"We'd rather starve quick than starve slow." Such is the battle cry of the 30,000 striking shirtwaist makers (mostly girls) who since November 22 have made Clinton Hall the busiest and most interesting spot in New York city.
Since the union movement began among women, nothing so significant as this general strike has happened, and for generalship, obedience and good conduct under circumstances which would break a less determined and courageous host, these Jewish, Italian, and American girls from the East Side can give points to trades practiced in striking.
The members of the trade in New York are estimated at 40,000; between 30,000 and 35,000 have joined the Ladies' Shirtwaist Makers' Union. Already 18,000 girls are again at their machines on their own terms, 236 firms having taken them back into closed shops. It is the smaller shops that have settled. The bitterest part of the fight is still ahead.
The history of the trouble has not yet been fairly given to the public. A few facts about the wholesale trade of machine shirtwaist making will make the whole story more comprehensible.
A Manhattan Trade School secretary who has had much experience in placing girls in different trades, says that she likes to have her girls go into shirtwaist making because it has as great possibilities--many of them as yet unfulfilled--as any other industry open to women in New York. A fast operator at piecework, or even working by the day in a good shop, can earn $16 or more in a week. The minimum piece-wage for strip tucking, for instance, is ten cents a hundred yards. Twelve cents is paid in many shops, and fifteen cents is probably what the strikers claim in most cases. A good operator can average 2,000 yards a day. A girl who averaged this at the Triangle Waist Company’s shop where the strike began,--says that her wages were $7 a week in the busy season and $6 in slack time, while a sub-contractor admits that he averaged $28 to $30 a week and paid $4 to $10 to his girls.
Sub-contracting is a system whereby the firm never makes any dealing directly with the operators. The sub-contractor undertakes to produce a definite amount of work for a definite price, and makes what bargains he sees fit with his girls. He can slave-drive and underpay as he pleases, and even if his intentions are of the best; he represents an extra profit, the burden of which falls on the operator rather than on the consumer.
Curiously enough, it was a sub-contractor who started the strike. Some eighteen months ago at the Triangle shop on Washington place (Harris and Blank’s) this man because he “was sick of slave-driving” protested to the manager, saying he wanted to go and take his girls with him. He was not allowed to speak to the girls after he had expressed himself, but was told to report to the cashier for his pay. Fearful of a slugging on the way up in the elevator, he asked to have someone go with him, and was not only refused, but set upon and dragged out of the shop--the original “assault.” As he was dragged along he shouted, “Will you stay at your machines and see a fellow worker treated this way?” And impulsively 400 operators dropped their work and walked out.
The union at that time numbered only about 500 members and the trade was in no way organized; so when Secretary Schindler suggested conciliatory methods, and the firm seemed willing to treat, it was not difficult to fill the shop again. The managers formed a society of the more intelligent workers, and with its members in council, terms were hit upon. “The society and a job or the union and no job” was the demand of the firm. The society having a membership limited to one hundred, there were five non-members to one member. By degrees it was discovered that the members got most of its benefits, and in frightened twos or threes the girls began to drift down to union headquarters and ask for help in organizing. Discontent grew even among the members, so that when last September a meeting was held at Clinton Hall to discuss the situation, all but seven members of the society were asking for help from the union. Someone reported the meeting to the firm, and the next day, Friday, September 24, the employers called the girls together and expostulated with them more in sorrow than in anger. Terms were once more arranged between a delegation of operators and the firm, and the next day everyone went back to work as usual. On Monday, however, when the girls reported for work the shop was found closed, and that night the East Side papers reported that the Triangle Waist Company had shut down for an indefinite time. The next day, however, came the notice that at “the earnest solicitation of the members of the society,” it was once more open. No union girls were taken back, so within thirty-six hours, through the agency of the society whose dwindling membership then numbered exactly seven--all of them sisters, cousins, and aunts of the members of the firm--the strike became a lockout.
This was the situation with the Triangle company on the first of October. Meanwhile there was a local strike on at Leiserson’s, and the trade at large, seething with discontent, needed no further encouragement to go out en masse. Probably the only consideration that had held them in check before was the fear on the part of the Jewish girls--the large part of the trade--that the Italians would “scab.” Employers had made clever use of race and religious antagonism to keep the girls from uniting.
The resolution for a general strike was taken at mass meetings held November 22. At Cooper Union Mr. Gompers spoke, and a procession of speakers, mostly Yiddish, for two hours implored their attentive audience to go about the thing soberly and with due consideration; but, if they decided to strike, to stand by their colors and be loyal to the union. The dramatic climax of the evening was reached when Clara Lemlich, a striker from Leiserson’s who had been assaulted when picketing, made her way to the platform, begged a moment from the chairman, and after an impromptu Philippic in Yiddish, eloquent even to American ears, put the motion for a general strike and was unanimously endorsed. The chairman then cried, “Do you mean faith? Will you take the old Jewish oath?” And up came 2,000 right hands with the prayer: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither and drop off at the wrist from the arm I now raise.”
|RULES FOR PICKETS
Don’t walk in groups of more than two or three.
Don’t stand in front of the shop; walk up and down the block.
Don’t stop the person you wish to talk to; walk alongside of him.
Don’t get excited and shout when you are talking.
Don’t put your hand on the person you are speaking to.
Don’t touch his sleeve or button. This may be construed as a "technical assault." Don’t call anyone "scab" or use abusive language of any kind.
Plead, persuade, appeal, but do not threaten.
If a policeman arrest you and you are sure that you have committed no offence, take down his number and give it to your union officers.
—From a circular issued by the Ladies’ Shirtwaist Makers’ Union.
Several weeks before this eventful night, the arresting of pickets had begun, and members of the Women’s Trade Union League had begun to take a hand. Picketing as practiced by these strikers consists in sentry duty performed by union members before the doors of a shop at opening and closing hours, telling the “scabs” that a strike is on--among the newly arrived foreigners there are many who do not know this--asking them to come to union headquarters and learn about it. When peaceably practiced, picketing has for years been upheld by the New York courts as legal. The girls, however, have been arrested literally by the dozen, taken to court and fined sometimes as high as $10 each, without even a hearing.