The First Woman's Strike in the West
The First Woman's Strike in the West.
Strikes among woman wage-workers have always been few and far between, even in recent years since women workers have become somewhat organized and a little trained in co-operative principles. Twenty years ago as far West as Chicago such a thing as a united protest or demand among women only, was unknown. This reason for this was evident. Before the days when the development of machinery and the manufacture of nearly all the articles mankind needs, took work out of private homes and brought it to great manufactories and mills which necessitated the drawing of women out of the old seclusion of their homes, women were exceedingly conservative; naturally so because their minds, energies and affections had always been centered in and absorbed by the members and the affairs of home. Woman was little called on to concern herself about outside people, she knew so little of them as to feel scarcely any spontaneous sympathy for them. The true feeling of solidarity or fraternity was uncomprehended by the masses of women, and is only begining to be felt by them after a good many years of the broadening and strengtnening influence of modern industrial and economic conditions. They did not understand that a new era was dawning when the departure of work from the homes to factories and shops called them out also from the seclusion, protection and narrowness of their homes. Kach woman who was compelled to leave the privacy of home life to take her place in the busy industrial world, believed hers to be a peculiar case, a startling and unusual occurrence for which she felt humiliated and somewhat blameworthy. She did not realize that it was a new soeietary condition, not a personal misfortune, biie knew that tile "leach barrel and soap kettle,"' the pork barrel, the bake oven, the milk cellar and the long, long days of sewing by hand, had dissappeared from the home or had lost their importance, but she did not reflect that the large soap manufacturies, the big packing houses, the bakeries, the great clothing establishments, the creameries had taken their places and that in consequence the women must go there, too. She has been slow to understand that she is a part of a great, new economic movement, not an isolated case: that she is a member of a class and not a peculiar instance. The idea of a fraternity, of a mutual sympathy and community of interests between herself and a great throng of women situated like herself, did not for a long time become a part of the lives of working women. Kach one believed herself to be superior to her situation through some unusual misfortune, and she looked with suspicion on all others, in fact on every one who approached her. I remember how very difficult it was in those days, twenty years ago, to obtain any kind of information from working girls, as statistician in the K. of L. I learned this well. The working girls were generally secretive, suspicious, antagonistic toward any one who tried to learn anything of the personal lives.
There was no bond of union because of like conditions and mutual suffering, for they had not found that out yet. The women wage workers of today have learned' a great deal. Organization and trade unionism have had their influence but conditions have done more to teach them. They have come to recognize that they are parts of a irreat whole and that a fraternal acknowledgement of this fact is to their advantage. They finally formed into unions and the union discipline and instruction have made them more appreciative of the feeling of fraternity. Yet every practical organizer will admit
that it is much more difficult to iflspire women with the true union spirit than men; but it is not to be wondered at.
In the days of which I speak, the women were yet very narrow, prejudiced and selfish. Each one's petty woes were of much more importance than the good of the whole, and more or less jealousy and suspicion prevailed. We were worKing for an ambitious young firm struggling to attain a foremost position among other business houses with too little capital, and it was incumbent upon them to make all that was possible out of their employes. The principal owners were a young German Jew and his wife—he acting as manager, she as principal forewoman. They were naturally kind hearted and possessed of a strong love of approbation, but they delighted in their superior position and were very jealous of their dignity. They longed to make their hands obsequiously obedient, and yet 1-everential and affectionate, something very hard to gain among American workers. Ijiey are like the man who was told "to grin and bear it and who replied that "he would bear it but he would be confounded if he would grin." The toilers of America will obey if they must, but will not worship at the same time.
This ambitious young couple paid as low wages as women could be induced to work for at all, and they made innumerable rules which were conspicuously pasted up over all the-establishment. At the time when this recital commences tne firm had been established four years; they were beginning to show signs of considerable prosperity. They were beginning also to fix a greater gulf between themselves and their workers; for in the beginning they botn worked hard with their employes and showed a good deal of kindly fellowship With them. But now, with every day their bearing became more and more overbearing and their rules grew more strict and despotic. One of the new rules which became the cause of endless complaints, was concerning the crediting of cloaks returned. It had long been the custom for each sewer to be credited as soon as her garment was examined and "passed.", The new rule condemned her to wait until it had gone through the hands of the buttonhole maker and the presser. The unfinished garments often lay in a stack as high as tne ceiling lor weeks at a time and were then taken off in turn as they came, which sometimes left the worker with not more than a dollar to her credit at the end of the week. This worked great hardship to those who boarded themselves or were compelled to pay cash for board each week; though their pay would come sometime, its witholdment for even a few days meant hunger and want for the time being. Other rules made the hands lose precious time waiting for work, trimmings, etc., and put them to much unnecessary trouble.
The corner near which I worked was occupied by three or. four "old hands," women who had long been employed and were supposed to be better able to beard the lion in his den than any of the others. And here, every day at noon the women and girls gathered to tell their tales of woe and denounce their heartless "bosses." I could not read or think or write, and so seeing that I must listen whether or no I took up my work as soon as my simple luncheon was' despatched and devoted my ears to "the cause." I said to them one day, "Girls, if you are sure you have so much ground for complaint whv don't you
go to Mr. S , and tell hi mand ask him to
right your wrongs. It does no good to gather here every day to cry and denounce your employers. Go where your complaints will count."
"Why, how can we? We can't all of us go to Mr. S . and if one went sne would be discharged."
"You might write down your grievances and appoint some one to carry the paper to Mr. S .,
all of you promising to stand by her and to leave if she is sent away. He will not let you all go and you can save your messanger from dismissal."
The idea seemed to strike the women favorably and pretty soon, they became enthusiastic over it. As for myself I had no particular cause for complaint and was doing as well in my line of work as I ever had. I was not a "fust hand," and I was earning about $7.50 a week, where others were making from $10 to $12 in the same time. The cloak makers made higher wages in those days than now. This is the case with nearly all new industries. As the hands gain in expedition and skill, and more are coming, the wages are lowered a little at a time until the limit is reached at wjiich the worker will consent to live and raise his children.
But the women entreated me to draw up a paper, as they "did not know how to express themselves on paper," a common fault with women workers I am sorry to say. But I had had my lesson the year before and did not care to take a prominent part in this affair; T had been discharged from another establishment for going to a labor meeting and getting up to talk and tell some of my experiences. Still, to please the eomplainers, I consented. The paper was written and approved by the leaders and was then very quietly circulated among the 150 workers in the factory. It contained a clause that every one should quit work if the demands made were not granted or if any one or more should be discharged. Four girls refused to sign, one because she "thought it very unladylike for women to take part in anything so mannish," another because "it made one so conspicious" and two more because they were satisfied with the situation. When tne paper had gone the rounds, a young lady, one of the "old hands"
volunteere'd to take it to Mr. S She was
pretty, intellectual and self possessed, and relied on the others to "stand by her." Every one stopped work and waited in unwonted idleness. An under forewoman came down the aisle looking about in astonishment, with severe reproof hovering on her lips, when she seemed suddenly to conclude the case was too serious for her and turned around and seated herself at her desk. In five minutes we neard some one stamping up the stairway three steps at a time, and many a face turned white, uur. S entered, evidently in a heated and excitcu state, ordered the steam stopped, and then call all the employes up around him. He then addressed us thus:
"I am astounded, ladies, at dis ting you do me! I am paralyzed dat you should tink it necessary to complain of and treaten me in dis manner! I can't believe in such ingratitude! You say you will go if so and so is not done! You treaten me! And I haf . always been so good to you. I haf made your welfare my own interest; I haf run my establishment
tru dull seasons to please you 1 haf done every
tings! Yet you use me as if I vas a tyrant! If everyting vas not right vy not you come to me, and tell me personally, and ask me to fix it up for you —you know I not refuse you anyting reasonable. I gif any woman dat is in distress what will help her out. I heard that some one cried last week because she did not draw enough money to pay her board. If I know who it was I gif her enough. Vy not come to me as a friend, and tell your troubles? Not dis way as whole and wid treats as to an enemy! Shame on you, ladies! Dis is no€ ladylike!"
Though not one present had ever testeu his generosity or had know him to show substantial sympathy for any of their troubles, this talk seemed to
abash them very much. They began to recede one behind the other, murinering "I never said anything." "It wasn't me that did it," "I never favored such u move any way," and other like sentences. Little Mrs.
S , who had come up a few moments before
now took up the strain.
"Girls, I wouldn't haf believed it of you! An' I tink so much of you! 1 lay awake nights tinking how I can benefit you and not hurt de business. You are like my own to me and I haf cared about you so long. 1 know you will not leaf me when we haf worked together all dis many year," and .the hard grey eyes which were more accustomed to flashing fire to utterly crush some poor stupid worker, tried to be tearful. Then the male proprietor resumed his speech.
"Now girls, don't be silly any more. Go back to your work like sensible women, and if any of you find that you are not up to the average on any particular garment come to me yourself and I make it right wid you. But don't you ever try any of dis foolish business again. I am ashamed of you. But I know you did not get this up yourselfs. There arc only two or three women here who would do dis. and day are Miss Davis, who brought the paper down to me, Mis. Swank, who wrote it and their sisters who are always grumbling and creating a disturbance." And then he turned to us, the woman designated, and said, "You four may go and get your books made up, and the rest of you go back to your work."
Not a woman or girl remembered her pledge; noi one spoke in our defense, not one volunteered to explain that we had had nothing to do with stirring up discontent, that we had only carried out the wishes of nearly all .the others in doing the little that w« did. No, they walked slowly to their machines looking shamedfaced but avoiding our gaze We four stood alone before the manager and forewoman. 1 was surprised and hurt but I did not mean to give up without a word in self defense.
"Mr. S ■——," I said, "what have we done to
"Made mischief. You want another chance at it?"
"How do you know that we have? Miss Davis had the bravery to carry a paper to you that nearly every one in your factory signed and wanted carried to you but had not the courage to do themselves. I must go, because you believe that no one else could write up a plain, simple, concise statement of grievances. Our sisters must go——because they are our sisters, for they have not opened their mouths on the subject, either of them. Miss Davis and I have done just what I say. nothing more. We have not tried to stir up any discontent. You can see by my book that I have earned as much as I ever did and I have made no complaints to any one. But were I ever so much inclined to stir up discontent do you suppose I could do so if there were not plenty of causes for discontent. From quite humble beginning you have grown almost wealthy in four years. Many of these women have been with you from the first. You now live in a fashionable suburban residence, you ride to and from your work in luxurious cars, you dress well, you look prosperous and healthy and you never toil as hard as they do. These hard working women on the other hand live poorer than when the first commenced; they have sacrificed their rosy cheeks and bright eyes in your service; they work harder and harder every year and get less for it. They cannot afford streetcar fare and must walk in all kinds of weather; a few years more, and worn out and sick they must go to the hospitial or poorhouse or become burdens on some friend, as penniless as when they begun, while you will be rich and living with every comfort. Is not this cause enough for discontent? Does it need a mischief-disturber to arouse the sense of wrong in every average woman's breast?"
"Oh, you cranky Mrs. Swank, I've heard about you before dis. I will haf no more to do mit you. I pay more as my competitors and am better to my employes than most of them; to do more would be to ruin my business. Labor gets what it can command in the market and you ought to know that."
"Labor is not wood or stone or cloaks, and it is something else besides a commodity on the market waiting till it can be sold. It is after all your market. It makes your country's citizenship, it feels and it things. It acts too, when driven too far. It cannot wait and starve while a slow demand for it is coming, but it can organize. I probably understand your position among your competitors as well as you. But if you are as philanthropic and generous as you pretend to be, you will help all the sewing girls in the city to organize and raise their pitiful wages throughout all the shops. You and your competitors would still be on an equal footing."
"There, there. 1 don't want to listen to a trade union speech now. You can go." I gathered up my few belongings and passed out of the big room without a goodbye or a kind word from any one. The women were simply living up to their age-long tendencies and narrownesses. Each one. thought only of her immediate welfare. I doubt if such an occurence could take place in any shop, east or west, today. I went down stairs, presented my book to the book keeper and after a long wait received my meager wages. As I was going out the outside door, Mr. S— , came up to me and said stealthily,
"Now, see here, Mrs. Swank you are too smart to be wasting your life like this. You ought to be making yonr way in the world, you could make money as well as me. You give up all this labor agitation and turn your talents to making money for yourself. What do you gain by such nonsense? You see the women themselves did not thank you. Now you must keep quiet for a while and after a bit you come back to work."
I thanked him coldly and asked him if lie had ever thought there might be something better to devote one's life to than making money? But I passed on and never went back to his shop again. I never received the faintest apology or explanation from any of the hands there, but I learned soon that Mr.
S ■ became wonderfully kind and lenient and
liattered the girls more than ever. They pronounced me foolish and silly, while they profited from my exertions on their behalf. I realized that they needed education and an understanding of their community of interests; and were not to blame. I have never ceased to work for their welfare, nor shall I while t possess strength, capacity and opportunity, though "there, is no money in it."
Lizzie M. Holmes.
- Holmes, Lizzie M. “The First Woman’s Strike in the West.” The Tailor 12, no. 6 (January 1902): 6–8.