Chapter 30 : Return Engagement in Los Angeles
BACK IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA land of sunshine and starvation wages, stronghold of the open shop!
The sun was bright as I stepped from the Chief on a Saturday in January, 1940. To my gratification the little old smoke-begrimed Santa Fe depot was gone, in its place a modern station of Byzantine design. Soft music came from an invisible organ; out in front was a broad garden with trees and flowers. Los Angeles "a good place in which to live" !
But that picture was deceptive, as false a front as a Hollywood stage set.
The ILGWU's Pacific Coast director had been in bed six weeks, and was in no condition to discuss union problems. He might be out in six months, if he didn't have a relapse, his wife had said.
That evening, at a house party in the home of Fanny and Bayrach Yellin, I was told things I needed to know by Clara Krasnofsky of the L.A. dress executive board, and several rank-and-file members.
Our dress local, which I had organized in 1933, had got off to a flying start and functioned effectively for a couple of years. But now the dress industry in Los Angeles was going to the dogs; almost every manufacturer was switching to sportswear, which from a budding industry in 1933 had grown to enormous proportions. Nonunion factories competed with the few union shops left by working longer hours and paying less than the union minimum. Something must be done this season, or the remaining union workers would lose their jobs.
There was mismanagement in the union, the girls complained; discord and petty jealousy among the officers, peanut politics. Some of the most devoted and active members, snubbed or neglected, had dropped out in disgust.
When during our GEB sessions here in 1936. committees of workers had come seeking aid, I had warned the local's officials and our national office that more attention must be paid to the membership, and particularly to the Mexicans and Italians. The Mexicans had been told that when 600 of their number enrolled as members they would be given a separate charter, but this promise had not been kept; the Italians had their own grievances. Close friends felt that the dressmakers' local was beyond rehabilitation. My immediate concern was to pinch-hit for a sick colleague, I told those who commiserated with me. I wouldn't stay long in Los Angeles.
As I listened, however, my interest was aroused..I began to visualize a sweeping drive in the new sportswear industry, which our president had not even mentioned.
On Sunday I had breakfast with Earl Hampton, newly appointed publicity man. Going over the office scrapbook of news clippings, I realized that regaining our lost prestige would not be easy. Most of the stories about the ILGWU in the Los Angeles dailies had been unfavorable. The reactionary press had gone out of its way to drag our union in the mire. Pictures of arrested girl strikers, some with blood streaming down their faces, were featured.
Next day the semiannual Market Week and Style Show was to open in the Biltmore Hotel. The union had planned to picket it, and at once I saw an opportunity to do something dramatic and effective. So I asked George Wishnak, the dress local's manager, to let me handle that affair.
Each garment manufacturer, union or nonunion, had taken a suite of rooms in which his products were displayed on racks and modeled by beautiful girls. Hospitality was dispensed in the form of drinks and cigars. Market Week drew buyers from all over this country, the Orient, South America, Australia, Hawaii, and the Philippines.
Wednesday evening would bring the gala event of the week÷the Spring Style Pageant, presented by Hollywood's foremost fashion designers÷Adrian, Irene, Dolly Tree, Gwen Wakeling, Orry-Kelly, Omar Kiam, and others. As Paris had been arbiter of fashions on the Continent, so the cinema capital now inspired line and color for the clothes and accessories worn by America's women.
At dusk on Wednesday I was in a room at the Biltmore with a dozen union girls in evening clothes. All good looking, they took on glamour with the change of attire. Some were in dazzling white with black velvet coats, others wore different colored gowns and furs. Several, from their appearance, might have been Park Avenue debutantes.
While guests were streaming into the hotel for the fashion pageant; the twelve girls and I went down in the elevator, through the lobby and out into Grand Street. Two of the union staff were in a parked car with picket-signs. Taking these, we began a slow procession in Indian file. Our high-held banners told people coming in via the Biltmore's three entrances÷on Grand, Fifth, and Olive Streets÷ which exhibitors were unfair to organized labor.
By the time we got around the block, reporters and photographers were on the scene, bulbs flashed, and a crowd gathered amid a hum of excitement.
We traversed our route several times. Then a policeman barred my way.
"Ma'm, the Biltmore Hotel has complained against your picketing. Have you a permit?"
"But we're not picketing the hotel. We're picketing the style show. We simply want the buyers to know which garment firms are unfair to labor."
"You'll have to get a permit, ma'am."
Without regret I told the girls that we would have to stop our picketing. If ever I wanted to embrace a cop who stopped a picket-line, it was then. I had been searching in my mind for some excuse to end the march before it became mere routine. We had stayed within the law, and the whole thing was in good taste, beside being photogenic.
Next day the local papers carried pictures of our picket line in evening garb, alongside those of Hollywood models wearing gowns our members had made. And the pageant manager hailed me÷with bogus cheerfulness.
"Congratulations! " he said. "That was a clever stunt. You stole the show."
Actually it was more than a clever stunt÷it was the first tactical move in what is now termed "psychological war."
Our stock in the community had gone up materially. Newspaper clippings of the picket-line pictures flowed in from many parts of the country. Discouraged members began to take heart again.
In the evening, some executive board members of Local 96 put me on the carpet. Among the dozen women present was an old hand, Vise-President Levy's sister Tillie, a bitter Communist, who in 1933 had done her utmost to keep the Mexican women and girls out of our union; Sarah Dorner, former New York dressmaker, and Ethel Goldstein from Philadelphia. All three belonged to the inner circle of the same party and served as its "steering committee" on the dressmakers' executive board.
"Before you take the floor," one declared, "I'd like to say this: Rose comes from a small town, and probably does not know that we in Los Angeles locals have executive boards to make decisions. Since we decided to picket the Style Show, why did Rose Pesotta take it upon herself to change our plan without letting us know?"
"I did it deliberately," I replied. "If your crowd had had its way, the demonstration would have been a flop, like many other undertakings. Some one would have tipped off the Red Squad beforehand. It is true that I came here from a small town, Boston, but I've organized for our international in other small towns÷New York, Montreal, San Francisco, Cleveland, Seattle. And it was I who organized this local in 1933÷Tillie ought to remember that; her crowd distributed those Smash the Sell-Out leaflets after we settled our first strike here l "
I added that I had come to Los Angeles at the invitation of the rank-and-file and at the urging of President Dubinsky; the International had sent me to do a job and I intended doing it.
My attitude made me an eye-sore to the Communists until the summer of 1941, when a new line necessitated by the Nazi invasion of Russia changed their tactics and caused them to praise anyone who spoke up for the "suffering people" of Russia.
After our International was rebuilt in 1933-1934 out of the ruins left by the Communists, their Needle Trades Industrial Union was officially "liquidated" and its remaining members were ordered to join our ranks en masse. To the uninitiated, a sudden influx of new members appears harmless. But the party's order to enter a labor organization in a body, large or small, is tantamount to an invasion. That is what happened in Los Angeles.
I. Lutzky, manager of the combined cloak and dress joint board, who was a former Communist Party member, chose the path of least resistance. By placing party members in the best shops, giving them key positions and putting some of their leaders on important union committees, he was immune from their baiting. But leaders who would not make peace with them and rank-and-file members who were kept away from union activities by their terrorizing tactics finally reached the end of their endurance.
In 1939, the Moscow policy was to co-operate with Hitler÷a nonaggression pact had been signed by the two dictator countries, and Poland had been partitioned anew. Those who had infiltrated our ranks delivered impassioned orations at union meetings against capitalist England and the United States, attacking President Roosevelt and his policies of "war mongering" and filibustering till the rest, tired and fed up, left.
Israel Feinberg, since 1933 the ILGWU Pacific Coast director and the Communists' chief opponent, was called East to manage the New York Cloak and Suit Joint Board. Then President Dubinsky journeyed to Southern California and made drastic changes in the Los Angeles staff. At the request of the membership, he removed Lutsky and others who had done the union much harm.
In Feinberg's place, Dubinsky sent Louis Levy, formerly of New York Cloak Operators' Local 117, to direct all our West Coast affairs. George Wishnak, sometime chief clerk of the New York cloakmakers' union, came to take charge of the dress local, mostly comprising women and girls. Before they could orient themselves, Levy, never strong physically, and lately ill for months in the East, again took to his bed. From his sick room he was trying to run the ILGWU's Pacific Coast affairs while being constantly prodded by a red-haired wife with a yen for power.
Wishnak sought vainly to stem the growing dissatisfaction of the rank-and-file. They felt that they had been let down, because a man physically unable to carry on the union's arduous duties had been dumped upon them. No organizer could be optimistic over the prospects of restoring order in such an atmosphere.
Pondering the task before me, I found several individuals on the payroll whose functions were undefinable. In New York our president had shown me a letter of resignation signed by two organizers, and asked me to look into the matter. The two were Nick Avila, Mexican, and a young Spanish girl. Nick was a good speaker, was much liked by his co-racials, but the girl was more interested in enrolling members in a Communist splinter organization than in our International. Being on the union payroll gave her the financial means to carry on propaganda outside. Neither knew much about our industry.
When Wishnak assigned them to routine duties÷to adjust shop complaints, settle prices, hold shop meetings÷they decided to resign lest they be found incompetent. Avila subsequently had a change of heart and remained on the job.
He and the girl had been appointed by Vise President Feinberg to assist in the Joint Board organization drives. They established their headquarters in the cloakmakers' office. Lutsky, as general manager of that office, gave them instructions, but they also had to report to Feinberg, who often gave them different instructions. If Nick protested that he was acting under Lutsky's orders, Feinberg would say: "Never mind Lutsky's orders; you're paid by the International, and you do as I tell you." With this he was apt to depart for some other city in his far-flung territory, leaving both Mexican organizers in a befuddled state of mind.
They soon found that the easiest way to keep out of trouble was to do nothing. The membership was left speculating and would assail Feinberg for inefficiency. Others would cite this vivid example of lucky "good-for-nothing" outsiders, who sat around and were paid salaries out of union dues. Critical members asked: "Why pay dues at all?" Cynical oldsters shrugged their shoulders. "As long as the general office sends payroll checks, it's O.K. with us." Then they would return to their chief passion÷pinochle playing.
I set out to clean house with a vengeance. At a dressmakers' meeting, I saw the party members arrive early, take the front seats, and filibuster until the others walked out. The "faithful" remained and carried through their whole program.
Calling in various women who had formerly been active in the union, I urged them to consolidate their ranks and regain control. They responded with a will. Lola Patino, Bessie Balin Abrams, Rose Harrington, Ethel McGhee, and many other good unionists of other days came back.
At the next meeting, they were on hand when the doors opened, and grabbed the front seats. No sooner had the session begun than the members of the Communist clique loudly raised points of procedure irrelevant to the order of business. I took up the gavel and ordered them to sit down. Announcing that I, as an International officer, would conduct that session, I served notice that future meetings of the local would be run democratically and under the rules of the ILGWU constitution. The disrupters became confused and subsided, and I went on to outline our program for rehabilitating the local.
Returning unionists swung into action with fresh verve. In the elections several weeks later, a new dressmakers' administration was voted in.
More old-timers came into my office with greetings of welcome. Others brought complaints. I urged those with grievances and stories of discrimination and neglect, to return to the union fold and take over, since managers alone could not save a union. Some at once became exceedingly busy, bringing back others who had stayed away.
My main task was to plan and direct a new dress organization campaign. George Wishnak said the groundwork had already been prepared÷the dressmakers were anxiously awaiting the time when we would begin organization in earnest. But no one in our office could give me any tangible information about conditions prevailing in the shops to be organized. Girls visited by our committees described the pressure under which they were now working. We were able to negotiate with a few employers, after their workers held meetings designating the union as their collective bargaining agent.
In one shop at 719 South Los Angeles Street, scene of so much conflict in our 1933 drive, we were forced to call a strike. But only a limited number of cutters and pressers walked out. The firm involved belong to the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association. This, like the Iron and Steel Institute, had a rule that if any of itsmembers had labor trouble, the others must come to its rescue. Employes in that shop were mainly ex-union members Some remembered me from 1933, but generally they nursed a hatred for certain union officers, and had vowed to keep away from us. Newcomers were unaware of the value of joining a labor organization.
One scab cutter with whom I talked had come to Los Angeles at his doctor's bidding to find a cure for his son of eleven, who had asthma.
"When the strike is over, the boss will discharge you," I argued. "Why don't you join the strikers and gain job security ?"
"I don't care what happens later," he answered. "He pays me now ÷that's all I need, to keep my son and the rest of us fed."
After several weeks of picketing, we found it advisable to call off the strike. Some workers were reinstated; others got better union jobs elsewhere.
The change in character of the workers in Southern California's garment industry struck me forcibly. Mexican women and girls were no longer in the majority, although some of the younger generation were still favored in certain factories. The working force in this region had been vastly augmented since 1936, because of the changing trends, and the manufacturers had taken on a great number of women from newly migrant families, largely American-born whites and Negroes, former tenant farmers who had gravitated to California from burned-out and wind-torn land East of the Rockies. Generally referred to as Dust-Bowlers, and made famous as Ma Joads through John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, they had no conception of the meaning of unionism. Some had long been on county relief and WPA, with meager rations and were glad to work for any wage and to put in any number of hours.
And the employers had discovered a new exploitable group÷the Molokans, members of a Russian sect which dissented from the Greek Orthodox Church and refused to bear arms in the Russian-Japanese War. With the aid of Count Lyov Tolstoy, some 5,000 of them migrated to America in 1905-07, and settled in Southern California, a large percentage going to Los Angeles.
During the depression many more of them drifted into that city, adding to the colony of Russiantown. The first generation of these Molokan women were peasants, the second did housework; the third, American born, mostly tall good looking blonds, had found their way into the large nonunion garment factories. Difficult of approach, they were a distinct phase of our organizational problem.
The labor situation was complicated further by so-called sewing schools which catered particularly to Mexican and colored girls. Enterprising former shop owners, sensing an opportunity to embark in business, had opened "schools" to teach garment-making. A tuition fee entitled each student to put in six weeks on regular contract work, with no remuneration. The "school" heads, however, were paid by the factory owners, who supplied raw materials, and used these centers as sub-contracting shops, for which they assumed no responsibility. Having gained some experience in the six weeks, the students would be turned loose to grab any job at hand, at any wage offered.
Sewing projects launched by the National Youth Administration also gave instructions in machine operation to girls, the government paying them $5 a week while they were in training. After a few months those girls were sent out on jobs, where employers magnanimously consented to continue paying them at the $5 rate.
Later I arranged with the NYA to appoint several teachers from our ranks, who taught the students the prevailing shop system of work, so that when they had been trained we could place them in union shops at the established minimum wages for beginners. Claudia Benco, one of our most faithful members, who served as the joint board's secretary, was among these teachers.
Many an American city owes its face-lifting to the long lean years which followed the Wall Street panic of 1929; during the depression and subsequent "recession," what with the WPA, PWA, and kindred federal and state help, Los Angeles was one of the communities that got the utmost from New Deal subsidies. It had grown beyond all bounds geographically and industrially, with a population exceeding 1,250,000. Its garment manufacturing also had expanded and overflowed, like quicksilver on the loose.
Most of its hills, formerly sparsely settled, were rapidly being transformed with new streets on which automobiles could climb to their summits. Many new dwellings, of bright Spanish designs, now adorned these hills, and Hollywood boasted new streamlined boulevards, highways, and parks, new cinema palaces, and brightly lit and invitingly decorated department stores and public markets, the pride of the community.
Yet with all the face lifting, which improved the city's physical appearance generally, Los Angeles in 1940 was still the nation's chief center for people with fantastic political and economic cure-alls.
Southern California climate was conducive to outdoor life and the wearing of casual feminine attire, "sun-inspired." So manufacturers had flocked into Los Angeles in recent years and had taken to producing such merchandise. Utilizing various materials÷silk, wool, rayon, cotton, knit-fabrics? gingham, denim, seersucker÷they turned out an ever-increasing volume of sportswear of every description÷ slacks (both knock-about and tailored), cruise, resort and beachwear, pajamas for all occasions, play suits, fancy bathing suits featured in bathing beauty contests, shorts and halters, overalls, coveralls, dungarees, pinafores, "broomstick" skirts, and dirndls, peasant blouses, and tailored shirts, bright colored and elaborately embroidered Mexican and South American outfits, gay Hawaiian garb, jigger coats, as well as formal dinner and dance frocks, and silk, rayon, and cotton underwear and children's wear. Retail prices ranged from $1.95 up into high brackets. All these products came under one name, sportswear.
By 1940, more than 5,000 persons were employed in this industry alone, and almost every garment manufacturer turned out large quantities of such attire. Los Angeles had become the nation's leading resort and sportswear center, and the large factories were generally operating under the close supervision of the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association on an open-shop basis.
Smaller mushroom-growth shops were akin to the old-time sweatshop in New York; often they occupied buildings intended for garages, abandoned stables in alleys, and back rooms in the slums. Home work continued as in 1934; the State Industrial Welfare Commission issued permits, particularly in the cheaper lines of cotton dresses, children's wear, and sportswear, to those who claimed to be either physically handicapped or busy housewives.
In contrast, the dress trade was getting its bulk merchandise from New York and other Eastern markets. Local dress manufacturers filled special orders on short notice and dared not stock up with materials, lest these remain on their shelves. They would buy piece goods by the yard as orders for limited quantities came in. But their customers demanded quality and individual style; and the workers lost more time than if they had been working on one style for which a price had been adjusted at the beginning of the season. Our officers of the dress local were constantly on the go, adjusting piece rates on new styled garments. Nonunion shops had no such problem; paying the state minimum of $16 as the maximum wage and working long hours on an open shop free-for-all basis, they were undermining union standards.
Cloak and suit making, to which sport cloaks had been added, still comprised an industry in itself, employing mostly skilled tailors and women finishers. There was a big miscellaneous production in the smaller plants, and a large knit-wear industry in the outlying district, employing hundreds of workers.
During the six years of my absence from the West Coast, antiunion forces in Southern California had been steadily in action, with little to stop them.
In that January a searchlight was thrown upon the workings of the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association and other enemies of organized labor by a United States Senate sub-committee, popularly known as the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee.1 That body held hearings in Los Angeles on charges that the accused had violated the Wagner Labor Act and other laws by organizing company-dominated unions (434 were formed in Southern California in two years), coercing employes, impeding organization of workers, operating industrial spy systems with intent to blacklist, conspiracy, and threatening assault.
The M & M, notorious open-shop alliance, serviced strike-bound plants through its own free employment agency. Supported by the Chamber of Commerce, it struck directly at our union in 1936 while a general strike was on in the dress industry. As members of the Southern California Garment Manufacturers' Association, nine of the city's outstanding firms signed a pact drawn up by the M & M's legislative counsel. The lengths to which this crowd would go, to prevent any of the signers from recognizing the ILGWU, were indicated in the terms of their agreement, exposed by the LaFollette inquiry, so ably directed by Senator Robert M. La Follette, Jr.
Section 3 provided that the contracting companies "shall not enter into any agreement with any labor organization." Section 4 specified that each firm "shall deal directly with its own employes and shall not recognize or deal with any person not on the company payroll in matters of individual or collective bargaining."
To make these clauses stick, M & M attorneys threw in a penalty: "In the event that the company shall violate Section 3 or 4 . . . before October 1, 1938, the company agrees to . . . make a contribution of four per cent of its total sales for the preceding 12 months, minimum $5,000, to the association."
Nelson R. Wolfe, former secretary of the association, admitted before the LaFollette Committee that in August, September, and October, 1936÷during the ILGWU general strike÷he had paid $769.50 to Police Captain "Red" Hynes, head of the Red Squad, for lunches and dinners for police details. Cops have large appetites. Wolfe also admitted paying $1,085.28 to the Glen E. Bodell Detective Agency for special detectives. The Los Angeles garment manufacturers were not averse to spending money; they just didn't want to spend it in increased wages.
Southern Californians, Inc., was founded in 1937, ostensibly to promote the welfare of Los Angeles and its environs. Byron Hanna, its president, when questioned by the LaFollette Committee, admitted that its sole purpose was to maintain the open shop. In less than two and a half years it collected $523,325 to fight the unions, the bulk of which came from 12 large corporations and the city's banks.
The Southern Californians spent $48,140 to put over a new anti-picketing ordinance in Los Angeles. A group called The Neutral Thousands, formed by a Mrs. Bessie Ochs at the instigation of Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times and others, was a front to put pressure on business men in the anti-union fight. It professed "to safeguard helpless women," "to protect the bread winners," and "to fight labor racketeers." T.N.T., as it was called, died a natural death when the Southern Californians stopped financing it. Chandler withdrew his support when The Neutral Thousands began organizing company unions which, he insisted, were just as much. closed shops as any union shop could be. Later Mrs. Ochs was exposed as a fraud; the 109,000 women members she claimed turned out to be only about 250 members. Names on the T.N.T. register had been copied out of the telephone book. This racket was supplanted by the Women of the Pacific, headed by a Mrs. Edwin Selvin, who had been a strike-breaker on the Seattle Star when the American Newspaper Guild was on strike there.
Another expense item of the Southern Californians was $123,225 given to a fund to hack Proposition No. 1÷to forbid picketing anywhere in the state÷which was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.
Additional thousands of dollars were distributed through various organizations, such as the State Associated Farmers, the Los Angeles Associated Farmers, the Farmers' Transportation Association.
Employers' Advisory Service; a front organization for the M. & M., especially designed to set up company unions, had. as organizer Clay Rittenhouse, a tall broad-shouldered young man from a Philadelphia. Social Register family. During the combined LaFollette Committee and NLRB investigation, the M. & M. crowd was put on the spot when Rittenhouse, fed up with the anti-union drive, appeared as a government witness after supplying the investigators with voluminous documentary evidence. Later he came to my office looking for a job.
1. Hearings before a Subcommittee on Education and Labor, U.S. Senate, 76th Congress, Third Session, pursuant to Senate Resolution 266 (74th Congress)...Part 52...Washington: 1940. Pages 19058-19066, 19076-19079.
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