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'Both parties agree,' or 'Both parties are desirous.'
I thought the workers in the union shops must be happy, for they have everything to protect them. But my later experiences convinced me that it was not so, that the Protocol of Peace was stronger on paper than it was in reality.
Besides the Manufacturers' Association there were a number of manufacturers who did not belong to it, and they signed separate agreements with the Union. They were called the Independent Union Shops. I thought that in the union shops the bosses just carry out every clause agreed to in the protocol; but I soon found out that the workers had to fight for every bit that was coming to them according to the agreement.
I struck a job as an operator on West 25th Street, a union shop. The line of work was a medium one; piece-work prevailed in that shop. I did more observing than sewing the first day, for I never before worked in a union shop and I was anxious to find out how the people feel in one. And this was the result of my first day's experience. The difference between a union shop and a non-union shop is that in a non-union shop the boss himself makes a price, the people in the shop having nothing to say; the boss can discharge a worker at
any time he pleases and feels like it; he can change the system in the place as often as he finds it beneficial for himself, without considering that he might injure the workers. In a union shop the people have a price committee to make prices with the boss; they
have a chairman or chairlady to represent them in the shop; no system can be changed before the Union is notified.
All seemed to be well, but it was not. It is true that the worker has a right to complain against the wrong actions of the boss; but as not all the workers as yet have courage enough to complain against their employer, as most of them just stay behind a few brave people, and let them speak in the name of all, the consequence is not at all favorable. The boss would think that the workers as a whole don't care, that they are contented; but the few more or less brave workers kickers, or trouble-makers, as the boss calls them -those raise a discontentment of the people, those are the ones who make the fights, and naturally, if the boss finds it impossible to discharge them, he makes their life so miserable that they are bound to leave themselves. I did not see much in that new place, but I learned enough in the many shops I worked for in the next year and a half. In that shop I did not stay long.
In the meantime, I began to attend the regular member meetings of the Waist- and Dress-Maker's Union. I was very interested in following the news of the different shops, but not much could be learned at the member meetings. Instead of discussing the order of the day, or giving shop reports, time was taken by a few men who always tried to disturb the meetings. They were very ignorant. If it happened that a complaint of a worker was lost by the Union, they explained that the union leader sold the case to the manufacturer. They would always accuse, without any facts at all, accuse the union leaders of dishonesty; but they would never give any remedy as to how to get rid of those leaders who in
jure the organization. I cannot even now explain the true motive of those few boys, for poisoning the minds of the members with such false statements. They either envied the position of the union leaders or were influenced by their bosses through the sort of lectures I often heard. There were many members who strongly protested against those people for killing their time, but it was impossible to get rid of them. It was awfully disgusting. I knew none of the leaders at that time, but I understood that they could be blamed with lack of ambition, they could possibly be blamed for not understanding the people thoroughly, but by no means for dishonesty.
The next job I got on Spring Street. It was a very small place. I had to make samples and do the draping. The boss liked the work very much. In two days later he came over to me, and told me that he needed somebody to watch over the few girls, but as his place was very small, he could not afford to keep a forelady, so he wanted me to take charge over the operators. The finishers, he said, he'll look after them himself.
I immediately refused. How could I, having just passed through so many different shops and seen the rude treatment by the foreman or forelady of the employees, become a forelady myself? That would mean to carry out all the instructions of the boss, for I could be no forelady if I would not obey his orders. I would have to hurry the girls with their work, I would have to bargain with them in prices and give them less than I should. I would have to order them to work overtime when the boss wants to.
day. It was on Madison Avenue. I remember the place was so light and clean. The foreman, a tall, middle-aged man with a kind gentle face, treated the people fairly. For the few days I stayed there, I never heard him holler at a girl. He would speak to everybody in just the same manner as he addressed the boss. He would come over every minute to me, encourage me in the work, show me how to do it, for it was a very good line of dresses and I felt a little nervous as everybody does the first days. He gave me thirteen dollars to start with. On Saturday after work, I came over to the foreman, asking him if I could possibly get my pay now, for I was in an awful need and could not wait till Tuesday, the regular pay-day. The foreman told me it was against the rule of the house to pay before Tuesday, but he would make an exception with me. In a few minutes he took me in the office telling me to wait till my pay was made out.
As I waited, the boss came in, а handsome young man with very dark bushy hair and big round blue eyes. 'What is it you are waiting for, young lady?' asked he.
I excused myself for asking my pay on Saturday, and explained to him why I needed the money.
When the bookkeeper had my pay made out, she left. I still waited; I did not know why I did n't get my money! The boss sat by his desk writing. I had no courage to disturb him and ask for my pay, so I sat and waited. At last he stood up, straightened himself and sent a smile to me. He took my pay, looked at it, asking me, 'Is that all you get?'
'No,' I said; 'I get thirteen, but this
'Oh, no, not me, I could not do it,' is only for two days and a half.’ said I to my employer.
"Then I'll have to look for somebody else, who will do it,' he said.
I got another job, that very same
'But, my dear girl, that would not be enough for you! Don't you need more than that?'
A thrill ran through my body when
I noticed how he was measuring me with his eyes while he spoke. I felt what the glance in his eyes meant. It was quiet in the shop, everybody left, even the foreman. There in the office I sat on a chair; the boss stood near me with my pay in his hand, speaking to me in a velvet soft voice.
'Goodness, nobody round!' thought I, trembling with all my body. Instinctively I stood up out of my chair and stretched my hand out for my pay.
'Wait a moment, I'll give you some more'; and as he said that he grasped me in his arms.
I screamed, and with superhuman strength I threw him from me, running into the hall. Luckily, the elevator boy opened the door in the same moment as I rushed out of the office; I ran into it. When I was downstairs I was in a mad state. I ran down the streets, not seeing its directions. It seemed to me as if someone would run after me trying to catch me. When I reached home, I was so pale that the people in the house became anxious about me.
In my room I closed up the door, hid my face in the cushion, and cried all afternoon. How I hated the men, all of them without exception! I stood before the mirror and studied my face, trying to find if there is anything in it that awakes a man's impudent feelings towards me. I hated my youth, for it caused me so many painful humiliations for the last few weeks. Never till then did I realize what it meant to be a woman. When I walked out of my room, I thought that all the men who were in the house looked at me with the same rude looks as that boss, and I suffered terribly. I tried to sit down in a corner, unnoticed of the people. My money I left with the boss; I had not time to think of it, as I rushed to the elevator to escape in time.
How happy would I be, if I could take revenge of that mean man! If I
could only discredit him so that he should never again be able to insult a working-girl. But how was I to do it? I had no witnesses to testify to the truth. I myself with my broken English could hardly explain what happened. Besides, I thought, if I work in a place and was called to court, my firm would suspect me in something bad, and send me away. So I left him alone, and never went there to collect my money, though I was in frightful need.
In the evening before I went to bed, I cried again.
'What's the matter now?' asked my friend Fannie.
She knew nothing; I was ashamed to tell her the truth.
'I lost my pay on my way home,' said I.
'Oh, you careless girl, could not you be more careful with your money?' 'Yes, I was careful, very careful; that's why I lost it,' said I.
'Why don't you get married, Leeza?' she asked me. 'If I had as many admirers as you, if I had as many chances as you, I would do it long ago. You are young, full of life, so pretty you would make an ideal darling wife!'
I smiled. 'Is marriage the remedy for a shop-girl? Oh, no, Fannie, you are too bright to think so yourself,' said I. 'Then the kind of man I'm to marry is likely to be a poor wageearner; he is also exploited, and our life would be miserable under the present state of conditions. You are right if you say that I can marry a wealthy man. I know I have all the chances to it; but Fannie, this is not the outcome, and where is love then? You know that love does not choose the wealthy any more than the poor! And if you know me, you also know what I think of marriage without love. Besides all, I believe in the economical independence of the woman. Conditions must
be created so that the girl should not be driven from a shop by its horrible conditions. The long hours in the shop, the unsanitary conditions, the small wages, the so-often-repeated slow season, drive the self-supported, unprotected girl sometimes to life of shame, sometimes to suicide, and more often to marry anybody who happens to propose to her.'
All the next day I felt awfully broken-hearted. I could not get over it. I was very nervous and suffered with headache. After dinner, a young fellow, a good acquaintance of mine, came to visit me. He invited me out to Bath Beach, assuring me that the seashore will take all the aches away. I went with him. He was such a nice fellow, he always treated me with the highest respect; but being that I was so embittered against men, I even took him as one of those who sees only 'woman' in me. I treated him terribly that Sunday. Poor boy, he could not understand my capriciousness. There in Bath Beach, I was introduced to an aunt of his; when she learned that I was looking for work, she gave me a card to her brother who was a jobber on waists and whose aunt kept a small waist-shop in the same place. She assured me that I'd positively get a job when she sent me.
As I dreaded to go into a shop through the paper, I went with the card that the woman in Bath Beach gave me to her brother, and got the job.
The first few days I was so absorbed in my work that I did not even notice the people I worked with. I was taken in by the foreman, who was the cutter and everything else. I spoke to nobody except to the girl who sat next to me, when I had to ask anything of the work.
Being absorbed in the work, I nevertheless raised my head from time to time to observe the surroundings. The place was on the first floor. It extended from Seventeenth to Eighteenth Street. In the front on Seventeenth Street was the shipping department where the ready-made merchandise was sent in from the contractors and shipped from there to the customers. The front on Eighteenth Street was taken by the office and show-room. The very dark middle space that was left gave shelter to the small factory, consisting of one cutting-table, one machine-table, a small finishing-table and a pressing-board. The windows in the middle walls on both sides faced narrow courtyards. The sunshine could never strike through, the buildings being so high and close to each other. We had to work by gaslights from morning till evening. The windows and the sink were covered with dirt an inch thick; they were never cleaned. The table with the machines stood close to the wall, and we had plenty of dust to inhale from the windows and the yard, also the smell of the rotten sausages of the Busy Bee restaurant, which was in the next basement.
There were sixteen machines; eleven of them were occupied and the rest waiting. Altogether we were fourteen girls working-three finishers, who did also the cleaning, examining, and ironing.
The main boss of that waist-house, being the jobber, was out the most of the time. His son, a young man of twenty, was supposed to be the boss of our small plant, but as he seemed to know very little about waists, the Mr. Foreman bossed us himself in a way of an experienced sweat-shop manager.
In the middle of the week two girls left. They were the best operators. Sadie, the girl next to me, told me that they only stayed up there for the
My mind was full of thoughts. I forgot in myself. Also I forgot that I made up my mind to think of the work only that nothing else should bother me. I could not keep the promise to my own self. I saw the few girls around the table, and I thought of them! They were all so young, not more than from seventeen to twenty years of age. And what did they get? Three, four, or five dollars a week; perhaps some of them got a little more than that. And how they were rushed, and scolded by the foreman, who some time would use such a language that a Russian Cossack would blush! And how did they live? When the week was over, I asked the foreman for a price. He nearly fainted when I told him I wanted fourteen dollars a week; a girl should not want so much! It was fortunate enough for `me that the two girls left in the middle of the week; the foreman, being very busy and having few skilled workers, was afraid to lose me too. So, after two hours' bargaining, I remained there for thirteen dollars a week, but was strongly forbidden to tell anybody in the shop of the 'absurd' amount I was getting. I was the highest-paid worker in that little shop. So, after many weeks of my Don-Quixote-like adventures, I at last settled down in that small, dark, dirty place at 41 West 17th Street!
A great deal of my thoughts was now occupied with my shop. The five weeks I stayed there were enough for me to get acquainted with everything. It was a model of a sweat-shop in the full sense of the word.
We worked in sets. Each skilled
operator had two or three learners to work with. The learners would work, each one on a certain part of the garment, and the skilled operator would complete the waist.
Those poor girls were purposely never given a chance to be shown how to make up a complete garment, for two reasons. When a girl worked continuously on one part of the garment, the work went quicker. A girl not being experienced in the trade would meet with great hardship in finding another job, so that the girl who worked in a set is always dependent on the boss she worked for, and has to be very careful how she talks up to the foreman, for fear to lose their 'brilliant' job.
To me the foreman spoke in an unusually polished language for him. It was because I was the highest-paid worker in the shop. But the greatest respect he began to pay me when he once learned through the papers that I was to play on the stage. Our dramatic club had given performances every once in a while. 'So, so, you are to be an actress it's fine, very fine,' would he say proudly.
He would often tell the girls that I was an actress. The girls also would respect me a great deal. That helped me in gaining their confidence. I often tried to convince them how much better it would be for them if they would all get together and join the Union. They would gladly do it, were they not afraid of the boss.
There was another girl in our shop, a very experienced worker, who just came for the sake of her sister. Her sister had just come from Russia, and though she was a dressmaker from home, she did not know how to work at first, for the system in the shops is so much different from the system in the Russian private dressmaking places. That girl, Mollie, got twelve dollars a