Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 32 : Dust-Bowlers Make Good Unionists
(1896 - 1965) ~ Anarchist, Feminist Organizer and ILGWU Leader : ...an anarchist, feminist labor organizer and vise president within the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Born Rakhel Peisoty in Derazhnia, Ukraine in 1896 to a family of grain merchants, Pesotta was well educated during her childhood and, influenced by People's Will, would eventually adopt anarchist views. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "I had no ambition to hold executive authority. Valuing my own freedom, I wanted to avoid getting into harness, and to keep from becoming enmeshed in inner-circle politics. Too, I felt that I could serve the cause of my fellow-unionists just as effectively as a rank-and-file member. And it was my contention that the voice of a solitary woman on the General Executive Board would be a voice lost in the wilderness." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "Soon after the 1929 stock market crash 30,000 persons in that city were jobless. Some organized the Unemployed Citizens' League, which set the pace for similar self-help groups all over the United States. Harvesting fruit and vegetable crops on a sharing basis, it set up various co-operative enterprises, which, however, were opposed by business men, who feared these would cut into their profits." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "In the brief span of its life, the IWW produced men who became internationally known and whose names were torches of inspiration in many lands. Most of them paid a high price for their fame, some with their lives." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
BUT OUR MAIN CONCERN was organizing the field. After the unsuccessful attempt the previous spring, I decided to let the few nonunion silk dress factories in Los Angeles alone, and reach out for the workers in the growing sportswear industry. When a sufficient number had delegated our organization as collective bargaining agent, we would approach their employers to confer and discuss union terms.
The sportswear workers, mostly of American stock from all parts of the country, needed special treatment. Some had entered the garment industry as a temporary means of earning a living, hoping to resume their former professions and trades. Among them were teachers, librarians, saleswomen, musicians, and nurses, who thought factory work too degrading to remain in long. Watching them hurry in and out of the garment buildings, I realized how they would benefit by union standards of work.
The opportunity to meet them face-to-face and analyze their problems soon came. A Ninth Street sportswear manufacturer decided to break with our union. When our agreement was about to expire, he moved his shop to Broadway, a few short blocks, and turned over the business end of hiring new help and ditching the union to a foreman. But he did not reckon with our strength in the shop. Workers who had avoided our office came rushing in, asking the union to save their jobs.
Calling together all those listed in our files, I suggested that they meet our organizing staff next morning near the new address and urge the others to come to our office to decide on some plan. But at the Broadway shop the foreman and those lately hired raised a commotion and we had no alternative but to declare the shop on strike. A formal complaint with the Regional Labor Board charged the firm with discrimination against its union employes and demanded their reinstatement. We had to act quickly, for it was now mid-December, and Christmas isn't a propitious time for a strike.
I hired a sound truck and stationed it at noon in front of the Broadway building where our girls had formed a picket line. Through the mike we told the story to the lunch-time crowd in Spanish and English.
The employer involved was really a peace-loving man. Embarrassed by the publicity, he realized that his attempt to ditch the union would not work. At my suggestion Anthony G. O'Roerke, successor to Father Cunningham as impartial chairman of the dress industry, called both sides in and soon we had an air-tight union contract. All our members got a raise, and to maintain peace, the employer insisted that others join us or leave. They took part in electing Mina Shepard chairlady, with Florestella Vila Real as her assistant, and became eager participants in union affairs.
Women from other cotton dress and sportswear shops visited my office. Mostly American-born, they wanted to know more about the ILGWU, of which their husbands, union men, had spoken. We issued a weekly Shop News, commenting on conditions in the different factories, described by employes whose names we withheld.
Presently new members reported that they had been discharged ostensibly for bad workmanship, but actually for union activity. The Regional Labor Board ordered them reinstated, and more women signed up with us, individually and in groups.
One cotton dress shop, to which we gave special attention, was the Mode O'Day, run by the three Malouf brothers. This firm owned the twelve-story building from which it operated, another plant in Salt Lake City, and more than 300 retail outlets, known as Mode O'Day stores, in 20 states and in Honolulu. Mode O'Day garments, made in dozen lots, were in the low-priced brackets. Employes were chiefly Americans from various states, many of them farm women from the Dust Bowl.
One of these, Hazel McKown, Nebraska-born mother of two, was discharged and later reinstated through union efforts. Others requested that we bring together the rest of them "to hear all about the union." They were afraid to be seen at our headquarters, so I arranged a dinner-meeting in a conference room at the Rosslyn Hotel on lower Main Street. No one could expect a union to meet there!
The hotel management insisting on a minimum guarantee of plates, I ordered enough to cover the cost, and asked our dress and sportswear executive boards to have dinner with us. But all the Mode O'Day workers who had promised to come were present, some bringing their husbands. Our executive members had to dine in a cafeteria nearby.
At first we of the ILGWU did most of the talking, to eager listeners. Some of the men present, members of the welders' and aircrafts' unions, asked questions. The women listened. From then on we held weekly meetings, serving dinner first to take the "edge off their hunger."
Later we shifted to the Cabrillo Hotel at Broadway and Eleventh Street. A hundred or more persons came regularly to these meetings.
We met the workers near their shops and escorted them to the hotel. After dinner a guest speaker÷some one from the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor, the California Industrial Welfare Commission, or the National Labor Relations Board, a representative of the labor movement, an attorney, or a shop chairlady÷would inform newcomers about their right to organize and bargain collectively for better standards of living. Only a few ventured to ask questions orally; others wrote and sent them up to the chairman. The first question, of course, was about the dues. They were gratified when they learned that no initiation fee was being charged during that campaign, and that the dues were only 25 or 35 cents a week. It was an evening out for these women, who came to know one another for the first time, even though 500 were employed in that shop.
Soon we began issuing a special weekly, Mode O'Day News, the workers writing and editing it.
After several months, the number of workers enrolled made a majority sufficient under the Wagner Act to warrant a request for a conference. We proposed a contract containing cardinal union demands, the union stating that no stoppage of work was contemplated.
Mode O'Day's management was well aware that its many retail stores would expose it to wide public attention through picketing in the event of industrial conflict. Wisely its counsel, Charles S. Cressaty, advised the Malouf brothers to sign a pact with the ILGWU
The firm agreed on one condition: that a separate local be chartered to include all Mode O'Day employes, and that in addition to our local representatives the president of the International attach his signature to the contract.
George Wishnak, manager of Dress Local 96, and I, as spokesmen for the negotiating committee, readily saw the point. We realized that enrolling all workers in the plant in a "vertical" local union would simplify matters greatly, preventing the possibility of an incident like that at a large knit-wear mill in San Francisco. There our local union had had an agreement covering only mill operatives, but when the firm dismissed a union janitor, our members stayed out in solidarity and a long, bitter struggle followed.
President Dubinsky not only consented to sign the contract, but also agreed to charter a special local.
We read the pact to Mode O'Day employes, and made it clear that unless it was fully acceptable to them we would not sign it. Our attorney, Charles Katz, read it point by point, and they nodded approval. Then I asked for a motion to approve the contents as read. Dead silence.
"Won't someone make a motion to approve the agreement?" I asked the assemblage.
"We'd like to but we don't know how," replied Verla Tepley, one of the original members now serving on the negotiating committee. Only an honest person could have made such a statement in public. I explained how a motion should be made, seconded, and taken to a vote. The vote was unanimous.
The contract was signed and sealed at a dinner meeting at the Park Manor, where members of the management sat at the head table with the union leaders. I had the satisfaction of reading to the several hundred workers present a telegram sent me by President Dubinsky:
"Extremely pleased to learn of settlement reached with Mode O'Day, which is an important advance in our organization efforts. I will visit Los Angeles early in May and look forward to the pleasure of personally welcoming these workers into the ranks of our international union. It is my earnest hope that the agreement just concluded will be the beginning of a satisfactory relationship with the firm which will bring to the workers the full benefits of union organization. Congratulate you and Brother Wishnak as well as our membership for the splendid accomplishment. Confident it will have salutary effect on our organization activities throughout the country."
That spring some of our ILGWU leaders came to Los Angeles to attend the convention of the National Cloak and Suit Recovery Board, which had been formed by employers and our union after the NRA was declared unconstitutional, to prevent unfair labor practices. A national label, blue with white print, was adopted, to be attached to every woman's coat and suit as a guarantee that it was made in a sanitary union shop under fair labor standards.
Then we installed the Mode O'Day local at a gala celebration, with President Dubinsky officially presenting the charter. On it were inscribed the names of the employes who had signed the first union cards÷Leola Beason, Ruby Berard, Grace Blancett, Jennie Cefalia, Lela Colter, Lorraine Esterbrook, Emma Haglund, Ruth Lavalleur, Maude Leezy, Della Lindeman, Hazel McKown, Margaret Moore, Zaida Muren, Florence Pierce, Ethel Powell, Lela Reed, Violet Reese, Alberta Richards, Lupe Rios, Mabel Russell, Geneva Schell, Grace Stauffer, Ethel Sullivan, Helen Upton, and Gladys Wilcox.
Some of them had tears in their eyes as they looked at this document, which marked a new chapter in history for them.
"I think," said Geneva Schell, "that I have some idea of how the signers of the Declaration of Independence felt."
Many of this group being Dust-Bowlers, who had been dislodged from their lands, and who had had to break up homes and migrate to the Far West÷they rightly felt themselves pioneers in labor unionism, even as late as 1941!
In Los Angeles no one had imagined that our union would ever reach an agreement with this firm And no previous organizer had tackled it. When that pact was won, "without any loss of working time," it was pronounced unique in press and radio comments. Employers telephoned congratulating us. Some hypercritical members who had whispered in our ranks that I was wasting my time, "sitting around the union office doing nothing," apologized. "Why didn't you tell us what you were doing?" they asked. "We would have helped you."
But I had not wanted to spread word of any activities prematurely, lest they fizzle out. The members undoubtedly would have expected quick action, and I saw it as a long range campaign, needing great patience and care.
Now we had to begin educating the new unionists. I appointed Susan D. Adams, one of our staff, as business agent. Descendant of Samuel Adams of American Revolutionary fame, and granddaughter of a Missouri abolitionist family, Sue Adams was born and raised in Cripple Creek, Colorado mining town, where her father served as organizer for the Knights of Labor and later for the Western Federation of Miners.
A graduate of the University of Colorado, now in her early thirties, she had had much experience in handling our type of workers. She had been an organizer, an A F of L convention delegate, had worked in the newspaper field, and had been a research worker for the WPA NYA, and for federal housing projects in the South and on the West Coast.
With her husband, John L. Donovan, brilliant economist, she came to my office offering her services. I had her take training in our sewing class, and later placed her in a union shop. When the sportswear local began to develop, she became one of our organizers and later I placed her in charge of the new Mode O'Day local. Miss Adams is now with that group as its business manager.
As I had promised at the ratification meeting we arranged twice-a-week classes in parliamentary procedure to teach the new unionists how to conduct a union meeting. John Donovan, then on the California Employment Department staff, Dr. Oliver Carlson, and our own officials, were teachers, and members were required to attend at least one class a week.
We selected Ruth Lavalleur and Virginia Thompson for special training, and sent them to the University of California Summer.
School for Workers in Berkeley. Others took intensive courses at union headquarters.
Under Sue Adams's supervision, the Mode O'Day local blossomed into a full-fledged labor union, with its own leadership elected in democratic fashion by secret ballot. Ruth Lavalleur was chosen president, Grace Blancett vise-president, Jennie Ferrer secretary, and Hazel McKown treasurer.
This local being a vertical union, all sections of the company's working force were represented in it. Thus Harry Mountain, cutter, Marvin Bower and Stanley Wilson, merchandizers, Abe (Pop) Adams, maintenance man, Oscar Rizotto, John Fowler, Sammie Simon, and Louis Gomez, from the display, elevator, and other departments, were elected on the same board with the women from the sewing, pressing, and inspection divisions and office staff. With commendable ardor these workers plunged into union activity.
When some of them moved away from Los Angeles or entered the armed forces, there were others to take their places. Ruth Lavalleur and Jennie Ferrer leaving, they were succeeded as president and secretary respectively by Frieda Ross and Pauline Mazzini Holguin, while various duties were assumed by rank-and-file members including Carmen Schramm, Marie Peggs, Nora Wleker, Frances Sharp, Leona Blaine, Nora Van Buskirk, Serena Shurstein, Margaret Clark, Evelyn Giambostiani, and others.
An older union official whom the crowd disliked tried to inject himself into their affairs. Members protested on the ground that he knew little about their local.
"I've had 35 years' experience in the union," he flared. Grace Blancett, a Mormon girl from Utah, presser in the shop and vise-president of the local, answered:
"I'm sorry it took you 35 years to learn what I learned in a year."
Cotton dress and sportswear workers from various shops had begun enrolling with us, the Mode O'Day girls doing house-to-house canvasing and speaking to others near their homes. With Sue Adams taking over the business routine, I was free to negotiate with other sportswear manufacturers.
The local silk dress pact was to expire that summer, and Los Angeles dressmakers, anticipating strong employer objection to renewal, planned to call a general dress strike.
I was sharply at odds with others on this plan, pointing out that the dress industry was steadily diminishing in scope, and that our attention must henceforth be concentrated on the rapidly expanding sportswear market, of which Los Angeles already was known as the national center.
"Organize this new industry'" I urged. "If we win a collective agreement in this field, the smaller dress group will have to join them or face extinction."
My superior, the ILGWU's Pacific Coast director, was still "recuperating." A hen-pecked husband, he meekly submitted to the whims of his wife, a domineering person who ruled that our union's business must be conducted from the Levy home, and who injected herself into affairs of which she had not the slightest understanding. At first I went to their house for conferences, but when I discovered that it had long been Levy's habit to run his office by remote control, and that it had nothing to do with his illness, I refused to continue going there. Then the director managed, not too subtly, to eliminate me from the dress situation, Manager Wishnak taking over that phase. This, while unpleasant, left me at liberty to devote all my time to the sportswear field.
When the news about Mode O'Day appeared in our official organ, Justice, it was erroneously stated that the pact included the Salt Lake City factory under the same ownership. We already had decided, however, that that plant also must be unionized, because of the danger of competition from unorganized workers, to whom the firm could divert orders in case of a dispute over prices.
Alice Bagley, member of the new local, offered to do some missionary work for us on a visit to the Utah capital, her home town. Two weeks later I followed her there, and we met with the heads of the Salt Lake City Central Labor Council (A F of L). They agreed to let us use the Labor Temple and pledged their full moral support.
The plant with which we were concerned operated under the name of the Malouf Manufacturing Company. Early in the morning Alice and I distributed leaflets inviting its workers to a meeting, with refreshments. I observed that Hollywood-Maxwell, maker of corsets, brassieres, and "who-can-tells," had a branch in the same building. It employed girls lately out of school, at twenty-five cents an hour, learner's pay under the federal Wage and Hour Law. One of the Hollywood foreladies taught them, but no girl ever graduated from the learners' class. They were discharged and replaced with others on the same basis.
Some 30 women came to the meeting. They had sought aid in the early NRA period, and the Central Labor Union had assigned an organizer÷a metal miner unfamiliar with the garment industry. Most of those in the forefront of the movement lost their jobs. Would it be the same way now?
This time, I replied, they would have to take the initiative, but they would have the backing of our international. We would negotiate and help them establish a local. They signed up and took cards to the factory to pass around.
We established quarters in two fairly large rooms in the Atlas office building, close to the garment shops. I learned that in Salt Lake City people used their furniture and other things for generations; so it was hard to get needed equipment at secondhand stores. At a Salvation Army salvage store, however, I bought a huge double desk÷the only one available. In a dozen other places I obtained chairs, files, and other office necessities, and cooking utensils.
We held open house in the new union office, now invitingly decorated. The dressmakers came there from work and helped themselves to the buffet supper we provided.
They listened attentively to my plan, and elected a provisional committee whose names were sent as charter members to national headquarters. A smaller committee was to work with me on a proposed contract, similar to the one signed in Los Angeles. They would have to enroll the rest of the workers, and then proceed to the next factories.
The charter members included Clara Adams, Lillian Bromley, Jennie Brown, George Budd and his wife Eva, Clytie Edgel, Margie Edgel, Jennie Cappelucci, La Rui Gardina, Sanona Hart, Mrs. Hackwell. Lena Hepworth, Thelma Larcen, Emma Leslie Virginia McCulloch, Laura McKinley, Sam Mike, Mrs. A. Notti, Mrs. M. Newman, Rose Lynn Schmidt, Dorothy Walton, Afton Weaver, Mrs. Wood. Some had been casualties during the previous attempt to organize, but were willing to take a second chance to establish a union.
They needed an experienced organizer, and I thought of my friend Esther Peterson. Several months earlier, during a pleasant lunch hour with her in New York, she had expressed a wish to return to Utah, her native state, and help establish unions. I wrote her now and she suggested that I meet her kin. So her sister and her husband, George E. Baliff, an attorney, came to See me at Temple Hotel.
Esther was descended from a Danish-born Mormon, Simon P. Eggertsen, who trekked across the plains with the hand-cart brigade in 1850 to settle with his young wife in the Mormon empire. He had helped establish the town of Provo, some 45 miles from Salt Lake. Esther's father was superintendent of schools in Provo and active in educational affairs of that State.
The Baliffs took me to hear an address by Governor Herbert Maw, at the State University. From his report on a mission to Washington I learned that Utah was so poor that the average farmer's family lived on a $200 annual income. The state was receiving far more per capita in federal relief than other states, and he had pleaded that defense work he diverted there to enable the unemployed to earn a living, instead of depending on government relief.
Salt Lake City, fifteen miles across a valley from the inland sea after which it was named, is the cleanest town I have ever seen. Its streets are washed daily by water running down from mountain springs. Some landmarks that impressed me were the majestic Mormon Temple, the great oval Tabernacle, with its world-famous hand-made organ and auditorium which can seat 8,000 people; the Monument to the Pioneers, which depicts Brigham Young in a striking pose; the Lion House, once his home; the Sea Gull Monument, tribute to the birds which saved the Mormons from starvation in 1848 by devouring crickets which were ravaging the grain crops; and statues of Joseph Smith Jr., the prophet and founder of Mormonism, and his brother Hyrum.
Visitors to the capital were treated cordially and I was comfortable in the well appointed Temple Hotel. No complaint could be made about the reception given to a guest there, yet one was conscious of an invisible wall that rose between the towns-people and strangers within the city's gates. Somehow one felt that the hand of the Mormon Church was everywhere. And at every turn, in the stores, one saw merchandise marked with the letters ZCMI, initials of the state-wide enterprise, Zion's Co-operative Mercantile Institution, founded by Brigham Young in 1868.
Alice Bagley told me of one oddity connected with knitgoods manufacture in Utah. A bride-to-be had to wear Mormon-made under-garments which bore a certain secret religious symbol or she could not be married in the Mormon Church.
I learned in Salt Lake City that many women then working in the garment factories there had come from the local WPA sewing projects, so I paid it a visit to observe the training system. Led into a large loft, I saw some 200 sewing machines of ancient make, foottreadle type, on which women, both white and colored, were busy making men's work clothes and children's wear.
"Where did these machines come from?" I asked, for I knew that usually the WPA bought equipment according to advertised specifications. They were bought from the state penitentiary, which had discarded the machines as obsolete, I was told.
And how did they manage to get all these women to work here?
The answer was that when women applied for WPA jobs, they were classified, and those who could not fit into any other project were sent to the sewing center.
After one sojourn in this citadel of the Latter Day Saints, I had as fellow-passengers on the train back to Los Angeles about 200 young men and women, graduates of schools and colleges. Some of them told me they were going out as missionaries, to locate in various communities along the West Coast, and in China, Japan, and other countries in the Far East, with the purpose of spreading the Mormon faith.
That summer I was appointed to serve on a federal Wage and Hour Commission, which was to set new minimum rates for the cotton garment industry. E. J. Jaqua, president of Scripps College for Women, in Claremont, was the other California representative. In June, while attending its sessions in Washington, I visited New York, and arranged with my chief for Esther Peterson's departure. On July 5, she arrived in Salt Lake City and got busy at her new job. Bringing her children, Karen, three, and Eric, two, she made her home temporarily in Provo with her mother and commuted daily to the capital.
Educated in Brigham Young University in Provo, Esther Eggertsen Peterson had taught at the Agricultural College and served as city recreation director in Provo. She became recreational head of the fashionable Windsor School in Boston, and worked in the same capacity at Bryn Mawr Summer School. In between she also had worked part time on our Boston staff. Her husband, Oliver Peterson, of Norwegian stock, was now connected with the WPA Education Project in Washington.
Employing our usual routine÷radio, home visits, personal and social contacts÷she was in a more favorable position than any other "outside agitator." Through her family associations she knew the "right people," being on friendly terms with the Governor, Labor Department, and various other government officials, the Mormon Church, and the press.
We were busy then with the sportswear situation in Los Angeles and Esther proceeded to lay the groundwork in Salt Lake City. She was to line up workers, make preliminary approaches to the local management of the firm, but leave final negotiations to me. We kept in close touch by mail, telephone, and telegram.
In less than six weeks the job was done, again without any loss of time by the workers. Esther and I ironed out the last detail of the agreement with the senior member of the company.
On August 23, with a delegation from Mode O'Day Local in Los Angeles, I journeyed to Salt Lake to attend a triple celebration: official signing of the new union contract there, installation of the new local's executive board, and appointment of their first manager, Luther Eggertsen, one of Esther's two brothers. The ball room of the Utah Hotel was the scene of this joyful gathering, including workers, management, and notables in the government and labor movement.
The women had made a good start under Esther Peterson's supervision. Her brother was left to line up the rest of the garment industry÷which produced knitwear, cotton garments, and work clothes in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Logan, and other Utah towns.
From : Anarchy Archives
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