Mary E. Marcy

The New York Garment Workers Strike

(February 1913)

From The International Socialist Review, Vol. 13 No. 8, February 1913.
Transcribed by Matthew Siegfried.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Mary E. Marcy brings her revolutionary class union perspective to this rich report on the massive 1912–13 New York City garment workers strike.

A WALKOUT which may yet involve every garment worker in the nation, was started in New York City, December 30th, when scores of thousands of men and women employed in the garment industries responded to the call issued by the United Garment Workers of America and deserted the shops and benches where they had toiled for years.

The response to the strike call was so great that the union officials declared the union was a great deal stronger than they had believed. One thousand five hundred volunteer red scouts, who were picked to carry the official strike declaration, were on the job at 4:00 o’clock in the morning ready to start out with bundles of strike orders to be distributed in all sections of the Lower East Side. Before night over 100,000 men, women and children had taken their working paraphernalia home to begin the good fight.

The garment workers are striking for: The abolition of the subcontracting system. The abolition of foot power. That no work be given out to be done in tenement houses. Overtime to be paid for at the rate of time and one half, double time for holidays. A forty-eight hour work week. A general wage increase of 20 per cent for all the workers in the garment industry.

The following scale of wages: Operators-First class, sewing around coats, sewing in sleeves, and pocket makers, $25 per week; second class, lining makers, closers and coat stitchers, $22; third class, sleeve makers and all other machine workers, $16. Tailors-First class, shapers, underbasters and fitters, $24; second class, edge basters, canvas basters, collar makers, lining basters and bushelers, $21; third class, armhole basters, sleeve makers, and all other tailoring, $17. Pressers-Bushel pressers, $24; regular pressers, second class, $24; underpressers and edge pressers, $18. Women and Child Workers-Button sewers and bushel hands, $12; hand buttonhole makers, first class, 30 cents; second class, sackcoats, 2½ cents; feller hands, not less than $10 a week.

From the start the Rochester workers sent pledges of support, offering to go out in sympathy if their employers should undertake to make up any clothing for the strike-bound New York firms.

The garment workers are beginning to realize the futility of carrying on single-handed fights, by having one trade make up the work while another trade is out on strike and they seem determined to do all in their power to tie up an entire trade henceforth in times of strike. The response to the strike call was practically unanimous among the Italians. There are also a score of thousand Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian and Jewish workers.

The cutters made a fine showing. They were the first to walk out in the large establishments as soon as the strike notice was delivered. For the first time in the history of the garment workers’ organizations the cutters’ response was prompt and almost entire. This end of the trade is most important, as it is impossible for the employers to secure trained cutters to take the places of the strikers.

Almost from the beginning the Socialists came to the front and offered to lend all the strength of the organization to aid the strikers in winning a victory. The New York Call threw open its columns and prepared’ to publish daily bulletins of the strike. The Socialist party arranged to supply speakers at the strike meetings and to help in the work of organizing the women in the garment industry. As days passed the ranks of the strikers were continuously augmented by new acquisitions, and in many points, near to New York City, shops are tied up tight.

At the first hint of the strike the bosses attempted to fill the places of those who walked out, with scabs. The strikers quickly appointed their committees and began to picket the strike district. Enter then, as must needs appear in these little social comedies, the paid “guards” and the police to promote disorder in the name of Peace. Then it was that “peaceful picketing” became a thing of the past. Pickets had thenceforth to tread very softly and with circumspection to avoid a broken head, or arm, or arrest and a fine.

The employers extended to their new-found employees (the scabs) the utmost graciousness and courtesy. Automobiles were promised to take them to and from the shops, with brass buttoned cops to see that trouble did not befall them on the journeys.

Such is the solicitude of the boss for the scabs he needs to break a strike!

But the taxicab drivers sent a thrill of pleasure through union and Socialist circles when they refused to take either the scabs, the guards or the policemen home. At one point fifteen taxicabs were ordered. When the taxis arrived the drivers found a crowd of strikers doing picket duty. As soon as they understood there was a strike in the shop and that they had been hired to take scabs home, they informed the bosses that they were union men and would not haul scabs under any circumstances. The employers threatened to have them fired, but the men only laughed and said they would stick to the union anyway.

The thugs employed by the shop bosses have proved very energetic and reliable. They have worked early and late beating up strikers whenever possible, starting trouble and blaming it on the workers, while the police stood by (or took a hand) to see that nobody attacked or injure them.

During the first week in January the union officials conferred with the employers relative to a settlement of the strike, but the New York Call reports that all negotiations were broken off when the employers insisted upon a return of the strikers to the shops pending an investigation of the conditions in the trade by a special commission to be appointed for that purpose. The union officials declared that under no circumstances would “they order the men to return to work” pending an investigation or arbitration of their demands.

As the pickets began to suffer at the hands of the company guards, it was decided to take a lesson from the strikers at Lawrence, Mass., and chain picketing was employed for the first time in New York City.

Ten thousand pickets were asked to report each day, starting to work on the “Chain Picket Line” at 5:00 o’clock in the morning, to pass constantly in a steady stream of pedestrians before the strike-bound shops.

On the day of the inauguration of the Chain Picket plan, the unions held various meetings which were well attended by the strikers. Hugh Frayne urged a general strike in every branch of the needle and garment industries, promising the support of the A.F. of L. while Abe Cahan closed one meeting begging the strikers to be true to the American Federation of Labor. He urged them to carry an A.F. of L. card in one pocket and a Socialist party card in the other (that is to work for class organization on one side and craft division on the other.)

This is very different from the calls of the Industrialists, all of whom insist upon a class union card on the industrial field and a Socialist party card to represent their class interests upon the political field.

The Socialists have rallied around the striking garment workers to help them in this fight in many ways. We hope they will not neglect the greatest opportunity of their lives to teach class unionism as well as class political action. In the hope of a strike victory we should point out that strikes are only a part of the great class struggle and that if the workers would only unite in one great working class union and one great proletarian Socialist party they could forever banish exploitation and the wages system.

It is reported by Gertrude Barnum, one of the publicity agents of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union that some of the bosses in the wrapper and kimona industry are anxious to see the trade organized, as they believe the industry would become better systematized. They claim that they find it hard to deal with the workers individually.

Is it possible that the employers of labor find it easier to deal directly with labor union officials than the workers individually? There is something a great deal more than suspicious in such a statement. If the employers desire to have their factories or shops organized in order that they may treat with union officials over questions of wages and hours of labor, it is very doubtful if such unionism can be of any possible benefit to the workers. It is obvious that if a union brings greater profits to the bosses it cannot at the same time give the workers a greater portion of the value of their own products.

But if the statements of Miss Barnum are true, it must be confessed that the employers are showing themselves a great deal more class conscious than she is, for they are employing scabs as fast as they can secure them, and their army of thugs and “guards” is daily on the increase. They very evidently understand that they cannot give higher wages or shorter hours to their wage slaves without cutting down dividends.

We hope the industrial unionists, both inside and outside of the party, are on the job in New York now, and showing up the class character of society so that the workers on strike today may hear, at least once in their lives, a class union talk, a revolutionary appeal. The rank and file of the striking garment workers are all right. The actual workers in the industries are always of open mind for the right kind of propaganda. Not one quarter of the garment workers are in any labor organization. Now is the time to talk One Big Union to them.

The Strike Committee of the S.P. of Local New York, is calling for funds and food to aid the strikers.

Late reports coming in show that in some cases the bosses are making heroic efforts to keep the girls in the white goods industry from joining the strikers. It was reported that organizers going to The Randall Underwear company found the doors locked and girls protesting against their incarceration. When the doors were finally opened, 100 girls left and joined the strike.

Unlike the Lawrence strike, the strike of the New York garment workers is from the top down; that is the union officials ordered the strike and have held the reins in their hands ever since. Without doubt they are trying to serve the strikers, but it is our opinion that they would build more permanently in permitting the strikers themselves to have the deciding voice in their own affairs; in teaching them self-reliance and class solidarity.

But the workers are finding out many things for themselves. They are thrilling with a new sense of power; they are learning the joy that comes when workers of whatever race or creed fight side by side in a great class struggle. The hope of victory and achievement is in the air and it is doubtful whether they will obey any orders from the union officials if their employers do not grant them appreciable benefits.

The heart of every true Socialist is with the strikers in this fight. We believe that the strike is a valuable form of direct action that teaches working class self-reliance and solidarity better than anything else. It teaches the workers to conduct their own fights. It brings out the class character of all existing social institutions. It teaches above all things, the necessity of revolutionary class unionism.

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