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H. Allen

The Crisis in the Needle Trades

Southern Scab Shops Must Be Organized!

(July 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 29, 20 July 1942, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Eighty-four thousand garment workers in New York City are today completely unemployed. Less than 12,000 of New York’s 300,000 needle trades workers are employed on war contracts. David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and Frank Rosenblum, vice-president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, state that before long the number of unemployed needle trades workers will be increased to 100,000–150,000.

This situation among the needle trades workers in New York City exists at a time when war demands have been absorbing the unemployed in other parts of the country. The source lies in the policies and actions of the Army and War Production Board in systematically ignoring the New York unionized shops and awarding contracts for making army clothes to sub-standard and non-union (scab) factories, many of them newly-built, in several states in the South.

The thousands of men and girls who are required for these Southern plants are drawn from farms in the cotton, grain and tobacco fields. The wages of these workers, who are nearly all engaged in industrial production for the first time, are 40 cents an hour, the minimum legal rate. The weekly average is $16 – a figure not even remotely close to the wage standards prevailing in the union shops in New York and elsewhere.

The Government, says President Dubinsky, “is creating a new trained force, new factories and a problem which will create post-war havoc.”

The leaders of the ILGWU and ACW unions charge that Southern congressmen have been successful in their pressure on the Roosevelt Administration to set up a scab garment industry in the South, with the ultimate objective of smashing the unions after the war through the non-union Southern plants. The needle trades union leaders correctly charge that the government policy is resulting in the beating down of established union standards and conditions.

To remedy the situation the needle trades unions demand, first, a “legitimate” share of the government contracts in order to assure work for the close to 100,000 unemployed garment workers. The unions state that almost every fabricated textile product that is needed for war purposes can be produced in New York’s women’s garment industry.

President Dubinsky also proposes that local manufacturers, particularly the large number of small shops, pool their resources to meet the competition of the Southern shops. Union officials also propose a program of retraining the needle trades workers to engage in new trades in light industry related to war production.

Union Officials Propose Wage Cuts

Clearly, these “solutions” do not suffice for the New York needle trades workers, who in any case must wait a long time for these jobs to materialize, if they ever do. Hence officials of the ILGWU declare their readiness to accept, and are themselves proposing that the garment workers accept wage cuts in order to get contracts for New York. But when the officials propose such a “solution,” they are STARTING ON THE ROAD TO COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF THE LIVING STANDARDS FOR THE NEEDLE TRADES, WORKERS, AND THE SWIFT WEAKENING AND DISINTEGRATION OF THE UNION ITSELF.

Union officials themselves have admitted that nothing short of “complete destruction of living standards of the New York workers and their families would enable New York factories to compete with Southern employers, who get their labor for 40 cents an hour.” (New York Times, July 5)

Nor does such a “solution” suffice for the thousands of garment workers in the Southern factories who are being exploited by the employers with the connivance of the government.

These proposals are no answer to the problems and needs of the garment workers. Nor is the answer as meaningless, or meaningful, as that of an unnamed ILGWU leader who, when asked about this proposal to accept wage cuts, said: “What else can we do?”

This may be the reply of the union officialdom, at a time when living costs have risen 18 per cent; but it can hardly be the answer of the hundreds of thousands of needle trades workers. The effective answer to the union-breaking policy of the Roosevelt Administration and the Southern manufacturers lies elsewhere.

President Dubinsky, reporting on the state of the ILGWU to the general executive board in session at Atlantic City, June 13–14, pointed with pride to the growth and strength of the ILGWU today, as compared with its status ten years earlier, in 1932. The union now has 310,000 members, as against 40,000 a decade ago. The union is operating in twenty-nine states and has 325 locals. The industry, he reported, was 90 per cent organized. Greatly improved standards of labor – wages, working conditions, etc. – have resulted.

”In these ten years,” Dubinsky boasted, “we have succeeded in virtually eliminating general strikes, substituting negotiation, arbitration and mediation in their place.”

Yet, without here discussing this aspect of union policy and development, it needs to be pointed out that the union’s growth flows from the great militant struggles conducted for years by the garment workers against the garment employers; struggles led and participated in by tens of thousands of fighting, union-conscious, even socialist-conscious workers, over the heads often of the conservative leadership (Sigman et al.). The older garment workers will remember these facts graphically. The fruits in recent years have been reaped by the union membership because of these earlier struggles, and not because of the abandonment of a fighting policy for preserving and building the union. That is what Dubinsky failed to point out. And it is this aspect which bears directly on the present and future of the needle trades unions.

“Appeasing” Administration Won’t Get Jobs

The officialdom of the needle trades unions, (Hillman, Dubinsky, et al.) are the strongest supporters of the Roosevelt Administration and the imperialist war. Even as terrific unemployment is hitting the New York garment workers, the ILGWU is pledged to purchase $25,000,000 in War Bonds! The ILGWU, like the other needle trades unions, has pledged full support and collaboration to the government on its labor policy. It hence gave up the right to strike in the interests of war production, “national defense,” “national unity” and “labor peace.”

But what good have scraping and bowing, concessions and surrender done the needle trades workers? The Administration has had its way and will continue to have it. The “good will” of the needle trades workers has been answered with a “thank you” in reverse: namely, government initiative, sponsorship and financing of a non-union (scab) needle trades industry in the South!

Needle trades workers, with such a large proportion of Jewish workers, probably see and feel the menace of fascism, of Hitlerism, more sharply than other workers. Yet right now they might well ask, “What price glory and war now?” as they observe the Roosevelt Administration dealing blows at their union and unionism itself.

Common Problems of North and South Workers

But what about the newly industrialized Southern workers? They must also be considered. They too are workers and have rights and problems in the present difficult situation. Their problems and rights, and those of the needle trades workers in New York and other organized areas, must be considered as one common problem or there will be no positive solution in this period for either the New York needle trades workers or the Southern workers.

Not a word has been said in their behalf in all the comments and proposals of the union officials. But failure to consider also the plight of the Southern workers is reactionary from a worker’s viewpoint. Theirs is the right to earn a living. There is no “law” that says that garments are to be made only in the East.

The industrialization of the South, in the last analysis, is to be welcomed by unionists, militants, class-conscious workers. The tens of thousands of men, women and girls who are being taken from the farms and thrown into industry will be different people in relatively swift time. True, today they will bring all their backward views and prejudices with them into the towns and cities and factories. But industrial life will go a long way to change their outlook and practice. They (the so-called Southern “crackers,” “hillbillies,” etc.) will come to see, think and feel like the Northern needle trades workers as they face identical problems with profit-seeking, labor-hating bosses. These new Southern workers will learn fast enough, as did Southern coal miners, steel workers, and others, that their wages are too low for a decent living. They may be backward now. But they will respond to appeals and proposals to remedy their conditions by union organization.

So the right of these new Southern needle trades workers to earn a living in a new way must not be questioned, directly or indirectly, above all by unionists. The Southern workers are here to stay.

Organize the Southern Workers!

What, then, is the answer to this very real problem of existence confronting hundreds of thousands of needle trades workers in New York City? The answer is the only one that has ever proved successful in similar situations: ORGANIZE! ORGANIZE THE SOUTHERN WORKERS INTO BONA FIDE LABOR UNIONS – INTO THE RESPECTIVE UNIONS IN THE NEEDLE TRADES INDUSTRY!

The masses of needle trades workers must demand that their officials from top to bottom, from Dubinsky and Hillman down to the last local union official, undertake a fighting policy to ORGANIZE THE SOUTH!

This means, first of all, that the needle trades unions shall cease to depend on “favors” from their “friends” in government; shall cease to rely on the Administration to protect their interests. The Administration, whose real friends and allies are the Jim Crow congressmen and the labor-hating oligarchy of steel and coal barons, manufacturers, landlords and planters, will not seriously help the needle trades workers out of their economic predicament. The government – now engaged in the big business of running an imperialist war in the interests of capitalism – seeks the highest profit level and the lowest labor cost level. In helping to establish new factories in the South on a non-union basis, the government is only doing what it has been doing all along in other trades and industries – namely, passing the burden of the war costs onto the backs of labor by “freezing” wages and union organization, exacting no-strike pledges, etc.

It’s Been Done Before! Do It Again!

The ILGWU has $9,000,000 in its treasury, says President Dubinsky. Other needle trades unions undoubtedly also have large sums in their treasury. Use this money – as much of it as is necessary – to organize the new factories in the South. Money will never be better spent. There is no doubt that this means a great struggle. But unless the policy of no struggles, no strikes, is abandoned, the needle trades workers will find that all the remedies proposed By the union will not bring back jobs to the vast and increasing mass of unemployed needle trade workers.

Class collaboration and a non-struggle policy will get the needle trades workers nowhere. Unionization – and, certainly, the maintenance and extension of all the present standards of the workers – is the answer to the Southern bosses.

When factories were set up in New Jersey, Maryland, upstate New York and Delaware, the New York needle trades workers confronted a situation similar to that in the South today. They proceeded to organize and establish the union in the factories in these states. It was not easy, as the history of the needle trades unions shows. But the job was done.

Fight Back Against Wage Cuts and Scabbery

The South has been the scene of great labor struggles in the organization of the textile and steel workers, and in the efforts to organize the rubber and other workers. The job is a long way from being finished. For the present situation, the Roosevelt Administration is directly responsible. Garment workers – any and all needle trades workers who are or may be involved – must pick up the challenge to labor’s rights and fight back against wage cuts and scabbery.

Needle trades workers must campaign for and DEMAND THAT THE GOVERNMENT GRANT NO WAR PRODUCTION CONTRACTS WITHOUT A UNION CONTRACT. That will bring work into the already unionized shops of the East.

An organized industry is in a position to make this and other demands – such as a 30-hour week to absorb the unemployed and the minimum union scale – upon the government and industry in connection with war industry or production. An unorganized or yielding industry is in a position only to ask, to plead, to beg, but not to achieve its demands. That is why the demands and needs of the needle trades unionists can only be made effective by a union drive to organize the Southern plants.

Unionism Is the Issue

The needs of the needle trades workers today can be approached soundly only if the fundamental issue of scab shops versus union shops is met head-on. With millions of dollars in their treasuries and with large numbers of available organizers – plus new ones from the ranks – the needle trades unions must cooperate in a campaign of organizing the South and any unorganized plants elsewhere. The officialdom of the needle trades unions, in their own narrow bureaucratic interests, as well as in the interests of the workers, must understand this as a No. 1 task. Needle trades workers have to take the lead again to beat back the attacks of Southern employers who are backed by the government.

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