March 25, 2010

99 years ago today

From the front page of NY Times, March 26, 1911, “Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.” A far more gruesome telling in “Stories of Survivors,” also appearing in the Times that same day, tells of young women who had fled to windowsills... tearing their hair out in the handfuls and then they jumped.”

But the most telling testimony is provided in an interview years after the Triangle factory fire by Pauline Newman, who worked for The Triangle Shirtwaist Company as a child soon after arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1901, and eventually became an labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.      
“We was, we had the corner on the floor. It resembled a kindergarten: we were all youngsters. And we were given little scissors to cut the threads off, like so. It wasn’t heavy work. It was monotonous 'cause you did that from 7: 30 till nine o’clock at night. You had one half hour for lunch and nothing for supper or anything like that. Before I left I was promoted to the cutting department. You’d cut the embroidery, which was inserted in the front of the shirtwaist in those days, and that was . . . They were the kind of employers who didn’t recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren’t allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you’d keep on, you’d be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And that door was locked. And that was proved during the investigation of the fire. They were mean people. There were two partners, Rank and Harris, and one was worse than the other. People were afraid, actually. And finally, it took from the time I got there, October 1901 to November 1909, for the people to really rise and proclaim that they cannot work under such condition any longer. And we had 20,000 of them coming out here, and 15,000 in Philadelphia, you know? And that was the strike, Boston from November 1909 to the end of March 1910.”

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