Working with the working woman



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I can hear a bleachery operator grunting, "My Gawd! what's the woman ravin' over? Is it our bleachery she's goin' on about?" Most of the workers in the bleachery know no other industrial experience. In that community, so it seems, a child is born, attends school up to the minimum required, or a bit beyond, and then goes to work in the bleachery--though a few do find their way instead to the overall factory, and still fewer to the shirtwaist factory. No other openings exist at the Falls.

There is more or less talk nowadays about Industrial Democracy. Some of us believe that the application of the democratic principle to industry is the most promising solution to industrial unrest and inefficiency. The only people who have written about the idea or discussed it, so far, have been either theorizers or propagandists from among the intellectuals, or enthused appliers of the principle, more or less high up in the business end of the thing. What does Industrial Democracy mean to the rank and file working under it? Is it one of those splendid programs which look epoch-making in spirit, but never permeates to those very people whom it is especially designed to affect?

It was to find out what the workers themselves thought of Industrial Democracy that I boarded a boat and journeyed seventy miles up the Hudson to work in the bleachery, where, to the pride of those responsible, functions the Partnership Plan.

What do the workers think of working under a scheme of Industrial Democracy?

What do the citizens of the United States think of living under a scheme of Political Democracy?

The average citizen does not think one way or the other about it three hundred and sixty-five days in the year. Even voting days the rank and file of us do not ponder overlong on democracy versus autocracy. Indeed, if it could be done silently, in the dead of night, and the newspapers would promise not to say a word about it, perhaps we might change to a benevolent autocracy, and if we could silence all orators, as well as the press, what proportion of the population would be vitally concerned in the transition? Sooner or later, of course, alterations in the way of doing this and that would come about, the spirit of the nation would change. But through it all--autocracy, if it were benevolent, or democracy--there would be little conscious concern on the part of the great majority. Always provided the press and orators would keep quiet.

From my own experience, the same could be said of Industrial Democracy. Autocracy, democracy, the rank and file of the workers, especially the women workers, understand not, ponder not.

"Say," chuckled Mamie, "I could 'a' died laughin' once. A fella came through here askin' everybody what we thought of the Partnership Plan. My Gawd! when he got to me I jus' told him I didn't understand the first thing about it. What ud he do but get out a little book and write what I said down. Never again! Anybody asks me now what I think of the Partnership Plan, and I keep my mouth shut, you bet."

Once an enthused visitor picked on me to ask what I thought of working under the Partnership Plan. After he moved on the girls got the giggles. "Say, these folks that come around here forever asking what we think about the Partnership Plan! Say, what any of us knows about that could be put in a nutshell."

And gray-haired Ella Jane, smartest of all, ten years folding pillow cases, said: "I don't know anything about that Partnership Plan. All I know is that we get our share of the profits and our bonuses, and I can't imagine a nicer place to work. They do make you work for what you get, though. But it's all white and aboveboard and you know nobody's trying to put something over on you."

But the general spirit of the place? Could that be traced to anything else but the special industrial scheme of things? One fact at least is certain--the employing end is spared many a detail of management; the shift in responsibility is educating many a worker to the problems of capital. And production is going up.

* * * * *

Have you ever tried to find a spare bed in a town where there seems to be not a spare bed to be had? I left my belongings in an ice cream store and followed every clue, with a helpful hint from the one policeman, or the drug store man, or a fat, soiled grandmother who turned me down because they were already sleeping on top of one another in her house. In between I dropped on a grassy hillside and watched Our Bleachery baseball team play a Sunday afternoon game with the Colored Giants. We won.

And then I took up the hunt again, finally being guided by the Lord to the abode of the sisters Weston--two old maids, combined age one hundred and forty-nine years, who took boarders. Only there were no more to take. The Falls was becoming civilized. Improvements were being installed in most of the houses. Boarders, which meant mainly school-teachers, preferred a house with Improvements. The abode of the sisters Weston had none. It was half a company house, with a pump in the kitchen which drew up brown water of a distressing odor.

The sisters Weston had worked in the overall factory in their earlier years, hours 7 to 6, wages five dollars a week, paid every five to six weeks. Later they tried dressmaking; later still, boarders. I belonged to the last stage of all--they no longer took boarders, they took a boarder. Mr. Welsh from the electrical department in the bleachery, whose wife was in Pennsylvania on a visit to her folks, being sickly and run down, as seemed the wont of wives at the Falls, took his meals at our boarding house, when he was awake for them. Every other week Mr. Welsh worked night shift.

My belongings were installed in the room assigned me, and the younger of the sisters Weston, seventy-three, sat stiffly but kindly in a chair. "Now about the room rent...?" she faltered. Goodness! yes! My relief at finding a place to sleep in after eleven turn-downs was so great that I had completely neglected such a little matter as what the room might cost me.

"What do you charge?" I asked.

"What do you feel you can pay? We want you should have some money left each week after your board's paid. What do you make at the bleachery?"

My conscience fidgeted within me a bit at that. "I'd rather you charged me just what you think the room and board are worth to you, not what you think I can pay."

"Well, we used to get eight dollars a week for room and board. It's worth that."

It is cheaper to live than die in the Falls at that rate. Three hot meals a day I got: breakfast, coffee, toast, two eggs, mush, later fruit; dinner, often soup, always meat, potatoes, vegetables, coffee, and a dessert; supper, what wasn't finished at dinner, and tea. Always there was plenty of everything. Sometimes too much, if it were home-canned goods which had stood too many years on the shelves, due to lack of boarders to eat the same. But the sisters Weston meant the best.

"How d'ya like the punkin pie?" the older, Miss Belle, would ask.

The pumpkin pie had seemed to taste a trifle strange, but we laid it to the fact that it was some time since we had eaten pumpkin pie. "It tastes all right."

"Now, there! Glad to hear you say it. Canned that punkin ourselves. Put it up several years ago. Thought it smelled and looked a bit spoiled, but I says, guess I'll cook it up; mebbe the heat 'n' all'll turn it all right again. There's more in the kitchen!"

But it suddenly seemed as if I must get to work earlier that noon than I had expected. "Can't ya even finish your pie? I declare I'm scared that pie won't keep long."

Mr. Welsh got sick after the first couple of meals, but bore on bravely, nor did the matter of turned string beans consciously worry Mr. Welsh. The sisters themselves were always dying; their faithful morning reports of the details of what they had been through the night before left nothing to the imagination. "Guess I oughtn't ta 'a' et four hot cakes for supper when I was so sick yesterday afternoon. I sure was thinking I'd die in the night.... 'Liza, pass them baked beans; we gotta git them et up."

* * * * *

At six o'clock in the morning the bleachery whistle blows three times loud enough to shake the shingles on the roofs of the one-hundred-year-old houses and the leaves on the more than one-hundred-year-old trees about the Falls. Those women who have their breakfasts to get and houses to straighten up before they leave for work--and there are a number--must needs be about before then. Seven o'clock sees folks on all roads leading to the bleachery gate. At 7.10 the last whistle blows; at 7.15 the power is turned on, wheels revolve, work begins.

It must be realized that factory work, or any other kind of work, in a small town is a different matter from work in a large city, if for no other reason than the transportation problem. Say work in New York City begins at 7.45. That means for many, if not most, of the workers, an ordeal of half an hour's journey in the Subways or "L," shoving, pushing, jamming, running to catch the shuttle; shoving, pushing, jamming, running for the East Side Subway; shoving, pushing, jamming, scurrying along hard pavements to the factory door; and at the end of a day of eight or nine hours' work, all that to be done over again to get home.

Instead, at the Falls, it meant a five minutes' leisurely--unless one overslept--walk under old shade trees, through the glen along a path lined with jack-in-the-pulpits, wild violets, moss--the same five minutes' walk home at noon to a hot lunch, plenty of time in which to eat it, a bit of visiting on the way back to the factory, and a leisurely five minutes' walk home in the late afternoon. No one has measured yet what crowded transportation takes out of a body in the cities.

New York factories are used to new girls--they appear almost daily in such jobs as I have worked in. At the Falls a strange person in town is excitement enough, a strange girl at the bleachery practically an unheard-of thing. New girls appear now and then to take the places of those who get married or the old women who must some time or other die. But not strange girls. Everyone in the bleachery grew up with everyone else; as Ella Jane said, you know their mothers and their grandmothers, too.

It so happened that a cataclysmic event had visited the Falls the week before my appearance. A family had moved away, thereby detaching a worker from the bleachery--the girl who ticketed pillow cases. The Sunday I appeared in town, incidentally, seven babies were born. That event--or those events--plus me, minus the family who moved away and an old man who had died the week before, made the population of the Falls 4,202. Roughly, half that number either worked at the bleachery or depended on those who worked there. Who or what the other half were, outside the little group of Main Street tradespeople, remained a mystery. Of course, there were the ministers of the gospel and their families--in the same generous overdose--apportioned to most small towns. The actual number working in the bleachery was about six hundred and twenty men and women.

Odd, the different lights in which you can see a small town. The chances are that, instead of being a worker, I might have spent the week end visiting some of the "élite" of the Falls. In that case we should have motored sooner or later by the bleachery gate and past numerous company houses. My host, with a wave of the hand, would have dispatched the matter by remarking, "The town's main industry. The poor devils live in these houses you see."

Instead, one day I found myself wandering along the street of the well-to-do homes. What in the world...? Who all ever lived way up here? Whatever business had they in our Falls? Did they have anyone to talk to, anything to do? I laid the matter before Mamie O'Brien.

"Any rich folk living around here?"

"Guess so. Some swell estates round about--never see the people much."

"Are they stuck up?"

"Dunno--na. Saw one of 'em at the military funeral last week. She wasn't dressed up a bit swell--just wore a plaid skirt. Didn't look like anybody at all."

In other words, we were the town. It was the bleachery folk you saw on the streets, in the shops, at the post office, at the movies. The bleachery folk, or their kind, I saw at the three church services I attended. If anyone had dared sympathize with us--called us "poor devils"!

* * * * *

The first morning at the bleachery the foreman led me to the narrow space in the middle of three large heavy tables placed "U" shape, said, "Here's a girl to ticket," and left me. The foreman knew who I was. Employment conditions at the bleachery were such that it was necessary to make sure of a job by arranging matters ahead of time with the manager. Also, on a previous occasion I had visited the bleachery, made more or less of an investigation, and sat in on a Board of Operatives' meeting. Therefore, I left off my earrings, bought no Black Jack, did not feel constrained to say, "It ain't," though saw no reason why I too should not indulge in "My Gawd!" if I felt like it. I find it one of the most contagious expressions in the language. The girls did not seem to know who I was or what I was. Not until the second day did the girl who stood next to me ask my name--a formality gone through within the first five minutes in any New York job. I answered Cornelia Parker. She got it Miss Parks, and formally introduced me around the table--"Margaret, meet Miss Parks--Miss White, Miss Parks." Also all very different from New York. About the only questions asked by any girl were, "You're from New York?" and, "Where did you work before you came here?" Some wondered if I wasn't lonesome without my folks. I didn't have any folks. There was none of the expressed curiosity of the New York worker as to my past, present, and future. Not until the last few days did I feel forced to volunteer now and then enough information so that they would get my name and me more or less clear in their minds and never feel, after their heart-warming cordiality, that I had tried "to put anything over on them." Whether I was Miss Parks or Mrs. Parker, it made no difference to them. It did to me, for I felt here at last I could keep up the contacts I had made; and instead of walking off suddenly, leaving good friends behind without a word, I could honestly say I was off to the next job, promise everyone I'd write often and come again to the Falls, and have everyone promise to write me and never come to New York without letting me know. I can lie awake nights and imagine what fun it is going to be getting back to the Falls some day and waiting by the bridge down at the bleachery for the girls to come out at noon, seeing them all again. Maybe Mrs. Halley will call out her, "Hi! look 'ose 'ere!"

* * * * *

At our bleachery, be it known, no goods were manufactured. We took piece goods in the rough, mostly white, bleached, starched, and finished it, and rolled or folded the finished stuff for market. In Department 10, where most of the girls worked, the west end of the big third floor, three grades of white goods were made into sheets and pillow cases, ticketed, bundled, and boxed for shipping. Along the entire end of the room next the windows stood the operating machines, with rows of girls facing one another, all hemming sheets or making pillow cases. There were some ten girls who stood at five heavy tables, rapidly shaking out the hemmed sheets, inspecting them for blemishes of any kind, folding them for the mangle, hundreds and hundreds a day. At other tables workers took the ironed sheets, ticketed them, tied them in bundles, wrapped and labeled and stacked the bundles, whereupon they sooner or later were wheeled off to one side and boxed. Four girls worked at the big mangle. Besides the mangle, one girl spent her day hand-ironing such wrinkles as appeared now and then after the mangle had done its work.

So much for sheets. There were three girls (the term "girl" is used loosely, since numerous females in our department will never see fifty again) who slipped pillow cases over standing frames which poked out the corners. After they were mangled they were inspected and folded, ticketed, bundled, and wrapped at our three U-shaped tables. Also there, one or two girls spent part time slipping pieces of dark-blue paper under the hemstitched part of the pillow cases and sheets, so that the ultimate consumer might get the full glory of her purchase.

The first week Nancy, a young Italian girl (there were only two nationalities in the Falls--Italians and Americans), and I ticketed pillow cases. At the end of that time I had become efficient enough so that I alone kept the bundler busy and Nancy was put on other work. Ticketing means putting just the right amount of smelly paste on the back of a label, slapping it swiftly just above the center of the hem. There are hundreds of different labels, according to the size and quality of the pillow cases and the store which retails them. My best record was ticketing about six thousand seven hundred in one day. The cases come folded three times lengthwise, three times across, sixty in a bundle. As fast as I ticketed a bundle I shoved them across to the "bundler," who placed six cases one way, six the other, tied the bundle of twelve at each end with white tape, stacked them in layers of three until the pile was as high as possible for safety, when it was shoved across to the wrapper. How Margaret's fingers flew! She had each dozen in its paper, tied and labeled, in the wink of an eye, almost.

In our department there were three boys who raced up and down with trucks; one other who wrapped the sheets when he did not have his arm gayly around some girl; and the little man to pack the goods in their shipping boxes and nail them up. There were two forewomen--pretty, freckled-faced Tess and the masculine Winnie. Over all of us was "Hap," the new boss elected by Department 10 as its representative on the Board of Operatives. It is safe to say he will be re-elected as long as death or promotion spare him. Hap is a distinct success. He never seems to notice anybody or anything--in fact, most of the time you wonder where in the world he is. But on Hap's shoulders rests the output for our entire department. The previous "boss" was the kind who felt he must have his nose in everything and his eye on everybody. The month after Hap and his methods of letting folks alone came into power, production jumped ahead.

But Hap spoke up when he felt the occasion warranted it. The mangle girls started quitting at 11.30. They "got by" with it until the matter came to Hap's notice. He lined the four of them up and, while the whole room looked on with amused interest, he told them what was what. After that they stayed till 12.

Another time a piece-rate girl allowed herself to be overpaid two dollars and said nothing about it. Hap called her into the office.

"Didn't you get too much in your envelope this week?"

"I dunno. I 'ain't figured up yet."

"Don't you keep track of your own work?"

"Yes, but I 'ain't figured up yet."

"Bring me your card."

The girl reddened and produced a card with everything up to date and two dollars below the amount in her pay envelope.

"You better take a week off," said Hap. But he repented later in the afternoon and took it back, only he told her to be more careful.

It was the bundler who took me under her wing that first day--pretty Mamie O'Brien--three generations in the Falls. There was no talk of vamping, no discussions of beaus. Everyone told everything she had done since Saturday noon.

"Hey, Margaret, didjagototha movies Saturday night?"

"Sure. Swell, wasn't it?"

"You said it. I 'ain't ever saw sweller...."

"I seen Edna's baby Sunday. Awful cute. Had on them pink shoes Amy made it...."

"Say, ain't that awful about Mr. Tinney's grandchild over to Welkville! Only lived three hours...."

"They're puttin' in the bathtub at Owenses'...."

"What dya know! After they got the bathroom all papered at Chases' they found they'd made a mistake and it's all got to be ripped down. Bathtub won't fit in." ("Improvements" were one of the leading topics of conversation day in and day out at the Falls.)

"Ain't that new hat of Jess Tufts a fright? I 'ain't never saw her look worse."

Back and forth it went--all the small gossip of the small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else from start to finish. It was all a bit too mild for Mamie, as I later learned--indeed, I began to learn it that day. It was no time before Mamie was asking my opinion on every detail of the Stillman case: Did I think Mrs. Stokes would get her divorce? Did I consider somebody or other guilty of some crime or other? Somebody gets the electric chair to-morrow? Wasn't it the strangest thing that somebody's body hadn't been recovered yet? Whatdyaknow about a father what'll strangle his own child? A man got drowned after he'd been married only two days. And did I think Dempsey or Carpentier would win the fight? "Gee! Wouldn't you give your hat to see that fight?"

Meanwhile I was nearly drowning myself and the labels in paste, at the same time trying to appear intelligent about a lot of things I evidently was most uninformed about; working up an enthusiasm for the Dempsey-Carpentier fight which would have led anyone to believe my sole object in working was to accumulate enough cash to pay the price of admission. And all this time I was feasting my eyes on fresh-faced girls in summer wash dresses, mostly Americans, some Italians; no rouge whatever; not a sign of a lipstick, except on one girl; little or no powder; a large, airy, clean, white room, red-and-white striped awnings at the windows; and wherever the eye looked hillsides solid with green trees almost close enough to touch (the bleachery was built down in a hollow beside a little river). Oh, it was too good to be true, after New York!

Pretty gray-haired, pink-cheeked (real genuine pink-cheeked) Mrs. Hall and I were talking about the bleachery on our way to work one morning. Mrs. Hall had been a forelady in a New York private dressmaking establishment. She had what is called "style and personality." Her wages in New York had been thirty-five dollars a week, and she had much variety and responsibility, which she loved. Circumstances brought her to the Falls. She had never worked in a factory; the very idea had appalled her, yet she must work. One day she went up to Department 10 to see what it was all like. "Why," she said, "it took my breath away! I felt as if I was in one of those lovely rooms where they did Red Cross work during the war. Of course I get only a small amount a week and it's the same thing over and over again, and after what I was used to in New York that's hard. But it never seems like I was in a factory, somehow."

Just so. There was never the least "factory atmosphere" about the place. It used to make me think of a reception, the voice of the machines for the music, with always, always the sound of much talk and laughter above the whir. Sometimes--especially Mondays, with everyone telling everyone else what she had done over the week end, and for some reason or other Fridays, the talk was "enough to get you crazy," Margaret used to say. "Sure it makes my head swim." Nor was the laughter the giggling kind, indulged in when the forelady was not looking. It was the riotous variety, where at least one of a group would "laugh till she most cried"; nor did it make the least difference, whether the forelady was one foot or one hundred away. Like as not the forelady was laughing with the rest. Only once did I ever see authority exerted to curb merriment. On that occasion things reached a climax. All those not directly concerned with the joke became so curious as to what it was all about that one by one the girls left their machines and gathered up one end of the room to laugh with the rest, until production, it was apparent, was at a standstill. Winnie went out and told Hap. Hap merely stepped inside the room, and every girl did "sure get busy." It was the only time even Hap so much as paid the least attention to what went on. All day there was talk, all day laughter, all day visiting a bit here and there, back and forth. Yet in the month of April production had reached the highest point ever, and the month I was there was expected to surpass April. It is significant that with all the fun, the standard of efficiency and production in our bleachery was such that out of eighteen like industries in the country, we were one of the only two running full time. Thirteen were shut down altogether.




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