Working with the working woman



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And Peters--who was small though grown, and black, and who cleaned up with a fearful dust and snitched lead pencils if you left them around.

At present, in addition, there were the sixteen crochet beaders, because crochet beading is stylish in certain quarters--this "department" newly added just prior to my arrival. But before the beaders could begin work the goods had to be stamped, and before they could be stamped Mr. Rogers (he was middle-aged and a dear and an Italian and his name wasn't "Rogers," but some unpronounceable thing the Germans couldn't get, so it just naturally evolved into something that began with the same letter which they could pronounce) had to concoct a design. He worked in the cage at a raised end of the cutting table. He pricked the pattern through paper with a machine, at a small table outside by the beaders, that was always piled high with a mess of everything from spools to dresses, which Mr. Rogers patiently removed each time to some spot where some one else found them on top of something she wanted, and less patiently removed them to some other spot, where still less patiently they were found in the way and dumped some place else. Such was life in one factory. And Ada would call out still later: "Mr. Rogers, did you see a pile of dresses on this table when you went to work?"

Whereat in abject politeness and dismay Mr. Rogers would dash from "inside" to "outside" and explain in very broken English that there had been some things on the table, but "vaire carefully" he had placed them--here. And to Mr. Rogers's startled gaze the pile had disappeared.

If a dress had to be beaded, Mr. Rogers took the goods after the cutter finished his job, and he and his helpers stamped the patterns on sleeves, front and back, skirt, by rubbing chalk over the paper. Upon the scene at this psychological moment enters the bright girl to make herself useful. The bright girl "framed-up" the goods for the beaders to work on. (In fact, you noted she entered even earlier, by helping the cutter tie the bundles according to size and color.)

"Frame-up" means taking boards the proper length with broad tape tacked along one edge. First you pin the goods lengthwise, pins close together. Then you find side boards the desired length and pin the goods along the sides. Then with four iron clamps you fasten the corners together, making the goods as tight as a drum. There is a real knack to it, let me tell you--especially when it comes to queerly shaped pieces--odd backs or fronts or sleeves. Or where you have a skirt some six or eight feet long and three broad. But I can frame! Ada said so.

When I got a piece framed (Now I write those six words and grin) ... "when" ... Two little skinny horses I had to rest the frames upon. The space I had in which to make myself useful was literally about three by four feet just in front of the shelves where the thread and beads were kept. That is, I had it if no one wanted to get anything in the line of thread or beads, which they always did want to get. Whereupon I moved out--which meant my work might be knocked on the floor, or if it was bigger I had to move the work out with me. Or I crawled under it and got the thread or beads myself. If it were a skirt I was framing up I earned the curses, though friendly, of the assemblage. No one could pass in any direction. The beaders were shut in their quarters till I got through, or they crawled under. Or I poked people in the back with the frames while I was clamping them. I fought and bled and died over every large frame I managed to get together, for the frame was larger than the space I had to work in. Until in compassion they finally moved me around the corner into the dressmaking quarters, which tried Joe's soul. Joe was the Italian foreman of that end of things. He was nice. But he saw no reason why I should be moved up into his already crowded space. Indeed, I was only a little better off. The fact of the matter was that the more useful I became the more in everybody's way I got. Indeed, it can be taken as a tribute to human nature that everyone in that factory was not a crabbed nervous wreck from having to work on top of everyone else. It was almost like attempting dressmaking in the Subway. The boss at times would gaze upon my own frantic efforts, and he claimed: "Every time I look at you the tears come in my eis." And I would tell him, "Every time I think about myself the tears come in mine." About every other day he appeared with a hammer and some nails and would pound something some place, with the assurance that his every effort spelled industrial progress and especial help to me.

"All I think on is your comfort, yes?"

"Don't get gray over it!"

Nor will I forget that exhibition of the boss's ideas of scientific management. Nothing in the factory was ever where anyone could find it. It almost drove me crazy. What was my joy then when one day the boss told me to put the spools in order. There was a mess of every-colored spool, mixed with every other color, tangled ends, dust, buttons, loose snappers, more dust, beads, more spools, more dust. A certain color was wanted by a stitcher. There was nothing to do but paw. The spool, like as not, would be so dusty it would take blowings and wipings on your skirt before it could be discovered whether the color was blue or black. I tied my head in tissue paper and sat down to the dusty job of sorting those spools. Laboriously I got all the blacks together and in one box. Laboriously all the whites. That exhausted all the boxes I could lay hands on. I hunted up the boss. "I can't do that spool job decent if I ain't got no boxes to put the different colors in."

"Boxes, boxes! What for you want boxes?"

"For the spools."

"'Ain't you got no boxes?"

"'Ain't got another one."

He hustled around to the spool shelves where I was working.

"Ach, boxes! Here are two boxes. What more you want?"

Majestically, energetically, he dumped my black spools out of one box, my white spools out of the other--dumped them back with a flourish into the mess of unassorted dust and colors.

"Here are two boxes! What more you want?"

What redress had I for such a grievance except to wail at him: "My Gawd! my Gawd! I jus' put those spools in them boxes!"

"Ach, so!" says the boss. "Vell, put um back in again."

With the sweat of my life's blood I unearthed a ragged empty box here, another there, no two sizes the same. After three days of using every minute to be spared from other jobs on those shelves, I had every single spool where it belonged and each box labeled as to color. How wondrous grand it looked! How clean and dusted! I made the boss himself gaze upon the glory of it.

"Ach, fine!" he beamed.

Two days later it was as if I had never touched a spool. The boxes were broken, the spools spilled all over--pawing was again in season. Not yet quite so much dust, but soon even the dust would be as of yore.

"One cause of labor unrest is undoubtedly the fact that the workers are aware that present management of industry is not always 100 per cent efficient."

* * * * *

So then, I framed up. Nor was it merely that I worked under difficulties as to space. Another of the boss's ideas of scientific management seemed to be to employ as few bright and useful girls as possible. He started with three. He ended with just one. From dawn to dewy eve I tore. It was "Connie, come here!" (Ada, the beadwork forelady.) "Connie, come here!" (The cutter.) "Connie, thread, thread, yes? There's a good girl!" (The beaders.) "Connie, changeable beads, yes? That's the girl!" "Connie, unframe these two skirts quick as you can!" "Connie, never mind finishing those skirts; I got to get this 'special' framed up right away!" "Connie, didn't you finish unframing those skirts?" "Connie, tissue paper, yes? Thanks awfully." "Connie, did you see that tag I laid here? Look for it, will you?"

But the choice and rare moment of my bright and useful career was when the boss himself called, "Oh, Miss Connie, come mal here, yes?" And when I got mal there he said, "I want you should take my shoes to the cobblers so fort yes?... And be sure you get a check ... and go quick, yes." Whereupon he removed his shoes and shuffled about in a pair of galoshes.

I put on the green tam. I put on the old brown coat with now three buttons gone and the old fur collar, over my blue-checked apron, and with the boss's shoes under my arm out I fared, wishing to goodness I would run into some one I knew, to chuckle with me. Half an hour later the boss called me again.

"I think it is time you should bring my shoes back, yes?" I went. The cobbler said it would be another five minutes. Five minutes to do what I would within New York! It was a wondrous sensation. Next to the cobbler's a new building was going up. I have always envied the folks who had time to hang over a railing and watch a new building going up. At last--my own self, my green tam, my brown coat over the blue-checked apron, chewing a stick of Black Jack, hung over the railing and for five whole minutes and watched the men on the steel skeleton. All the time my salary was going on just the same.

I was hoping the boss would tip me--say, a dime--for running his errands. Otherwise I might never get a tip from anyone. He did not. He thanked me, and after that he called me "dearie."

Ada's face wore an anxious look when I got back. She was afraid I might not have liked running errands. Running errands, it seemed, was not exactly popular. I assured her it was "so swell watchin' the riveters on the new buildin'" I didn't care about the shoes.

The first day in any new job seems strange, and you wonder if you ever will get acquainted. In the dress factory I felt that way for several days. Hitherto I had always worked with girls all round me, and it was no time before we were chatting back and forth. In the dress factory I worked by myself at chores no one else did. Also, the other girls had the sort of jobs which took concentration and attention--there was comparatively little talk. Also, the sewing machines inside and the riveting on that steel building outside made too much noise for easy conversation.

At lunch time most of the girls went out to eat at various restaurants round about. They looked so grand when they got their coats and hats on that I could never see them letting me tag along in my old green tam and two-out-of-five buttoned coat. My wardrobe had all fitted in appropriately to candy and brass and the laundry, but not to dressmaking. So I ate my lunch out of a paper bag in the factory with such girls as stayed behind. They were mostly the beaders. And they were mostly "dead ones"--the sort who would not talk had they been given a bonus and share in the profits for it. They read the Daily News, a group of some five to one paper, and ate.

By Thursday of the first week I was desperate. How was I ever to "get next" to the dress factory girls? During the lunch hour Friday I gulped down my food and tore for Gimbel's, where I bought five new buttons. Saturday I sewed them on my coat, and Monday and all the next week I ate lunch with Ada and Eva and Jean and Kate at a Yiddish restaurant where the food had strange names and stranger tastes. But at least there was conversation.

Ada I loved--our forelady in the bead work--young, good-looking, intelligent. She rather took me under her wing, in gratitude for which I showed almost immediate improvement along those lines whereon she labored over me. My grammar, for instance. When I said "it ain't," Ada would say, "Connie, Connie, ain't!" Whereat I gulped and said "isn't," and Ada smiled approval. Within one week I had picked up wonderfully. At the end of that week Ada and I were quite chummy. She asked me one day if I were married. No. Was she? "You don't think I'd be working like this if I was, do you?" When I asked her what she would be doing if she didn't have to work, she answered, "Oh, lots of things." Nor could I pin her to details. She told me she'd get married to-morrow only her "sweetheart" was a poor man. But she was crazy about him. Oh, she was! The very next day she flew over to where I was framing up. "I've had a fight with my sweetheart!"

It was always difficult carrying on a conversation with Ada. She was being hollered for from every corner of the factory continually, and in the few seconds we might have had for talk I was hollered for. Especially is such jumpiness detrimental to sharing affairs of the heart. I know only fragments of Ada's romance. The fight lasted all of four days. Then he appeared one evening, and next morning, she beamingly informed me that "her sweetheart had made up. Oh, but he's some lover, I tell you!"

Ada was born in Russia, but came very young to this country. She spoke English without an accent. Never had she earned less than twenty dollars a week, starting out as a bookkeeper. When crochet beading first became the rage, about five years ago, she went over to that and sometimes made fifty dollars and sixty dollars a week. Here as forelady, she made forty dollars. Twenty dollars of that she gave each week to her mother for board and lodging. Often she had gone on summer vacations. For three years she had paid for a colored girl to do the housework at home. I despaired at first of having Ada so much as take notice of the fact that I was alive. What was my joy then, at the end of the first week, to have her come up and say to me: "Do you know what I want? I want you to come over to Brooklyn and live with me and my folks."

Oh, it's wretched to just walk off and leave folks like that!

That same Saturday morning the boss said he wanted to see me after closing time. There seemed numerous others he wanted to see. Then I discovered, while waiting my turn with these others, that practically no one there knew her "price." There was a good deal of resentment about it, too. He had hired these girls and no word about pay. The other girls waiting that morning were beaders. I learned one trick of the trade which it appears is more or less universal. They had left their former jobs to come to this factory in answer to an "ad" for crochet beaders. If after one week it was found they were getting less than they had at the old place, they would go back and say they had been sick for a week. Otherwise they planned to stay on at this factory. Each girl was called in alone, and alone bargained with the boss. Monday, Sadie, just for instance, ahead of me in the Saturday line, reported the conversation she had had with the boss:

"Well, miss, what you expect to get here?"

"What I'm worth."

"Yes, yes--you're worth one hundred dollars, but I'm talking just plain English. What you expect to get?"

"I tell you what I'm worth."

"All right, you're worth one hundred dollars; you think you'll get thirty dollars. I'll pay you twenty dollars."

(Sadie had previously told me under no consideration would she remain under twenty-five dollars, but she remained for twenty dollars.)

My turn. I thought there was no question about my "price." It was fourteen dollars. But perhaps seeing how I had run my legs almost off, and pinned my fingers almost off all week, the boss was going voluntarily to raise me.

"What wages you expect to get here?"

Oh, well, since he thus opened the question we would begin all new. I had worked so much harder than I had anticipated.

"Sixteen dollars a week."

"Ho--sixteen dollars!--and last Monday it was fourteen dollars. You're going up, yes?"

"But the work's much harder 'n I thought it 'ud be."

"So you go from fourteen dollars to sixteen dollars and I got you here to tell you you'd get twelve dollars."

Oh, but I was mad--just plain mad! "You let me work all week thinkin' I was gettin' fourteen dollars. It ain't fair!"

"Fair? I pay you what I can afford. Times are hard now, you know."

I could not speak for my upset feelings. To pay me twelve dollars for the endless labor of that week when he had allowed me to think I was getting fourteen dollars! To add insult to injury, he said, "Next week I want you should work later than the other girls evenings, and make no date for next Saturday" (I had told him I was in a hurry to get off for lunch this Saturday) "because I shall want you should work Saturday afternoon."

Such a state of affairs is indeed worth following up....

Monday morning he came around breezily--he really was a cordial, kindly soul--and said; "Well, dearie, how are you this morning?"

I went on pinning.

"Good as anybody can be on twelve dollars a week."

"Ach, forget it, forget it! Always money, money! Whether a person gets ten cents or three hundred dollars--it's not the money that counts"--his hands went up in the air--"it's the service!"

Yet employers tell labor managers they must not sentimentalize.

A bit later he came back. "I tell you what I'll do. You stay late every night this week and work Saturday afternoon like I told you you should, and I'll pay you for it!"

To such extremes a sense of justice can carry one! (Actually, he had expected that extra work of me gratis!)

During the week I figured out that in his own heart that boss had figured out a moral equivalent for a living wage. There was nothing he would not do for me. Did he but come in my general direction, I was given a helping hand. He joked with me continually. The hammer and nails were always busy. I was not only "dearie," I was "sweetheart." But fourteen dollars a week--that was another story.

Ada was full of compassion and suggested various arguments I should use next week on the boss. It was awful what he paid me, Ada declared. She too would talk to him.

The second week I got closer to the girls. Or, more truthfully put, they got closer to me. At the other factories I had asked most of the questions and answered fewer. Here I could hardly get a question in edgewise for the flood which was let loose on me. I explained in each factory that I lived with a widow who brought me from California to look after her children. I did some work for her evenings and Saturday afternoon and Sunday, to pay for my room and board. Not only was I asked every conceivable question about myself, but at the dress factory I had to answer uncountable questions about the lady I lived with--her "gentlemen friends," her clothes, her expenses. It was like pulling teeth for me to get any information out of the girls.

In such a matter as reading, for example. Every girl I asked was fond of reading. What kind of books? Good books. Yes, but the names. I got We Two out of Sarah, and Jean was reading Ibsen's Doll's House. It was a swell book, a play. After hours one night she told me the story. Together with Ada's concern over my grammar it can be seen that I left the dress factory in intellectual advance over the condition in which I entered.

The girls I had the opportunity of asking were not such "movie" enthusiasts, on the whole. Only now and then they went to "a show." Less frequently they spoke of going to the Jewish Theater. No one was particularly excited over dancing--in fact, Sarah, who looked the blond type of the dance-every-night variety, thought dancing "disgusting." Shows weren't her style. She liked reading. Whenever I got the chance I asked a girl what she did evenings. The answer usually was, "Oh, nothing much." One Friday I asked a group of girls at lunch if they weren't glad the next day was Saturday and the afternoon off. Four of them weren't glad at all, because they had to go home and clean house Saturday afternoons, and do other household chores. "Gee! don't you hate workin' round the house?"

I wonder how much of the women-in-industry movement is traceable to just that.

The first day I was at the dress factory a very dirty but pleasant-faced little Jewish girl said to me, "Ever try workin' at home? Ain't it just awful?" She had made thirty-two dollars a week beading at her last place--didn't know what she'd get here.

I had hoped to hear murmurings and discussions about the conditions of the garment trades and the unions--not a word the whole time. Papers were full of a strike to be called the next week throughout the city, affecting thousands of waist and dress makers. It might as well have been in London. Not an echo of interest in it reached our factory. I asked Sarah if she had ever worked in a union shop. "Sure." "Any different from this?" "Different? You bet it's different. Boss wouldn't dare treat you the way you get treated here." But as usual I was yelled for and got no chance ever to pin Sarah to details.

A group of girls in the dressing room exploded one night, "Gee! they sure treat you like dogs here! No soap, no towels--nothing." The hours were good--8.30 to 12.15; 1 to 5.15. One Saturday Ada and the boss asked the beaders to work in the afternoon. Not one stayed. Too many had heard the tales of girls working overtime and not being paid anything extra.

* * * * *

Wednesday I went back after my last week's pay. When the cashier caught sight of me she was full of interest. "I was writing you a letter this very day. The boss wants you back awful badly. He's out just now for lunch. Can't you wait?"

Just then the boss stepped from the elevator. "Ach, here you are! Now, dearie, if it's just a matter of a few dollars or so--"

I was leaving town. Much discussion. No, I couldn't stay on. Well, if I insisted--yes, he'd get my pay envelope. My, oh, my, they missed me! Why so foolish as to leave New York? Now, as for my wages, they could easily be fixed to suit.... All right, all right, he'd get my last pay envelope.

And there was my pay envelope with just twelve dollars again. "What about my overtime?"

Overtime? Who said anything about overtime? He did himself. He'd promised me if I worked every night that week late I'd get paid for it. Every single night I had stayed, and where was my pay for it?

He shook his finger at my time card.

Show him one hour of overtime on that card!

I showed him where every night the time clock registered overtime.

Yes, but not once was it a full hour. And didn't I know overtime never counted unless it was at least a full hour?

No, he had never explained anything about that. I'd worked each night until everything was done and I'd been told I could go.

Well, of course he didn't want to rob me. I really had nothing coming to me. Each night I'd stayed on till about 6. But they would figure it out and see what they could pay me. They figured. I waited. At length majestically he handed out fifty-six cents.

* * * * *

The fat, older brother in the firm rode down in the elevator with me--he who used to move silently around the factory about four times a day, squinting out of his beady eyes, such light as shown there bespeaking 100 per-cent possession. He held his fat thumbs in the palms of his fat hands and benignly he was wont to survey his realm. Mine! Mine! Mine! his every inch of being said. Nor could his proportion of joy have been greater if he had six floors of his own to survey, instead of one little claptrap back room. It did make him so happy. He wore a kindly and never-changing expression, and he never spoke.

Going down in the elevator, he edged over to my corner. He pinched my arm, he pinched my cheeks. Ach, but he'd miss me bad. Nice girl, I was.

Evidently he, too, had evolved a moral equivalent for a living wage. Little kindly personal attentions were his share for anything not adequately covered by twelve dollars and fifty-six cents.

V

No. 536 Tickets Pillow Cases

Ah, one should write of the bleachery via the medium of poetry! If the thought of the brassworks comes in one breath and the bleachery in the next, the poetry must needs be set to music--the Song of the Bleachery. What satisfaction there must be to an employer who grows rich--or makes his income, whatever it may be--from a business where so much light-heartedness is worked into the product! Let those who prefer to sob over woman labor behind factory prison bars visit our bleachery. Better still, let them work there. Here at least is one spot where they can dry their tears. If the day ever dawns when the conditions in that bleachery can be referred to as typical of American industrial life, exist the agitator, the walking delegate, the closed and open shop fight.




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