Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 33 : End of an Era
(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.)
• "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.)
• "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.)
RETURNING FROM THE MORMON CAPITAL, I found that Jennie Matyas, our San Francisco organizer, had been brought to Los Angeles to direct the dress campaign. The Pacific Coast director had assigned four of my staff of six to assist her. America Iglesias Thatcher and Mary Donovan, however, had held aloof pending my return. Calling together the whole six, I urged all to co-operate fully with the dress drive, holding that it was entitled to every possible chance.
Jennie wanted a line on the local dress situation, and we had dinner at the Brown Derby. I explained, taking the position that the only building to be organized÷719 South Los Angeles Street, which was dominated by the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Association ÷ought to be left alone while we concentrated on a bigger problem, sportswear.
But the arrangements for the general dress strike went ahead, regardless, and I was left in the dark about them, while Jennie and Wishnak held frequent conferences at the director's home.
At this point I successfully negotiated and signed an agreement with Louis Tabak of California Beachwear. But because Levy insisted on being in on all such things, it was necessary to have him present when the "official contract-signing" was photographed for Justice. At home taking his usual siesta, he kept us waiting long past the appointed time.
Mr. Tabak, scheduled to leave town that night by plane, grew impatient. "Why do you need this guy ? What in hell does he know about the contract that you and I worked out?"
"He's the head of our Pacific Coast organization," was my reply.
Phoning the director again, I begged him to hurry. He didn't even suggest that the picture be taken without him, but arrived two hours late. The photograph shows him holding a pen on the dotted line, though he hadn't read a line of the agreement.
Having come all the way from Boston to help dig a colleague out of deep mud, I wasn't pleased by his attitude. But I made no outward sign, simply continuing my daily rounds of the sportswear shops, hunting out new prospects.
The union office was busy with final arrangements for the dress strike. A committee from the Ben-Har Chenille factory, whose NLRB case I had put aside because the workers were unwilling to testify when called, came to see me. Some twenty boys and girls dropped into my office in mid-afternoon.
All Mexicans in their teens, they looked like school kids rather than workers in industry. I told them that unless they took the union seriously, I wouldn't get involved in another NLRB case for them. If they wanted our help they must get busy at once and enroll the rest of their coworkers into the union, designating us as their collective bargaining representative. Their answer was a collective giggle. One of the girls spoke up. They were all ready, but we must come early in the morning with leaflets and invite the rest to a meeting.
The factory, in the garment section, made chenille robes, beachwear, and kindred articles. Before 6 a.m., when the first shift of workers reported, Mary Donovan and I stood near the entrance, handing out the leaflets inviting them to a meeting in union headquarters at 3 p.m.
Some unemployed girls already had been inside looking for jobs. Eagerly all took our literature. In mid-afternoon they had noisily arrived at the meeting hall, where we served cold soft drinks; the day was beastly hot. They made themselves at home; someone turned on the "juke box" I had rented for dances, and slick young jitterbugs enlivened the scene.
Most of these workers were employed by the week, some getting less than the state minimum wage. A few had worked in the Ben-Har plant long enough to get sick from the dust of the raw cotton that goes into the making of chenille. The boys were used either as floor helpers in the dye house (the product being turned out in a raw white state, and dyed later in specified colors), at the cutting tables, in the shipping department, or as machinists. The girls operated special sewing machines, some with as many as sixteen needles. Now that they knew that the "junion" could help them, they were ready for action÷they wanted to strike.
But before we went any further in this affair, I stipulated that all the others must sign up with the union. We would meet their employer, urge that discharged workers be taken back, and demand a union agreement. In the event our efforts failed, would they stand solidly behind their coworkers?
Their lusty shouts in English and Spanish÷"Yes!" and "Si!"÷ gave proof that this time they were ready. Not until the union office closed, after 7, did they disperse dancing to juke-box music was too great a temptation.
Next day Sue Adams, Mary Donovan, and I went to see the boss. We had an appointment, but he kept us waiting in the outer office I told his secretary that if he had no time for us, he might have plenty of time to himself later. Immediately he called us in and asked if I had been correctly quoted.
"Yes," I answered. "Are you ready to talk business with us? Otherwise you'll find us with the rest of your employes÷dancing at our headquarters! "
It developed that the head of Ben-Har Chenille, who, coming from Canada, had established this profitable business only three years earlier, was ready to sell it and go into another field. Because of lend-lease, the government would use the cotton that went into chenille for Navy ropes, he asserted. Furthermore, he was being underbid by Southern chenille manufacturers, who were not bound by any State minimum law to pay more than 25 cents an hour.
We told him it wouldn't be a great loss if he did go out of business, since every girl and boy working in that dusty atmosphere was a potential candidate for a tubercular sanatorium.
"But just now we want the discharged workers reinstated," I added. "And you sit down with our committee and negotiate a contract! "
"What'll be in it?" he inquired.
We gave him the terms: there should be only one shift, with all workers on a sensible day-time schedule. His was a non-essential industry, making nothing for national defense. There was no excuse for these youngsters going to work at such ungodly hours.
Mr. Garlick became abusive. "Why, these chippies," to whom he had been like a father÷how dared they complain against him? He'd make them eat their words! Sue resented his reference to "chippies" and I told him he'd better stick to the point or we would leave. Mr. Garlick quieted down and wanted to consult his lawyer.1
"Fine! " I said. "Our attorneys will find a common ground for a union contract."
"Send the workers back," he pleaded, "or let me talk to them. They'll come back. I have a large Christmas order that must go out this week."
"Come to our headquarters this afternoon."
When Mr. Garlick walked into the hall, he was greatly surprised to find his employes engaged in gay dancing.
A shout greeted him. The youngsters, each with a bottled soft drink, took their seats as the meeting was called to order. Garlick, a bottle of Coca Cola in his hand as he sat with us, might have been one of our staff.
We let him talk to his heart's content, but he left convinced that his employes would not return under the old conditions. He agreed to reinstate the discharged workers and negotiate in good faith with the union.
It was understood that he would retire from business in six months, but meanwhile we obtained substantial wage increases, regular union hours, and at the end of the six months one week's vacation with pay for all who had been in his employ for one year or over. All pending NLRB cases involving the Ben-Har plant were withdrawn. The pact was signed for one year, in case Mr. Garlick decided to reopen his establishment before its expiration.
Returning to work in holiday spirit, his employes came to headquarters daily to dance as well as for union business. Immediately they elected as shop chairlady Frances Chavez, a young machine operator who was an Aztec princess. Slant-eyed and with olive skin, she looked like a figure in an Orozco fresco.
Our department forged steadily ahead. I carried on negotiations with several sportswear employers, a majority of whose workers we had enrolled. One day Levy called up while I was busy with a shop committee. What would I say if the sportswear industry was included in the call for the general dress strike?
"Let me think it over," I said. Neither America Thatcher nor Mary Donovan had ever been in a strike before and Sue Adams had her hands full with the Mode O'Day local and the newly organized Ben-Har Chenille group, the two totaling 600 workers. Would such a step benefit the workers concerned ? I thought it worth venturing substantial gains might be made.
So I told Levy it would be all right, provided the call was issued only to dress and sportswear workers.
That was on Friday, July 18, and I had to provide my own headquarters with all the strike paraphernalia. During the week-end nothing could be done; on Monday I got in touch with a friendly real estate agent, seeking temporary strike quarters within walking distance of the garment center.
I had been negotiating for two vacant floors in the Cabrillo Hotel, at Broadway and Eleventh Street, for union headquarters. We had held regular meetings there with the newly organized sportswear workers. The second floor was used by the Los Angeles Examiner, located across from us on Broadway, for its coupon service, and the basement had recently been vacated by a night club. Our Pacific Coast director was supposed to close the deal, but he could not "find time." The agent had offered the place rent free for six months if we would renovate it. I had held out for six months' free rent and renovation by the owners.
Now with a strike impending, we took the place on a month-tomonth basis. The coupon clip service would move into a corner giving us the rest of the space.
America and Mary were horrified when they came to help put the place into shape. On the basement walls were paintings of nudes in suggestive poses. Washing off the water color pictures, we covered others with flags and posters. We rented folding chairs, recently used by a circus, and had a phone put in. A mahogany bar was turned into a commissary.
I asked J. L. Goldberg, formermanager of the New York Knit Goods Union, who was now employed in a Los Angeles cloak and suit shop, to give me a hand.
My associates didn't understand how we could work with the coupon clippers from the Examiner listening in.
"They won't stay," I assured them.
The general strike committee for the dress industry hired the Labor Temple fir its headquarters. An elaborate commissary was to serve meals for the dress workers; I would have to take care of my own.
Two nights before the strike, I was told casually that the Joint Council had unanimously elected me secretary of the General Strike Committee.
"I don't want to serve as secretary," I protested. "I know nothing about your plans."
But the council would not meet again, and during the strike only the strike committee would meet, so there was no way I could withdraw.
On Wednesday, July 23, eve of the general strike, I went to the Eighth Street office to get badges for the committees, strikers' cards, shop lists, and writing material.
"We didn't prepare any for you," Jennie Matyas said. "We have just enough for our own committees."
Rose Harrington, chairman of the commissary committee, called out: "I can't see how it will be possible to feed your strikers also." My rejoinder was that we would get along by ourselves÷taking food from a nearby lunch-room for the first few days.
I phoned the printers that evening to send over a package of strike calls as soon as they were ready.
"I have an order," the foreman said, "to print 5,000 circulars and to deliver them to a lady at the Alexandria Hotel." That was where Jennie was staying.
"Five thousand? Why, that will cover only a few blocks, not the whole garment section!"
"I'm only working here, Ma'am. That was the order."
Goldberg telephoned the printer's agent at his home to instruct his pressman to print 5,000 more leaflets and deliver them to our new strike headquarters. He wasn't sure he could get enough of the same paper at this late hour, but he'd try.
The pay-off came at midnight when the strike call, warm from the press, the ink still wet, came in. I was busy with the sign painters getting the picket signs ready for the following morning.
Opening the first bundle, I was dumbfounded. The leaflets called out all dress, blouse, skirt, sportswear, and lingerie workers for a general strike in their industries. Only a few days before, I had specifically informed Levy that I could be ready with the sportswear group only!
Those who had written the strike call had not consulted me, and no one ever assumed responsibility for its contents! Well past midnight, my staff and I went to our rooms, rented for the duration, in the Cabrillo Hotel.
The staff was now augmented by chairladies from recently organized sportswear shops, the executive board of Local 266, with Edith Mann, its slim, small, serious minded president, and some Mode O'Day members. George Wishnak's wife, Masha, an excellent manager, came in as office secretary in my headquarters.
At 6 a.m. all of us were up, bright and eager for action. The committee members went to their assigned places with the leaflets. At 10 a.m. about 500 strikers assembled for shop meetings. A loud speaker boomed, the crowd milled around, and there was a continuous shuffling of feet. The coupon clippers quickly vacated their quarters, 4 and we had the place to ourselves.
The union dress shops came out, but not the nonunion shops. In a few days, Mayor Bowron appointed a committee of three to bring both sides together. Since the nonunion shops resisted organization in line with the program of the Merchants and Manufacturers' Association, and only a few workers had quit, the going was tough.
I had been pulled into the strike at the eleventh hour, and had not been consulted about the strike call. "A woman vise-president has to have nine lives to survive÷I'll give them a lesson they'll never forget," I assured a colleague. But this was easier said than done. A hot potato had been thrown into my lap. The job proved the hardest I had ever undertaken.
Each staff member was given typewritten instructions to learn by heart before holding meetings with strikers. John Donovan and Dr. Carlson continued holding classes even during the strike÷preparing the newly organized for union duties.
The girls had to be trained in the difficult job of holding masses of strikers in line. There was always danger of "stooges" coming in for other purposes than helping win the strike, and we had to be on the alert. In addition to handling all these unorganized workers, I had to negotiate with the employers and be on hand at the picket lines.
J. L. Goldberg, experienced in organizing pickets, staging demonstrations, and other strike details, was a great help. Our rented sound truck, with signs on both sides, cruised around the garment district, speakers explaining in English and Spanish the cause of the strike.
The sports-wear manufacturers formed an association and indicated willingness to negotiate a collective agreement with us. But in the lingerie and blouse shops, where only union members walked out, there were fights on the picket lines and arrests. The employers had their usual hired thugs to "protect loyal workers," who came and went under guard.
As the police frequently threatened the strikers with arrest, and the thugs tried to provoke fighting, our committee had to be present constantly to keep order. Armed with song sheets, the pickets sang loudly. At the slightest deviation from the rules set by the police, they would be arrested.
W. R. Woodard, a blouse manufacturer, got an injunction prohibiting picketing. He was willing to negotiate with the union, but his attorney, Mr. Watkins, who was also Hollywood-Maxwell's lawyer, advised him against it. Woodard's workers, some of whom had been with him as long as six years, issued an open letter to the firm, saying they would like to return to work.
"We think it's about time that you use your own judgment and settle with the union," they wrote, "so we can come back to the shop and your regular schedule of shipments can be resumed."
They reminded Woodard that he had repeatedly referred them to his attorney, but that the lawyer had returned their proposals with a curt note.
Information came in letters from non-striking girls. One of these, used by us in a leaflet, read:
"I have been one of the workers at Woodard while you girls have been striking. I was too slow, so I was laid off.
"So many young girls work there that never sewed before, so they cannot get their work out. I hope for your sakes you win out; then when the shops are all union we might have a better chance to work....
"I heard they gave all the old girls a raise so they won't strike."
Several of us were arrested one morning in front of the Chick Lingerie Company's factory. At Lincoln Heights station, we had to wait three hours for a judge to set bail. I played rummy with other prisoners.
Women kept arriving. Several more of our crowd, among them Edith Mann, were brought in, carrying jail bedding. By 11 o'clock we "transients," both colored and white, had increased to about 30.
Among the newcomers was a red-haired girl about 18, who walked l in drowsily. A dozen women, evidently "regulars," surrounded her.
"How was it, Margie ?" they inquired.
"Wonderful," she answered, fixing her bedding in an upper bunk. "I lived every minute of my twenty-four hours and now I want to sleep."
Her friends hushed the others as she undressed and got into bed. She was a dope addict, and this jail was practically her vacation place between frequent flings.
The rummy game went on. A slim blond girl in slacks sat reading a book. I asked what she was in for.
"Soliciting," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
How did it happen?
Well, going home after a day's work, she was approached by a man outside the hotel where she lived.
"So I thought to myself: another five bucks are not to be sneezed at," she went on. "But what do you think that bastard did? He showed me his police badge and arrested me when we were both stark naked."
Hailing from the Dust Bowl, she had been in Los Angeles two years. Her trial was to take place in a couple of days, and she wanted to send word to her "boy friend" to get her a good lawyer. Would I be kind enough to phone him that afternoon when I get out?
When I telephoned the downtown hotel and asked for Chick, he had checked out, leaving no address.
Lunch was served at long tables in the jail dining room Anemic looking navy beans with almost no taste, on tin plates; white bread that was like wads of cotton in the mouth, coffee akin to dishwater. Hungry women grumbled in whispers.
"For the taxpayers' money," I told my neighbors, "this jail could afford to give you decent food. This is outrageous. People could get sick from eating this bread alone."
The attendants cast unfriendly looks in my direction.
Released on bond before noon, I hurried by cab to our headquarters, for a conference with the employers' negotiating committee. At 2 p.m. I must be in police court.
I barely had time to grab a taxi to get there. Traffic was heavy and we were three minutes late. My case already had been called, and I had forfeited my bond. So I had to return to jail until another bond could be posted.
They led me through a side door to the back detention room where I had spent the morning. A matron began to ransack my handbag, shaking every article÷powder puff, address book, and all÷as if to ferret out a weapon.
"You saw that stuff this morning," I protested. "I'm in a hurry to telephone my bondsman."
"We're running this jail, not you," the head matron barked.
"And damned inefficiently, too," I told her.
"We don't like your kind around here," she retorted.
Then I was shoved into the inner waiting room. After a couple of hours, the bondsman succeeded in having my new bail set and I went straight from jail to the picket line.
I was keen to get the strike settled. Signing of a new dress pact was about to be announced and I knew that the general public, and some of our sportswear strikers, wouldn't understand that two separate groups were on strike and that different agreements must be reached.
We worked long grueling hours, negotiating, planning, organizing. Goldberg assisted me, and Masha Wishnak took notes for the record at our conferences with the employers.
One of them asked me where Levy was. I was about to answer when a messenger came in and asked me to phone our director. Goldberg went to do that, and he returned saying that Levy wanted me to bring the employers' committee to his house to continue the session. "Forget it," I said. "We're too busy. Let him sleep."
Our conference became snagged over the immediate 10 per cent wage increase we had asked for. All other provisions had been agreed upon. With the dressmakers awarded a 15 per cent wage raise by the mayor's commission, we felt that the sportswear strikers also were entitled to a substantial increase.
The spokesmen for the other side argued that there had been a general raise of pay in the spring. We knew that; it had been given because-the employers feared a strike.
"But, gentlemen," I exclaimed, "surely you don't expect your workers to return without any immediate wage increase. Our demand is still 10 per cent the day they go back to your shops."
"We offer five per cent," Jack Takiff replied.
While this increase was small, we were sure that it would be acceptable to our members because of the other points we had won for them. They were protected by a clause providing that in the event of a six per cent advance in living costs, they would be entitled to a corresponding lift in pay. Other gains were a 37 1/2-hour work-week, a week's paid vacation, a four weeks' trial period, and minimum wage rates as established in the trade.
And there was little doubt that the whole employers' group would approve of our tentative agreement. Los Angeles was a critical area, with acute labor shortage. Dozens of skilled garment workers already had shifted to defense, notably aircraft, after brief training, and the demand for others was growing.
"The nimble fingers of the garment workers," a local engineer commented, "especially qualify them for delicate precision instruments."
The dressmakers also returned with a union contract÷all but a few who walked out from one factory÷in the 719 South Los Angeles building, which promised to give us a long drawn-out fight.
In the sportswear group Chick Lingerie and W. J. Woodard Blouse had held aloof from negotiations. They had determined, under the influence of the M & M, I was convinced, to fight it out. Picketing at these three buildings continued militantly.
At another sportswear factory, the Sun-pose, in the Harris-Newmark Building, we tried to reason with Mr. Runkin, its head.
"You'll have to join up with the rest eventually," we contended.
"All right, try and get my workers into your union," he taunted me.
Opal Alvarez, now staying at home to take care of her family, reported that several of Runkin's workers were "sick and tired of walking to and from work like thieves" with thugs protecting them. They were inclined to join the union. But Runkin had given them an increase during the strike, when they had not walked out with the rest, and they felt duty-bound to stay on the job. Opal promised to let me know of any new developments.
Meanwhile we called off the pickets at the Harris-Newmark Building with the idea of giving Runkin enough rope to hang himself. Soon he began to intimidate his "loyal" workers, and discharged one of them. Opal phoned me at midnight, and I had the discharged girl, Eva, come to see me. At seven next morning she was in my room at the Cabrillo Hotel.
I learned that the workers were so incensed with Runkin's actions that they would do anything I might ask now.
"Even if I ask them to strike?"
"Yes, they're waiting for a signal."
I went down to confer with Mary and America. But they were somewhere in the market and would not be back before 10. I had a plane reservation to leave at noon to attend a GEB meeting in Philadelphia
Without wasting time, I had Eva follow me straight into the Runkin factory. The doors were wide open, the thugs gone.
Planting myself in the middle of the big workshop, I began in a soap-box voice:
"Girls, do you know that your coworker, Eva, was discharged last night by your boss, Mr. Runkin? Have you asked yourselves why? Because she was too loyal to him during the strike, so loyal to him that she forgot that God helps only those who help themselves.... Why do you sit here like slaves ? Get up and come with us to the union. Mr. Runkin won't dare discharge any one of you if you're smart and join up with the rest.... What happened to Eva last night might happen to you today or tomorrow...."
The boss, the sweeper, and the forelady rushed over to where I stood, and tried to push me out. Not until I had finished the last sentence did they succeed. They managed to get me into the office, but Eva remained in the work-room.
Pale and shaking with rage, Runkin shouted: "What are you trying to do to me?"
"You asked for it÷and you earned it! " I said. "You heard me÷we're not going to let any chiselers run the garment market in Los Angeles.
We could hear movements outside÷the office staff running in and out, stamping of feet in the hall, shouts and laughter. FacingRunkin, I asked: "Will you sign that collective agreement, like a good boy?" I left him fuming. Outside more than half the factory workers, with Eva triumphantly at their head, were waiting for me. Then I took a minute to look in on Goldberg, who had lately returned to work at a machine in the same building, and announced that the Sun-pose workers were on strike.
He could not believe his ears. "They finally decided to come out?"
"No, Mr. Runkin decided it for them."
I asked him to come back and take over, as I was in no position to negotiate with an enraged employer to whom I was like a red rag to a bull.
The picket line paraded in front of the Runkin shop, and it was with deep satisfaction that the workers carried their signs proclaiming that they were striking because their employer was unfair to them. That strike was brief but effective. The girls enjoyed themselves, confessing that they had been most uncomfortable walking through the picket lines during the big strike. They had felt that they must keep their word to the boss. But he had failed to keep his.
Runkin finally consented to sign, on one condition÷that one of the Mexican women who had been especially militant, must not return with the rest. Goldberg didn't mind agreeing÷there was an acute shortage of special machine operators in the industry, and he was happy to send her into an established union shop.
After the strike I asked Rebecca Holland and Goldberg to join our staff. Rebecca, a capable organizer and business agent, had for years been connected with the ILGWU in Chicago and New York. A former University of Wisconsin student, she had gone to work in a garment factory in Chicago, joined the dressmakers' union, and served on important committees. Later she supplemented her education at Brookwood Labor College. In private life she was Mrs. J. L. Goldberg, proud of her husband and of Zami, their fine, intelligent son, then about 12.
I attended our quarterly GEB meeting in Philadelphia and had a brief visit with my family in New York. Before returning West, I stopped over at Unity House, the ILGWU's vacation resort in the Pocono Mountains. President Dubinsky was spending a week-end there, and Louis Levy also was there. D.D. called us into his cottage to discuss the Los Angeles situation.
My report was short and went straight to the point. Now that the sportswear union, newly-established in a rapidly expanding industry, had grown to nearly 2,000 members, with many more in prospect, permanent offices had to be set up and a staff organized to conduct their affairs until the new membership was qualified to carry on without supervision. Unlike our old-time members, these California workers needed special care. Los Angeles was one of the fastest growing cities on the Coast, and more women would pour in to work either in defense industries or the garment trade. I was willing to finish the job on one condition; that I be given full charge of the sportswear group.
Levy interrupted me to say that there was not room enough on the Pacific Coast for two vise-presidents; he would not remain there if I returned. That was a new one on me; I recalled that when he was ill he had demanded that I be transferred with all possible haste from Boston to Los Angeles.
Dubinsky turned to me. "Do you want to go back to Los Angeles ?"
"Under the present set-up, no I " I answered emphatically. But I agreed to return there and clear up certain unfinished details, after which Levy and his wife could run the International's Pacific Coast affairs from their home without my annoying presence.
Dorothy Rubin, who had been my secretary in Boston, was transferred at my request to Los Angeles, having had experience in that type of office. I asked her to install the check-off system for the new locals, while we went ahead with the election of officers and fitting out the new headquarters. These, the finest in the city, were set up under my supervision on the same two floors in the Cabrillo Hotel that we had used during the strike.
Soon after we reached the Coast, a committee from Hollywood-Maxwell came to see me; the whole group was now anxious to join the union. "Call a meeting right after work near the factory," they urged.
Realizing that something extraordinary had happened, I went over and found 70 people waiting. Fearful of losing their jobs, they signed membership cards authorizing the ILGWU to negotiate with their employers. They were ready and willing to do anything I asked.
Two days later I had to. disappoint them. They had held out too long.
Hollywood-Maxwell was going to close its "who-can-tell" factory in Hollywood, and was shifting to other sections of the country, where it could pay learners' wages indefinitely. If the girls joined the union, we would place them in other sportswear shops.
When I came back from the East, C. J. Haggerty, president of the California State Federation of Labor, informed me that upon his recommendation I had been appointed as a member of the State Council of Defense, to serve on its health, welfare, and consumer interest committee. Haggerty was head of the human resources and skill committee.
The Council had been set up by the Legislature in September, 1941. Attending one of its sessions on January 8, 1942, only a month after we entered the war, I made note of what was happening there. Obviously the Republicans in the Council were intentionally gumming up the works, confusing the issues, and endeavoring to thwart every constructive move made by Governor Olson. At the head of the opposition stood Attorney General Earl Warren, close friend of Herbert Hoover, protector of the reactionary Associated Farmers and big business generally, and later Governor.
From the beginning of Olson's Governorship until the end, virtually every worthy measure proposed by his administration was defeated or emasculated in the Assembly or Senate.
Saturday, December 6,1941÷Not a cloud appeared in the sky as we stood marveling at the sight of Boulder Dam. There was no sign from any quarter that overnight the lives of millions would be disrupted. On Friday I had driven 350 miles from Los Angeles to Boulder City, Nevada, with four companions. We were thrilled deeply as we contemplated this triumph of modern engineering÷ the gigantic curving wall of concrete, 726 feet high, which had harnessed the wild Colorado River and created 180-mile-long Lake Mead.
From openings high on the face of that wall, tremendous jets of water poured unceasingly, with a never-ending roar. In the great power-house at the base of the dam, the world's largest electrical generators produced current which would run machinery and provide light for industries and homes in numberless cities and towns in California, Arizona, and Nevada. That power-house was operated by the City of Los Angeles and the Southern California Edison Company. And beyond the turbines through which it flowed, the water would move on to irrigate a vast stretch of land in Southern California which only a little while ago had been a desert÷the Imperial Valley. Now it was one of the giant food baskets of the nation.
We were intrigued by the bright colored new houses, the fine hotel, and the well equipped stores in the city which had sprung up from nothing in a boundless waste of sand, to provide housing for the 5,000 or more workers on the dam-building project.
Evening found us in Las Vegas, another boom city, which boasted of being "wide open." Streamlined, brilliantly lighted, its drinking and gambling places were never closed. And the red-light district operated without disguise or apology.
In one swank bar a blond beauty sang an old-time minstrel Song, I'm As Happy As a Big Sunflower. Lingering over cocktails and affected by the care-free opulence of our surroundings, we felt that way too.
Sunday, December 7, 1941÷We got an early start back to Los Angeles. Fine weather, our heads clear, and life was good. I was driving my 1940 Packard, with an almost noiseless engine, and a tank filled with ethyl gas. We were traveling on a wide concrete road, with well banked curves, a nearly perfect highway. Fifty-five was just a nice easy gait for that car, my proudest possession.
Desert country. Emigrant trains of covered wagons had come this way, and prospectors for gold. Men had lost their bearings in the old days, went mad with thirst and fever, and died under the broiling sun. But the desert held no menace for us on that tranquil Sunday morning. We could stop for a drink or a meal at any one of innumerable roadside places, in pleasant atmosphere. Proprietors of neat cabins offered Ostermoor mattresses, cooking equipment, shower baths, "all the comforts of home." Sleek cars from a dozen states flashed by. We sang one song after another, with light hearts.
Around 11 o'clock I turned on the radio. What I heard was like knife-thrust:
. . . Pearl Harbor bombed . . . American soldiers and sailors killed . . . treacherous attack by Japanese planes . . .
"Listen!" I called, and the others stopped singing.
My heart seemed to stand still as that dark news continued. Weall were silent, intent on every word.
Automatically I stepped on the gas, disregarding the speed law. My one thought now was to get back to Los Angeles. It was as if some terrible storm had overtaken us in the open, and we must run for shelter. I had a curious apprehension that some disaster might befall my sister Esther, then visiting me, before we could get home.
When that broadcast ended, and music came on, I turned it low, waiting for more bulletins. Between flashes from the commentators, we speculated on what lay ahead. Where would the enemy strike next ?
There had been plenty of warnings about the Japanese, with their bowing, grinning envoys doing double-talk to our State Department, but these had gone unheeded.
Only a short time before, in San Pedro, I had spoken with several pump-men who were filling an oil-tanker soon to sail for Japan. "I'd rather sink the goddamn thing than let her shove off," said one of them. He was outspoken about his feelings toward the nation that was getting the bulk of our scrap iron and most of our West Coast oil, to war on the Chinese. Bitterly he spoke of "some Senators" who had referred to Japan as "our best customer." But he was a poor man working for wages÷and he had to fill her up.
Los Angeles was quiet, as if stunned. On the boulevards, going into the city, we passed through the big markets, usually scenes of great activity. The Japanese boys and girls who manned most of the invitingly arranged fruit and vegetable stands there were on duty, but there was little business now. I wondered what would become of them. Nearly all were American-born.
At other times First Street, the main thoroughfare in the Japanese quarter, was brightly lighted, with youngsters strolling arm in arm and the Tomio Hotel and the restaurants crowded, the latter chiefly by white Americans. But this evening that street was deserted, and police in pairs were on guard at the corners.
Esther met us with strained face when we got to my apartment. She, too, had been concerned about us.
Far into the night our ears were glued to the radio. Repeatedly the story of the sneak attack was told, in different words, by various newscasters.
Next day at the office little work was done, everybody listening to each new report over the air, climaxed with President Roosevelt's speech calling for a declaration of war and the swift action by Congress which followed. I closed my eyes for an instant then, and seemed to hear the beat of drums and the tramp of marching feet. And I remembered again what my father said in the market-place in Derazhnia after Russia was defeated in 1905: ". . . Mark my words, the Japanese war lords will not stop at this÷"
That evening, as we drove to Long Beach, where Governor Olson was to address a mass-meeting about the crisis, we encountered the first total blackout. It was pitch dark on the roads, as we moved along feeling our way. The towering oil derricks, with the red lights topping them extinguished, looked sinister as their silhouettes were outlined against the sky. This blackout lasted throughout the night, and the scheduled meeting was canceled. Few people in that region slept, alert to all noises. The Japanese might land secretly on the California coast at any hour.
All day I had been turning over in my mind a question: What effect would the massacre far away in the Pacific, and the action in Washington, have upon my own life? Out of that pondering came a decision.
Working here in the last two years, despite all the obstacles set in my path, I had felt that what I was doing had importance. The long neglected and scattered dressmakers' local had been made whole again and was thriving, and the sportswear and cotton dress groups were solidly organized. More than 2,000 women workers had joined our ranks in this city in those two years and could be counted as good unionists.
But in the light of the tragedy that had plunged us into a world holocaust, my job was no longer important.
1. The names of Mr. Garlick and Mr. Runkin, as well as that of the Sun-pose company, mentioned later in this chapter, are fictitious.
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