Working with the working woman



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That first day I asked Mamie what time work began in the morning. Mamie giggled. "I dunno. Say, Margaret, what time does work begin in the morning?" "Seven-fifteen, I think." Under the Partnership Plan I knew that each operative was allowed a week's vacation on full pay. But every time late, after fifteen times, deducted so many minutes from the vacation, just as any time off without sufficient cause meant that much less vacation.

"Ever been late?" I asked Mamie.

More giggles. "Say, Margaret, she wants to know if I was ever late!" To me: "Ninety-seven times last year--no vacation at all for mine. Ask Margaret how many time she's been late."

Still more giggles. Margaret giggled, I giggled. Margaret had been late one hundred eighteen times. Some of the girls were late practically every day; they were like small boys who would not for the world have anyone think they would try to do in school what was expected of them. Yet there were several girls who were to come into their full week off--the names and dates were posted on the bulletin board; others were given five days, three days, down to a few whose allotment out of a possible week was one-half day. But several of the most boastful over their past irregular record, and who were receiving no vacation at all, claimed they were going to be on time every day this coming year--"Sure." This was the first year the vacation with pay had been granted. I thought of Tessie at the candy factory--Tessie who had been sent speedily home by the pop-eyed man at the door because she was ten minutes late, due to taking her husband to the hospital. Verily, there is no "factory atmosphere" about the bleachery, compared with New York standards. The men, they say, take the whole matter of punctuality and attendance more seriously than the women.

The second day I began my diary with, "A bleachery job is no job at all." That again was by contrast. Also, those first two days were the only two, until the last week, that we did not work overtime at our table. When orders pour in and the mangle works every hour and extra folders are put on and the bundles of pillow cases pile up, then, no matter with what speed you manage to slap on those labels, you never seem to catch up. Night after night Nancy, Mamie, Margaret, and I worked overtime. From 7.15 in the morning till 6 at night is a long day. Then for sure and certain we did get tired, and indeed by the end of a week of it we were well-nigh "tuckered out." But the more orders that came in the more profits to be divided fifty-fifty between Capital and Labor.

(The Handbook on the Partnership Plan reads: "Our profit sharing is a 50-50 proposition. The market wage of our industry is paid to Labor and a minimum of 6% is paid to Capital. After these have been paid, together with regular operating expenses, depreciation reserve, taxes, etc., and after the Sinking Funds have been provided for by setting aside 15% of the next profits for Labor and 15% for Capital, the remaining net profits are divided 50% for Capital and 50% for the operatives, and the latter sum divided in proportion to the amount of each one's pay for the period.... A true partnership must jointly provide for losses as well as for the sharing of profits.... These Sinking Funds are intended to guarantee Capital its minimum return of 6% during periods when this shall not have been carried, and to provide unemployment insurance for the operatives, paying half wages when the company is unable to furnish employment.")

In the candy factory back in New York, Ida, the forelady, would holler from the end of the room, "My Gawd! girls, work faster!" At the bleachery, when extra effort was needed, the forelady passed a letter around our table from a New York firm, saying their order must be filled by the end of that week or they would feel justified in canceling the same. Every girl read the letter and dug her toes in. No one ever said, "You gotta work overtime to-night!" We just mutually decided there was nothing else to do about it, so it was, "Let's work overtime to-night again." It was time-and-a-half pay for overtime, to be sure, but it would be safe to assert it was not alone for the time and a half we worked. We felt we had to catch up on orders. A few times only, some one by about four o'clock would call: "Oh, gee! I'm dead; I've been workin' like a horse all day. I jus' can't work overtime to-night." The chances were if one girl had been working like a horse we all had. Such was the interrelation of jobs at our table.

Except, indeed, Italian Nancy. Whether it was because Nancy was young, or not overstrong, or not on piece rates, or a mixture of the three, Nancy never anguished herself working, either during the day or overtime. One evening she spent practically the entire overtime hour, at time and a half, washing and ironing a collar and cuffs for one of the girls. Nor did any of our table think it at all amiss.

During the day Nancy was the main little visitor from our table. She ambled around and brought back the news. If interesting enough from any quarter, another of us would betake herself off for more details. One day Nancy's young eyes were as big as saucers.

"Say, whatdyaknow! That Italian girl Minna, she's only fifteen and she's got a gold ring on with a white stone in it and she says she's engaged!" We sent Nancy back for more details. For verification she brought back the engagement ring itself. "Whatdyaknow! Only fifteen!" (Nancy herself was a year beyond that mature age.) "The man she's goin' to marry is awful old, twenty-five! Whatdyaknow!" At a previous time Nancy had regaled our table with an account of how, out of a sense of duty to a fellow-countryman, she had announced to this same Minna that she simply must take a bath. "Na," said Minna, "too early yet." That was the end of May.

We were all, even I after the third day, on piecework at our table, except Nancy. Most of the girls in Department 10 were on piecework. There was one union in the bleachery; that was in another department where mostly men were employed--the folders. They worked time rates. With us, as soon as a girl's record warranted it, she was put on piece rates. Nancy and most of those young girls were still, after one or two years, on time rates--around eleven dollars a week they made. There was one case of a girl who did little, day in and day out, but her hair. She was the one girl who used a lipstick. They had taken her off time rates and put her on piecework. She was a machine operator. The last week I was there her earnings were a little over two dollars for the week. She was incorrigible. Some of the machine operators made around thirty dollars a week. The mangle girls earned around twenty-five dollars. Old Mrs. Owens, standing up and inspecting sheets at the table behind me, made from twenty dollars to twenty-five dollars. (Mrs. Owens had inspected sheets for thirteen years. I asked her if she ever felt she wanted to change and try something else. "No, sir," said Mrs. Owens; "a rolling stone gathers no moss.") Mamie, bundler, made around sixteen dollars; Margaret, at our table, went as high once as twenty-five dollars, but she averaged around twenty dollars. My own earnings were twelve dollars and fifty-three cents the first week, fifteen dollars and twenty-three cents the second, eight dollars and twenty-seven cents the third. All the earnings at our table were low that last week--Margaret's were around twelve dollars. For one thing, there was a holiday. No wonder employers groan over holidays! The workers begin to slacken up about two days ahead and it takes two days after the day off to recover. Then, too, we indulged in too much nonsense that last week. We laughed more than we worked, and paid for it. The next week Mamie and Margaret claimed they were going to bring their dinners the whole week to work that noon hour and make up for our evil days. But as gray-haired Ella Jane said, she laughed so much that week she claimed she had a stomach ache. "We'll be a long time dead, once we die. Why not laugh when you get a chance?"

Why not?--especially in a small town where it is well to take each chance for fun and recreation as it comes--since goodness knows when the next will show itself. Outside of the gayety during working hours, there was little going on about the Falls. Movies--of course, movies. Four times a week the same people, usually each entire family, conscientiously change into their best garments and go to the movie palace. The children and young people fill the first rows, the grown folk bring up the rear. Four times a week young and old get fed on society dramas, problem plays, bathing girl comedies. Next day it is always:

"Sadie, did ya saw the show last night? Wasn't it swell where she recognized her lover just before he got hung?"

Just once since movies were has the town been taken by storm, and that was while I was there. It was "The Kid" that did it. Many that day at the bleachery said they weren't going--didn't like Charlie Chaplin--common and pie-slinging; cheap; always all of that. Sweet-faced Mamie, who longs to go through Sing Sing some day--"That's where they got the biggest criminals ever. Wonder if they let you see the worst ones"--Mamie, who had thrilled to a trip through the insane asylum; Mamie, who could discuss for hours the details of how a father beat his child to death; Mamie, to whom a divorce was meat and a suicide drink--Mamie wasn't going to see Charlie Chaplin. All that pie-slinging stuff made her sick.

Usually a film shows but once at the Falls. "The Kid" ran Monday matinée. Monday night the first time in history the movie palace was filled and over two hundred turned away. Tuesday night it was shown to a third full house. Everyone was converted.

As for dancing, once a week, Friday nights, there was a dance at the "Academy." Time was when Friday night's dance was an event, and the male contingent from the largest near-by city was wont to attend. But it cost twenty-four cents to journey by trolley from the largest near-by city to the Falls, fifty cents to attend the dance. Unemployment at the largest near-by city meant that any dancing indulged in by its citizens was at home, minus car fare. Also, the music for dancing at the Falls was not favorably commented upon. So sometimes there were six couples at the dance, once in a great while twenty. The youths present were home talent, short on thrills for the fair ones present.

Indeed, the problem of the Falls was the problem of every small town--where in the world could an up-and-doing girl turn for a beau? The only young men in the place were those married still younger and anchored there, or the possessors of too little gumption to get out. Those left hung over the rail at the end of the Main Street bridge and eyed every female passer-by. It was insult heaped on boredom, from the girls' point of view, that a Falls youth never so much as tipped his hat when spoken to. "Paralysis of the arms is here widespread," Bess put it. "You oughta see 'em in winter," Margaret giggled one Sunday while four of us were walking the streets for diversion. "If you want to know where the gallants of the Falls are in winter, look for a sunny spot. They collect in patches of sun, like some kind of bugs or animals."

As for reading, "Do you like to read?"

"Crazy 'bout readin'."

"What, for instance?"

"Oh, books, movie magazines. Don't ever remember the names of anything. Swell stories. Gee! I cried and cried over the last one...."

Or, "Do much reading?"

"Na, never git time to read."

My old maids never so much as took the newspaper. They figured that if news was important enough they'd hear about it sooner or later, and meanwhile there was much to keep up with at the Falls.

"Can't hardly sleep nights, got so much on my mind," the seventy-sixer would say.

One night she just got nervous fidgets something awful, worrying lest her brother might not get to the Baptist chicken dinner after all, when he'd gone and paid seventy-five cents for his ticket.

Sunday there was church to attend, the Catholics flourishing, the Episcopalians next, four other denominations tottering this way and that. I heard the Baptist minister preach that every word in the Bible was inspired by God, ending with a plea for the family altar.

"Christian brethren, I'm a man who has seen both sides of life. I could have gone one way. It is by the grace of God and the family altar that I stand before you the man I am."

There were thirty-one people in the congregation who heard his young though quavering words, eight of them children, two the organist and her husband, nine of the remainder women over sixty.

The Methodist, that morning, preached on the need of a revival at the Falls, and Mr. Welsh, the electrician, whose wife was resting up in Pennsylvania, thought he was right. Sunday baseball--that day our bleachery team played the Keen Kutters--pained Mr. Welsh. The Methodist minister before this one had been a thorn in the flesh of his congregation. He frankly believed in amusements, disgraced them by saying out loud at a union service that he favored Sunday baseball. Another minister got up and "sure made a fool of him," thank goodness. Where was the renegade now? Called to a church in a large Middle West city where they have no more sense than to pay him twice what he was getting at the Falls.

That night I heard a visiting brother at the Methodist church plead for support for foreign missions, that we might bring the light of the ideal Christian civilization under which we live to the thirsty savages in dark places. He poured his message to an audience of twenty-one, ten of them gray-haired women, one a child.

All the ministers prayed long for Harding and were thankful he was a child of God.

Three of us girls rowed up the lake one night and cooked our supper and talked about intimate things. It was a lake worth traveling miles to see. It was one block from the post office. Mamie had been to the lake twice in all her life. It was good for canoeing, rowing, fishing, swimming, and, best of all, just for the eyesight. Yet to the great majority it did not exist.

The bleachery, through its Partnership Plan, ran a village club house on Main Street. The younger boys, allowing only for school hours, worked the piano player from morn till night. There was a gymnasium. Suppers were given now and then. It was supposed to be for the use of the girls certain days, but they took little or no advantage of it.

Otherwise, and mostly, when the weather permitted, up and down the street folk sat on their front porches and rocked or went inside and played the victrola.

"Gawd! If I could shake the Falls!" many a girl sighed. Yet they had no concrete idea what they would shake it for. Just before I came the bleachery girls were called into meeting and it was explained to them that Bryn Mawr College was planning a two months' summer school for working girls. Its attractions and possibilities were laid forth in detail. It was explained that Vassar College and a woman's club were making it possible for two bleachery girls to go, with all expenses paid. Out of 184 eligible girls four signed up as being interested. One of those later withdrew her name. The two chosen were Bess and Margaret, as fine girls as ever went to any college. There was much excitement the Saturday morning their telegrams came, announcing Bryn Mawr had passed favorably upon their candidacy. Bess especially was beside herself. "Oh, it's what I've longed to have a chance to do all my life!" She had clutched a New Republic under her arms for days containing an article about the summer school. Both Margaret and Bess had spent a couple of years at West Point during the war as servants, for a change. They had worked for the colonel's wife and loved it. "Gee! the fun we had!"

Yet it was no time before Main Street characteristics came to the front.

Only four girls had so much as expressed an interest in the Bryn Mawr scheme. Within a week after the two girls received the telegrams, tongues got busy. Margaret looked ready to cry one afternoon.

"Hey! what's the matter?"

"My Gawd! This place makes you sick. Can't no one let a person get started enjoyin' themselves but what they do their best to spoil it for you!" Her hands were wrapping pillow case bundles like lightning, her head bent over her work. "Don't I know I ain't nothin' but a factory girl? Don't I know I probably won't ever be nothin' but one? Can't a person take a chance to get off for two months and go to that college without everybody sayin' you're tryin' to be stuck up and get to be somethin' grand and think you won't be a factory girl no more? I don't see anything I'm gettin' out of this that's goin' to make me anything but just a factory girl still. I'm not comin' back and put on any airs. My Gawd! My Gawd! Why can't they leave you alone?"

I asked two of the Falls men I knew if their sex would have acted the same as the girls, had it been two men going off for a two months' treat. "You bet," they answered. "It's your darn small-town jealousy, and not just female at all."

Suppose, then, on top of all the drawbacks of small-town life, the girls had to work under big-city factory conditions? At least there was always the laughter, always the talk, always the visiting back and forth, at the bleachery.

My last day on the job witnessed a real event. Katie Martin was to be married in ten days. Therefore, she must have her tin shower at the bleachery. Certain traditions of that sort were unavoidable. At Christmas time the entire Department 10 was decorated from end to end until it was resplendent. Such merrymaking as went on, such presents as were exchanged! And when any girl, American or Italian, was to be married, the whole department gave her a tin shower.

Katie Martin inspected and folded sheets. She was to marry the brother of young Mrs. Annie Turner, who ticketed sheets. Annie saw to it that Katie did not get to work promptly that noon. When she did appear, all out of breath and combing back her hair (no one ever wore a hat to work), there on two lines above her table hung the "shower." The rest of us had been there fifteen minutes, undoing packages, giggling, commenting. Except old Mrs. Brown's present. It was her first experience at a tin shower and she came up to me in great distress. "Can't you stop them girls undoin' all her packages? 'Tain't right. She oughta undo her own. I jus' won't let 'em touch what I brought!" Ever and again a girl would spy Mrs. Brown's contribution. "Hey! Here's a package ain't undone." "No, no, don't you touch it! Ain't to be undone by anybody but her." Poor Mrs. Brown was upset enough for tears.

There were a few other packages not to be undone by anybody but her, because their contents were meant to, and did, cause peals of laughter to the audience and much embarrassment to Katie. On the lines hung first an array of baby clothes, all diminutive size, marked, "For little Charlie." Such are the traditions. Also hung seven kitchen pans, a pail, an egg-beater and gem pans; a percolator, a double boiler and goodness knows what not. On the table stood six cake tins, more pots and pans, salt and pepper shakers, enough of kitchenware to start off two brides. Everybody was pleased and satisfied. Charlie, the groom-to-be, got a friend with a Ford to take the shower home.

The last night of all at the Falls I spent at my second Board of Operatives' meeting, held the first Friday night of each month. The Board of Operatives is intended to represent the interests of the workers in the bleachery. The Board is elected annually by secret ballot by and from the operatives in the eleven different departments of the mill. Margaret and Bess went, too, on request from above, that they might appear more intelligent should anyone ask at Bryn Mawr about the Partnership Plan. ("My land, what would we tell them?" they wailed.) The Board meetings are officially set down as open to all the operatives, only no one ever heard of anyone else ever attending. The two girls were "fussed" at the very idea of being present, and dressed in their best.

The president, elected representative from the starch room, called the meeting to order from his position at the head of the table in the Village Club House. Every member of the Board shaves and puts on his Sunday clothes, which includes a white collar, for the Board meeting. It is no free show, either. They are handed out two dollars apiece for attending, at the end of the meeting, the same idea as if it were Wall Street. The secretary reads the minutes of the Board of Management. ("The Board of Management was set up by the Board of Directors in July, 1919, as a result of a request from the Board of Operatives for more than merely 'advisory' power which the Board of Operatives then enjoyed in reference to matters of mill management, wages, working conditions, etc. The Board of Management consists of six members, three of whom are the treasurer, the New York agent, and the local manager, and three of whom are elected by the Board of Operatives from their number.... The Board of Management is authorized to settle and adjust such matters of mill management as may arise....") The Company statement, up to March 31, 1921, was read. There followed a report from the Housing Committee--first a financial statement. Then it seemed somebody wanted to put somebody else out of a house, and there were many complications indeed arising therefrom, which took much discussion from everyone and bitter words. It looked as if it would have to be taken to court. The conclusion seemed to be that the Board felt that its executive secretary, chosen by the management, though paid out of the common funds, had exceeded his authority in making statements to tenants. We girls rather shivered at the acrimony of the discussion. Had they been lady board members having such a row, half of them would have been in tears. Next, old Mrs. Owens, who shook sheets behind me, wanted to buy a certain house on a certain avenue--company house, of course. Third, one Mr. Jones on Academy Street wants us to paper his kitchen--he will supply the paper. And there followed other items regarding paint for this tenant, new floor for that, should an old company boarding house be remodeled for a new club house or an apartment house; it was decided to postpone roofing a long row of old company houses, etc.

The operative from the folding and packing room was chairman of the Housing Committee, a strong union enthusiast. The representative from the mechanical department reported for the Recreation and Education Committee; all the night school classes had closed, with appropriate final exercises, for the season: the children's playground would be ready for use July 1st. The man from the "gray" room and singe house reported for the Working Conditions Committee. Something about watchmen and a drinking fountain, and wheels and boxes in the starch room; washing facilities for shovelers; benches and back stairs.

The Finance Committee reported a deficit on the mechanical and electrical smoker. Much discussion as to why a deficit and who ought to pay it, and what precedent were they setting, and all and all, but it was ordered paid--this time. Webster's bills were too high for papering and painting company houses. He was a good worker, his plaster and his paper stuck where they belonged, which hadn't been the rule before. But it was decided he was too costly even so, and they were going back to the company paperers--perhaps their work would stick better next time. A report from the Board of Directors was discussed and voted upon.... The minutes of the Board of Operatives were posted all through the mill. Did anyone read them? If so, or if not so, should the Board of Management minutes also be posted? It was voted to postpone posting such minutes, though they were open to any operative, as in the past.

Under Old Business was a long discussion on health benefits and old-age pensions. For some months now the bleachery has been concerned on the subject of old-age pensions. Health benefits have been in operation for some time. The question was, should they pay the second week for accident cases, until the state started its payments the third week?




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