could have been written today:
"My name is Rose Schneiderman, and I was born in some small city of Russian Poland. I don't know the name of the city, and have no memory of that part of my childhood. When I was about five years of age my parents brought me to this country and we settled in New York.
So my earliest recollections are of living in a crowded street among the East Side Jews, for we also are Jews.
My father got work as a tailor, and we lived in two rooms on Eldridge Street, and did very well, though not so well as in Russia, because mother and father both earned money [there], and here father alone earned the money, while mother attended to the house. There were then two other children besides me, a boy of three, and one of five.
I went to school until I was nine years old, enjoying it thoroughly and making great progress, but then my father died of brain fever and mother was left with three children and another one coming. So I had to stay at home to help her and she went out to look for work.
A month later the baby was born, and mother got work in a fur house, earning about $6 a week and afterward $8 a week, for she was clever and steady.
I was the house worker, preparing the meals and looking after the other children--the baby, a little girl of six years, and a boy of nine. I managed very well, tho the meals were not very elaborate. I could cook simple things like porridge, coffee and eggs, and mother used to prepare the meat before she went away in the morning, so that all I had to do was to put it in the pan at night.
I was finally released by my little sister being taken by an aunt, and the two boys going to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, which is a splendid institution, and turns out good men. One of these brothers is now a student at City College, and the other is a page in the Stock Exchange.
When the other children were sent away mother was able to send me back to school, and I stayed in this school (Houston Grammar
) till I had reached the Sixth Grammar Grade.
Then I had to leave in order to help support the family. I got a place in Hearn's as a cash girl, and after working there three weeks changed to Ridley's, where I remained for two and a half years. I finally left because the pay was so very poor and there did not seem to be any chance of advancement, and a friend told me I could do better making caps.
So I got a place in the factory of Hein & Fox. The hours were from 8am to 6pm, and we made all sorts of linings -- or, rather, we stitched in the linings -- golf caps, yachting caps, etc. It was piece work, and we received from 3 1/2 cents to 10 cents a dozen, according to the different grades. By working hard we could make an average of about $5 a week. We would have made more but had to provide our own machines, which cost us $45, we were paying for them on the installment plan. We paid $5 down and $1 a month after that.
I learned the business in about two months, and then made as much as the others, and was consequently doing quite well when the factory burned down, destroying all our machines--150 of them. This was very hard on the girls who had paid for their machines. It was not so bad for me, as I had only paid a little of what I owed.
The bosses got $500,000 insurance, so I heard, but they never gave the girls a cent to help them bear their losses. I think they could have given them $10 anyway.
Soon work went on again in four lofts, and a little later I became assistant sample maker. This is a poistion which, tho' coveted by many, pays better in glory than in cash. It was still piece work, and tho' the pay per dozen was better, the work demanded was of a higher quality, and one could not rush through samples as through the other caps. So I still could average only $5 per week.
After I had been working as a cap maker for three years it began to dawn on me that we girls needed an organization. The men had organized already and had gained some advantages, but the bosses had lost nothing, as they took it out on us.
We were helpless; no one girl dare stand up anything alone. Matters kept getting worse. The bosses kept making reductions in our pay, half a cent a dozen at a time. It did not sound important, but at the end of the week we found a difference.
We didn't complain to the bosses; we didn't say anything except to each other.
There was no use. The bosses would not pay any attention uless we were like the men and could make them attend.
One girl would say that she didn't think she could make caps for the new price, but another would say that she thought she would make up for the reduction by working a little harder, and then the first would tell herself, "If she can do it, why can't I?" They didn't see how they were wasting their strength..
A new girl from another shop got in among us. She was Miss Bessie Brout, and she talked organization as a remedy for our ills. She was radical and progressive
, and she stimulated thoughts which were already in our minds before she came.
Finally Miss Brout and I and another girl went to the National Board of United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers when it was in session, and asked them to organize the girls. They asked us, "How many of you are there willing to be organized?" "In the first place about twelve," we said.
We argued that the union label would force the bosses to organize their girls, and if there was a girl's union in existence the bosses could not use the union label unless their girls belonged to the union. When Fox found out what had happened he discharged Miss Brout, and probably would have discharged me but that I was a sample maker and not so easy to replace.
In a few weeks we had all the girls in the organization, because the men told the girls that they must enter the union or they would not be allowed to work in the shop.
Then came a big strike. Price lists for the coming session were given in to the bosses, to which they did not agree. After some wrangling a strike was declared in five of the biggest factories. There are 30 factories in the city. About 100 girls went out.
The result was a victory, which netted us--I mean the girls--$2 increase in our wages on average. All the time our union was progressing very nicely. There were lectures to make us understand what trade unionism is and our real position in the labor movement.
I read up on the subject and grew more and more interested, and after a time I became a member of the National Board, and had duties and responsibilities that kept me busy after my day's work was done.
But all was not lovely by any means, for the bosses were not at all pleased with their beating and had determined to fight again. They agreed among themselves that after the 26th of December, 1904, they would run their shops on the "open shop" system:
Notice: This shop will be run on the open shop system, the bosses having the right to engage and discharge employees as they see fit, whether the latter are union or nonunion.
Of course we knew that this "open shop" meant an attack on the union. The bosses intended gradually to get rid of us, employing in our place child labor and raw immigrant girls who would work for next to nothing. Word was sent out and all the workers stopped, and laying down their scissors and other tools, marched out, some of them singing. .
We were out for thirteen weeks, and the girls established their reputation. They were on picket duty from seven oclock in the morning till six oclock in the evening, and gained over many of the non-union workers by appeals to them to quit working against us.
Our theory was that if properly approached and talked to, few would be found who would resist our offer to take them into our organization. No right thinking person desires to injure another. We did not believe in violence and never employed it..
During this period we girls each received $3 a week paid us by the National Board. We were greatly helped by the other unions, because the open shop issue was a tremendous one, and this was the second fight which the bosses had conducted for it.
Their first was with the tailors, whom they beat.
If they could now beat us, the outlook for unionism would be bad. Some were aided and we stuck out, and won a glorious victory all along the line. That was only last week. The shops are open now for all union hands and for them only. (closed shop system)..
The bosses try to represent this open shop issue as tho' they were fighting a battle for the public, but really it is nothing of the sort. The open shop is a weapon to break the unions and set men once more cutting each other's throats by individual competition.
Why there was a time in the cap trade when men worked fourteen hours a day, and then took the heads of their machines home in bags setting them up on stands, put mattresses underneath to deaden the sound and worked away till far into the morning.
We don't want such slavery as that to come back. The girls and women by their meetings and discussions come to understand and sympathize with each other, and more and more easily they act together. It is the only way in which they can hope to hold what they now have or better present conditions. Certainly there is no hope for mercy of the bosses..
Each boss does the best he can for himself with no thought of the other bosses, and that compels each to gouge and squeeze his hands to the last penny in order to make a profit. So we must stand together to resist, for we will get what we can take--just that and no more...
- Rose Schneiderman
Ladies Garment Workers - 1903