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A Renegade Union
Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism
By LISA PHILLIPS
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One Community-Based, "Catch-All" Organizing on New York's Lower East Side
They "called us a bunch of greenya chayas" whom they "took off the boat when we came from the other side and stuck ... in a dark cellar to swallow dust and dirt." —Arthur osman, 1968
By 1933, during the darkest years of the Depression, Arthur Osman and his co-workers found themselves working sixteen or more hours a day stocking and selling merchandise, manipulating customers, and trying to turn a profit for their boss. While the job may have been better than sewing the garments by the piece or pushing a cart through the streets hawking merchandise, it no longer offered the upward mobility it had generations earlier, leaving Osman and the rest of the people who worked at Eckstein's trapped in low-wage jobs with no control over their own or their families' futures.
Many of the older men who owned the small wholesale and retail shops throughout the Lower East Side along Orchard Street were, like Osman, Jewish immigrants who, in their youth, either sold merchandise on a cart or as clerks in small shops. Unlike Osman and his co-workers, salesmen of preceding generations could realistically expect to eventually own shops. With a few hundred dollars in savings, two or three clerks typically pooled their resources, rented out a storefront, lived as cheaply as possible in the backrooms, and tried to sell the merchandise at enough of a profit to expand the business. The shop where Osman worked, for example, was owned by the Eckstein brothers and their father. In 1916, after having just ten years earlier emigrated from Zelva (in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Pale, the area to which Russian Jews were restricted until 1917), the four pooled their resources and opened a small wholesale undergarment shop on Orchard Street. During those ten years they peddled merchandise on the street, worked for other shop owners as clerks, and then finally tried their luck with their own shop. By the time Osman and his co-workers began thinking about organizing a labor union at Eckstein's, the business had grown to one of the larger wholesale shops on the Lower East Side, employing more than sixty people.
Other Lower East Side success stories included that of Louis Borgenicht, "the king of the children's dress trade," who arrived in the United States in 1888. He sold "whatever he could buy for a nickel for a dime" on a pushcart near his apartment on Eldridge Street (just two blocks west of where Eckstein's Wholesale Merchant would eventually be located). Four years later, he employed twenty girls in the back room of a larger store on Sheriff Street. He paid them as little as possible to sew children's dresses, which he then either sold wholesale out of the storefront or in bulk to Bloomingdale's and other department stores. By 1900, Borgenicht had moved the business out of the Lower East Side to a Midtown location on East Broadway, making a profit of $10,000, and employed several hundred people.
While not all pushcart peddlers retired as millionaires, many, at least prior to the Depression, could realistically work toward owning their own shops and becoming the bosses of, if not 1,500 people, perhaps 5 to 10 people. The onset of the Depression wiped out the possibility of future shop ownership. While the Eckstein brothers managed to keep their business running, Osman and his co-workers faced a future working the same twelve to sixteen hours per day with no set days off and no way out. By 1933, Osman and his co-workers had grown increasingly frustrated not only with the positions they found themselves in but also with their bosses' condescending attitudes. They "called us a bunch of greenya chayas" (Yiddish for, literally, "inexperienced animals") whom they "took off the boat when we came from the other side and stuck ... in a dark cellar to swallow dust and dirt," Osman recalled.
Osman, like all Americans, was living through one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history. Regardless of how many times one contemplates the magnitude of the Depression, the statistics are still shocking. By 1932, 15 million people, or about one out of every four wage earners, were out of work. New York, hit harder than any other American city because of its size, mirrored national trends. By 1932, one-third of the city's manufacturing establishments had closed, leaving one-quarter of the city's population out of work and 1.6 million people dependent on some form of relief. "Never," writes one historian, "had the city of New York faced such an overwhelming crisis. And never had there been a better opportunity to make profound, even revolutionary, changes in American life."
How did salesclerks like Osman, lucky to be employed at all and working in small ten- to twenty-person wholesale shops, attempt to make revolutionary changes in American life? New York offered them a relatively unique context within which to try. Thousands of people worked within a square mile of H. Eckstein Wholesale Merchant. Some sewed the garments, others carted them to and from the warehouse, others "processed" and packed them, others stocked the clothing, still others sold them both to customers off the street and to larger retail establishments Uptown, and most of them, regardless of the job they did, worked in small shops employing forty people or less. In the 1930s, about 20 percent of the city's manufacturing workers (about 200,000 people) made garments, while several thousand more (about 10,000) made the buttons, thread, boxes, and other items that supported the apparel industry. Still others (more than 20,000), and this is where Osman and his co-workers fit into the picture, processed, packaged, transported, sold, and otherwise "distributed" the garments wholesale in one of the city's 2,400 wholesale dry goods establishments and in the warehouses in which the garments were processed and stored. The garments finally then made their way to retail outlets and into the hands of consumers. From the sewing machine operator's first stitch to the clerk handing a wrapped package to a customer, thousands of people worked day in and day out within just a few blocks of each other dealing with some aspect of garment manufacture, distribution, and various levels of sales.
New York differed from other large cities in the United States in that, although it was a major manufacturing center, most of the manufacturing establishments located in the city were small, specialized in nondurable goods such as clothing, and produced for the local New York metropolitan area (which was enormous). New York was not engulfed by huge, smoke-spewing factories as were Detroit, Gary, and Pittsburgh. Because New York's local market was so big, producing for it enabled manufacturers to specialize in everything from pencils and long underwear to chewing gum and kosher wine. Smaller manufacturers were also able to adjust more quickly to consumers' whims, especially in the apparel industry. If a particular suit or blouse went out of fashion, a smaller apparel manufacturer could quickly retool and adjust to the market. Small manufacturers throughout New York faced intense competition within their respective industries. They needed to keep costs, including labor costs, low and innovate constantly in order to outcompete their rivals as they all tried to respond to the local market.
The thousands of manufacturers that together made up the garment industry constituted one of the four largest "manufacturers" in the city, the others being printing, publishing, and food. In all of these industries, not one company dominated. Rather, thousands of small establishments constituted the industry. In addition to manufacturing, New Yorkers worked in other nonmanufacturing sectors of the economy, which included "white-collar" professionals, "pink-collar" clerical workers, managerial positions, and sales, distribution, and service work. Whether the insurance district, the diamond district, various wholesale food districts, the financial district on Wall Street, booksellers row, or the entertainment industry, the people who worked in each tended to identify with their trade rather than with the small company for which they worked. If New Yorkers were unhappy with their jobs, they could quit and find a new job relatively easily, but because the competition was so fierce among shop owners, the new job would not be much better. Business owners pushed their employees hard in order to turn any bit of profit and edge out their competitors. Many shops, especially in apparel, Eckstein's included, cut costs further by operating on a seasonal basis.
Ethnic, religious, racial, and gendered divisions further characterized New York's industries, including the garment industry. Over the period 1880–1920s, German and Irish immigrants, who had come to New York in the 1850s through the 1870s, saw their children and grandchildren climb the occupational ladder into skilled positions in the construction industry or on the waterfront; become shop owners; take management jobs; work for the city as firefighters, policemen, or transit workers; or find employment as teachers, nurses, or clerical workers. A definite shift had occurred by the first two decades of the twentieth century. The children of German and Irish immigrants left the less-skilled work their parents and grandparents had done to the Jewish and Italian immigrants who were just arriving. Jewish and Italian men and women found work in the garment industry (as would later waves of Puerto Rican, West Indian, and Chinese women and men).
Not many African American men and women, less than 2 percent of New York's population in the years before World War I, worked in the garment industry before the 1930s. The few African American men who had found jobs in New York's various industries as skilled, semiskilled, or unskilled tradesmen or as waiters in the 1870s and 1880s were pushed out of these jobs by upwardly mobile German and Irish immigrants and their children and by newly arriving Jewish and Italian immigrants. Employers preferred to hire immigrants, and most labor unions made sure that any new, especially skilled and semiskilled, jobs were open only to their German and Irish sons. African American and West Indian men and women were forced to work primarily in service-oriented jobs as domestics, janitors, elevatormen, hallmen, chauffeurs, and porters and were barred, by various forms of racial prejudice, from finding jobs in significant numbers in industry or white-collar work in the years prior to World War I.
World War I temporarily helped black New Yorkers move out of domestic jobs and into industrial jobs. Europeans all but stopped coming to the United States during the war, their numbers dwindling to only 110,000 in 1918 from a high of almost 2 million in 1914. As a result of this and of soldiers fighting overseas, American businesses experienced a wartime labor shortage and, for the first time in U.S. history, industrial jobs opened up for thousands of black men and women who were moving to New York and other northern cities, creating "the first black industrial class." As would happen again after World War II, however, African American men and women faced the "last hired and first fired" phenomenon as "white" soldiers, mostly European immigrants or their children, returned to New York. Although African American men and women were able to retain a significant number of unskilled jobs in New York's various industries, the even lower-paying and usually less stable service-oriented jobs remained the purview of African American men and women after World War I.
Black New Yorkers began feeling the impact of the impending economic depression as early as 1926. By early 1929, before the stock market crashed, "one-fifth of all blacks employed in industry had already been thrown out of work." A bit of a reprieve emerged with President Roosevelt's New Deal programs. By 1936–37, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had hired African American men and women into civil service positions, and at least one account indicates that they found new jobs in stores in Harlem. Overall, however, African Americans were three times as likely to appear on the relief rolls and their unemployment rates were double those of whites. The Depression pushed African American men and women to find work wherever they could; many women turned to the almost always-hiring garment industry for jobs.
By the time the Depression hit, the garment industry had become less overwhelmingly Jewish, much more Italian, and increasingly more black than it had been in 1920. Like German and Irish immigrants, Jewish immigrants did not encourage their sons and daughters to follow in their footsteps. Instead, they steered their children into white-collar work in various businesses, as office workers, or in the professions. After 1933, young American-born Jews took advantage of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's new merit-based hiring process and began taking positions as civil servants, ending the Irish monopoly under the Tammany Hall system. By the mid-1930s, the ILGWU reported only 40 percent Jewish membership, a significant drop from 80 percent a little more than a decade earlier. More recently arrived Jewish immigrants were joined by Italian immigrants and African Americans and some immigrants from the West Indies who together continued to work in the garment industry throughout the Depression and into World War II; they were joined by Puerto Ricans in increasing numbers after the war.
Whether moving out of manufacturing into the sale and distribution of garments was "white collar" in the sense of higher pay and higher status is questionable and depends on the type of wholesale establishment a person worked for and in what capacity. Jews working as skilled cutters or tailors in the garment industry often made more than small shop owners so, in that case, the assumption that white-collar work paid more does not hold. In the late 1920s, the Workers' Cooperative Colony, a Jewish cooperative housing project, refused to admit anyone who did not "work by the sweat of their brow" into the cooperative. The cooperative reflected the thinking of most working-class Jews in New York at the time in that it considered Jewish entrepreneurs "workers" and allowed them to join. Small shop owners ceased being part of the working class when they were successful enough to start living "off the labor of others." Factory owners, larger shop owners, landlords, and people who, like the Eckstein brothers, had positioned themselves as "bosses" no longer belonged to the same class.
More successful wholesale shop owners on the Lower East Side were almost always men and, especially in the apparel industry, Jewish. Most had emigrated a generation or more earlier than the men who worked as sales and shipping clerks, who were also Jewish but usually younger and more likely recent immigrants. In the 1920s, thousands of Jewish immigrants, like the Eckstein brothers, had opened up wholesale shops without needing much capital investment. Many of them were still in too precarious a position to survive the Depression (almost half of the wholesale furniture shops closed during the Depression). To make matters worse, wholesale shop owners complained that the new "chain" stores, like F. W. Woolworth's, made it even harder for them to offer their customers merchandise at "wholesale" prices, their prices now undercut by the "five and dime" chains (the first Woolworth store had opened in New York City in 1896).
Jewish women were more likely to be young and hold clerical positions within the small wholesale establishments. More successful wholesalers also operated small warehouses where women and men, mostly Jewish and Italian recent immigrants and increasingly African Americans, "processed" the garments (sorted, packed, catalogued, and transported) and cleaned the warehouses. Local 65's first black member, Alexander Miles, came into the union in 1935 and worked as a sweeper.
Most of the garments would eventually make their way to the thousands of retail shops located throughout the city and in the boroughs and on to other cities throughout the United States. The most successful wholesalers held accounts with large department stores in Midtown. Retail clerks in the large department stores in New York were more often than not native-born, usually "white," roughly half Jewish and half Gentile, while the people stocking the shelves, sweeping, and doing the janitorial services were more often recent immigrants and, increasingly, especially after World Wars I and II, African American men and women. In addition to the department stores, there were hundreds of smaller retail and wholesale outlets, second-hand clothing stores, in each of New York's industrial districts and in the city's residential areas. New York was filled with small ten-person shops of all kinds, some of which were organized but many more of which fell outside the purview of the unions already organizing in the garment industry. Hundreds of thousands of people remained unorganized, including wholesalers. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Renegade Union by LISA PHILLIPS Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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