women's wearing apparel, and the cotton dress and miscellaneous department.
Boston cloak and suit workers had an excellent collective agreement, with high standards. Harry Bergson, a fair-minded citizen, served as their impartial arbitrator. Morris Damarsky, Wolf Winer, and Morris Greenberg for the machine operators, and Jacob Schneider and Isaac Borenstein for the hand finishers, guarded their hard-won union conditions, and refused to be bulldozed.
For some intangible reason the higher priced dress business in this area did not grow. But New England factories producing cotton garments, blouses, skirts, and miscellaneous knitwear had flourished in recent years, though comparatively few of those were in Boston Rather they were in other Massachusetts towns and in Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Most of these were runaway shops from New York, Boston, and as far west as Chicago, with grasping owners who were trying to dodge the minimum standards prevailing in the industry since the NRA's advent. Employing mostly housewives, women from farms, and school-girls, they maintained their sample rooms in the larger cities.
The cotton garment and miscellaneous department of the ILGWU in Boston was in charge of Jacob Halperin, former International vise-president, who had the assistance of Mary Levin, stately, level headed executive and former dressmaker, long with our Philadelphia office. That department had come into being after the 1936 dress strike m Boston ended with scarcely any gains; the union then began to concentrate on the runaway shops in other New England towns.
Linked to Halperin's division, the rainwear section of the industry, managed by Nathan Barker, was expecting a good season. Excellent reports came from Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where William Ross was in charge. He had succeeded in checking the flow of open-shop manufacturers from Boston and New York into that area by building up a strong organization in his territory.
Upon my arrival in Boston, I had reweighed the ILGWU local educational program, and saw it did not meet the membership's need Much concerned, I formed a joint educational council, with representatives from every local, and with a letter-head listing all their names. A budget was agreed upon, and all classes, except swimming and gym, were held in union headquarters.
Our aim was to win over the habitual critics who scoffed at "education-shmeducation." Whereas in other cities I often had to deal unionists workers who had no conception of trade unionism and our place in workers' education, here all of them were sincere unionists who simply had lost their perspective. They needed to be aroused from lethargy and stirred into constructive action.
We endeavored to give the Boston membership a clear understanding of the new labor legislation that had come into being since 1933, and what benefits they could derive from it. That fall the Fair Labor Standards Act was to become effective, setting a floor for wages and a ceiling for hours. Hence I asked several local educators, lawyers, and officials of the state and federal labor departments to enlighten them on these topics.
Timidly some of those who had scoffed at us earlier began to show up at these sessions. Going a step further, I announced that we would send members that summer to Wellesley Institute, some on two weeks' scholarships.
I selected for those special studies certain individuals whom I thought would get large value out of them. They included Jacob Schneider of the hand finishers' local; Joseph Garber, chairman of the Boston joint board; Hyman Newman, pressers' chairman; Sarah Greenspoon, Rose Simkins, and Hazel Dobbs, dressmakers, and Ethelle Anderson and Ethel Neblett, Negro pressers. Ann Baden, dressmaker, was sent to Bryn Mawr Summer School.
Some of our older members needed to learn that they as well as the youngsters must be trained in new techniques for conducting the union's affairs. Toward that end I arranged with Mark Starr, director of our educational department in New York, to send us speakers with important messages for this special audience. Starr himself came to speak, and others were Fannia M. Cohn, pioneer in his department and its executive secretary; Simon Farber and Serafino Romualdi, respectively editors of our Jewish and Italian publications; and Charles Zimmerman, secretary-manager of my own Local 22. Arturo Giovannitti and Frank Liberty, on several occasions, delivered rousing addresses to the Italians; and Frank Crosswaith, member of our staff and head of the Negro Labor Committee, with headquarters in Harlem, came from New York repeatedly to help line up his co-racials.
To create new opportunities for workers who were jobless because some sections of the garment industry were overcrowded, I set up a sewing school to retrain them for work in other sections. That school was equipped with five machines, with all sorts of attachments for special types of sewing. Mary Le Blanc, skilled sample-maker from Maine, served as instructor.
At a cloakmakers' meeting I listened to speeches by men who harked back across four decades to days "when a union was a union, when elected officers had real consideration for the rank-and-file."
When called upon to speak, I said that after hearing those speeches, I was sure they were lucky people. In the basic industries, few men could sit at such a meeting and recall what had happened in their union forty years earlier. And in some industries, a man forty years old was out, and hardly could find employment. The fact that these workers in Boston could take part in a union meeting, damn the leaders, and get away with it, I held, was ample proof that theirs was a good union.
When I noticed a bright looking youth hanging around our office, I asked who he was, and learned that he was Leo Karesky, a presser. His father, Mayer Karesky, I knew as one of our most valuable members. Sounding the boy out as to his ambitions, I was enough impressed by his intelligence to offer to send him to Wellesley Institute, and promised to train him as an organizer.
"What's in it for me?" was his first question.
"Nothing at present," I said, "but if you have a head on your shoulders, you can learn things, become a somebody, and live like a human being."
The two weeks at Wellesley were an eye=opener for him, and on returning to Boston he began to supplement what he had lately learned by systematic reading and observation of union procedure. In due time we placed him as an organizer in the skirt division.
The following summer I sent him and other members to attend our week-end Institute at Hudson Shore Workers' School in West Park, N.Y. Later he became chairman of our Massachusetts Educational Council, serving thus until January, 1942, when he volunteered for war service. Today Lieutenant Leo Karesky is using his talents in handling rookies in the Army Air Corps.
I was fortunate in those days in having the assistance of my niece, Dorothy Rubin, and a young woman from our Philadelphia office, Rebecca Berg Born in Boston, Dorothy had attended both high school and business school, and knew shorthand, typing, and mimeographing. She was eager to follow in my footsteps.
Later, when Winifred McDonald, a vivacious young teacher, came in as recreational director, the three girls worked in fine harmony and union headquarters soon was gay with theatricals and parties. In the fall we branched out further and made many new friends by holding dances, style shows, and a gay Hallowe'en festival÷all in the Bradford Hotel.
In the summer months we arranged various outings, including excursions by steamer to Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, where the Pilgrims first landed from the Mayflower, and in cars to Plymouth, where they finally settled. We made jaunts, too, around Boston and to nearby towns, where historic monuments greeted one at every turn. Making it a point always to have some one along familiar with happenings in colonial days, we learned some history not taught in the public schools.
The more I saw and heard of Boston's oldest families, the more I was convinced that they had little sympathy for the working masses, immigrants, and children and grand-children of immigrants, with whom I was concerned.
During my years in Boston I met not a few Daughters of the American Revolution. They liked to recall that that city was the Cradle of Liberty, but I never found any willing to admit that they had descended from outlaws, who had won independence for a new nation by breaking the laws of England÷their mother country.
Once when a local newspaperman told me that his grandmother, a D.A.R. member, had upbraided him for the company he kept, I asked whether his people came on the Mayflower.
"Hell, no!" he said. "My ancestors were brought here in chains ÷for nonpayment of debt."
Labor organization got an early start in Boston. As far back as 1809 the printers were unionized, and a seven months' strike was staged by 600 carpenters in 1835 to cut their working day to ten hours. Shortly after the Civil War an Eight-Hour Day League was in action there. The Boston Tailoresses' Union, formed in 1869, provided in its constitution that any member doing more work than allowed by the union's bill of prices would be fined for the first two offenses, and expelled for the third.
But labor had some of its toughest fights in Massachusetts. None was more bitter than the 1912 woolen strike in Lawrence. Out of that grew the trial in Salem of Arturo Giovannitti and Joe Ettor, IWW organizers, accused of being "accessories before the fact" in a murder case, because of speeches alleged to have incited a riot. Both were acquitted when it was shown that Anna Lo Pizza, one of the strikers, was killed by a bullet from a policeman's gun.
Mention of the Boston police strike of 1919 could still make conservatives there see red in 1938.
One was impressed by the tender regard for children shown by the state legislature in 1866 when it prohibited employment of any child under 10 in any factory. But in 1940 the State Federation of Labor, the Consumers League of Massachusetts, and the League of Women Voters were still trying to prevail upon the legislature to ratify the child labor amendment to the national Constitution, proposed by Congress in 1924. New hope of such action had been aroused in the breasts of optimists in 1939, when, after 148 years, the newly elected Governor Leverett Saltonstall prevailed upon the legislature to ratify the ten original amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.
For me Boston held bitter memories of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. I remembered talks with the two Italian radicals in jail and prison, correspondence with them, speaking tours of industrial cities in their behalf, and picketing the State House in the last days before Governor Alvin H. Fuller gave the decision that sent them to the electric chair.
With a hostile judge and a hand-picked jury, they had been convicted in 1921 of a payroll holdup and double murder; actually, to any one knowing the flimsiness of the prosecution's evidence, they were doomed because of their social opinions. Members of a group of philosophical Anarchists, they had had the misfortune to be arrested at the height of the A. Mitchell Palmer "red" terror. August 22, 1927÷when they were executed÷stands as the blackest day in the history of Massachusetts. For years afterwards, I stayed away from Boston.
As soon as the factories opened for the autumn season, certain manufacturers began to discriminate against our cutters and pressers, while nonunion persons took their places. After futile efforts to meet with these employers, we declared their factories on strike.
It was something new in Boston to find Kneeland Street crowded with pickets on a bright sunny morning in mid-August. Never had any of the Boston dressmakers had such a good time on a picket-line. Scores of them who had been in winter strikes recalled snow and biting winds. The union voted to pay substantial sums as strike benefits, the pickets were fed at a cafeteria around the corner, and all were satisfied.
But employers who had closed their factories "temporarily" as in the past, now had unfilled orders piling up, and had reason to worry. This time, it became evident to them, they might have to stay closed a long time.
When the situation reached the boiling point, Anna Weinstock, New England conciliator for the United States Department of Labor, arranged a conference at the Parker House.
Julius Hochman, general manager of the New York Dress Joint Board, now came to Boston at my request. Large and bulky, heavy eye-browed, baritone and first-rate orator, he is the dean of negotiators in the dress field. In the mid-Twenties he had been the ILGWU representative in Boston, and knew the caliber and habits of the group with which we were dealing.
As our spokesman he argued to the employers that only by their signing an equitable agreement with us could Boston regain its lost prestige as a dress market. He cited pertinent statistics to back up that contention. For three days the discussions went on.
Meanwhile many of our pickets were arrested, with brutal handling by the police. But this time we had public opinion on our side. The press had been enlightened, and gave a true picture of the struggle.
No settlement had been reached when Hochman returned to New York for the Labor Day week-end. By Tuesday, however, the employers had realized that there was merit in our position, and consented to sign a provisional agreement to run for six months. Under this all the workers got wage increases.
Employers who hitherto had shunned our union became more friendly, and not only met with us now, but later called upon Manager Kramer and our business agents to consult them on general problems in the industry.
With the first group out of the way, we set out to line up the remaining nonunion firms, tackling each shop individually. No two groups of workers could be handled in the same way. Moreover, having to deal now with a new and younger element that had been kept out of the union through employer-maneuvering, we needed to make a different approach.
Calling together the business agents, Abraham Hollenport, Alfred Scola, and Saul Wallace, I explained to them that when a customer bought a dime's worth of ribbon in a five-and-ten she naturally expected to hear a cheerful "Thank you." The same girl coming to our union would look for a cordial welcome and was entitled to it.
Day after day, new shops would be signed up. It was necessary to meet with the incoming members and explain to them the functions of the union and their own obligations to it, and to enlist them for some active part in bringing in others.
Toward the end of the first year, practically the whole group of firms on my list, all on Kneeland Street, were under a two-year union agreement.
Early in December I received word from Hilda Worthington Smith that on a recent trip abroad she had visited the national conference center and workers' school in Pontigny, two hours from Paris. This school, established two years earlier by French and Swedish trade unionists, already had created a stir in workers' education circles. In April a new term would begin there, a three months' course to be taken by trade unionists from various countries.
The directors were eager to have an American worker participate. Hilda Smith arranged to have an invitation to attend sent to me, and urged me to make the trip. I would have gone gladly but for the job before me. The Boston drive was moving with such momentum that I did not want to take any chance of slowing it down by being absent. Regretfully I had to decline this opportunity to meet with European trade unionists. I've been sorry ever since, for that was the last labor school in operation on the Continent.
At the end of two years in Boston, I had completed my task. The dressmakers had a strong, healthy union. With my mind at ease I went to a GEB meeting in Atlantic City with a report of which I was proud Then President Dubinsky announced that he had reorganized our Los Angeles branch, and would ask me to go there and take over the organization department.
Though other board members congratulated me on my "luck" in being sent to Sunny California, I was not elated. For I felt that nothing but trouble was to be expected there.
The Boston crowd objected strenuously to my leaving; and Jacob Ames, joint board chairman, and Phil Kramer were sent as a committee to New York to protest. I went with them, and learned that my trip to Los Angeles would be an emergency mission÷because Louis Levy, the International's new Pacific Coast director, was ill in bed.
With this knowledge, my Boston friends gave in gracefully. In voicing appreciation, the spokesmen for the various groups touched me deeply when they thanked me for returning to them their self-respect.
Shortly before I left for the West Coast, Winnie McDonald married and resigned, and at my suggestion Myriam Sieve, who earlier had been connected with the educational department, came in to take charge of that end. Our ever-blooming office secretary, Judith Friedman, graduate from the dressmakers' ranks, promised her full co-operation. I was satisfied that my work would be carried on conscientiously.
From : Anarchy Archives
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