A needle, a bobbin, a strike: women needleworkers in America Essay

To read this collection of studies of women workers in the garmentindustry is to risk discouragement. Yet, suprisingly, on reflection, abit of optimism emeges. Joan Jensen, professor of history at New MexicoState University, and Sue Davidson, information director of the NationalFemale Advocacy Project, have jointly edited these historcial accountsof women needleworkers in in 20th century struggles for better wages andworking conditions. Jensen has also provided summary introductions toeach of three sections covering the evolution of needlework technologyand department store marketing; the “great uprisings” in anumber of major cities in the early 20th century; and the role of womenwithin the garment idustry unions. Although there is necessaryrepetition of similar circumstances in the record of labor disputes inthe second section, there is value for labor historians, forwomen’s studies specialits, and, among general readers, for women,in the cumulative effect of successive accounts. There is less detailof day-to-day lives of women workers (communicated so poignantly inRichardson’s “The Long Day,” or Foner’s FactoryGirls), but instead a clearer picture of the economic determinants oftheir depressed status. A recurring characteristic of women needleworkers, from the1900’s to teh present, has been their immigrant status, oftenaccompanied by difficulty with the English language, and sometimes byproblems of “illegal” status. Thus, there is a short answerto the question as to why women continue to endure the deplorableworking conditions, the pressure for impossible output quotas, and theminimal pay (or subminimal, where “off the books” employmentis accepted).

For such women, employment opportunities are limited, andthe family need for income is often desperate. Considering the demand for labor in the garment indsutry, it isclear that the typical small employer, contractor, or jobber, also haslimited options. In automobile, steel, and other major industries, afew of the larger employers operate in an environment of high capitalrequirements for entery into the industry, with relatively long runs ofstandardized products. The resulting financial strength and politicalpower arising from the less-competitive industry structure, has (in tehpast) shielded producers’ profit margins by ingibiting domestic aswell as international competition, and thus has permitted substantialimprovements in wages and working conditions through industry collectivebargaining. In contrast, the low capital requirements of jobers servingmajor clothing manufacturers, and the fashion-dominated short productionruns, assure a perpetual influx of small contractors into the garmentindustry; the resultant low profit margins in this highly competitiveindustry exert downward pressure on wages and discourage concern forworking conditions.

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The rising tide of clothing imports in recent yearshas exacerbated the competitive pressure. In such a situation, it isnot surprising that union negotiators might make concessions to preservejobs in a particular geographical area, prompting charges of”sellout” by the predominantly female labor force, whocontinue to be greatly underrepresented in the union hierarchy. Thus, apurely market approach would predict that poorly educated immigrantwomen with language difficulties, burdened with family responsibilities,who are forced for lack of feasible alternatives to seek employment in ahighly competitive industry (where firms face competition from low-wage”runaway employers” moving West or South, as well as fromlower-wagfe foreign producers) would find only low wages and poorworking conditions. So much for pessimism. Where then are there grounds for optimism? It is not enough topoint out that, although newly arrived workers of both sexes havehistorically always been subject to low wages and poor workingconditions, within a generation or two, the low-ranking groups will moveup.

(As the studies in this collection indicate, the ethnic compositionof the U.S. garment industry has changed from the Italian, Jewish, andIrish of the early 19th century to the Hispanic, Asian, and Chicanoworkers of the 1980’s.) In the long run, we are all dead, as JohnMaynard Keynes noted, and, for the ill-paid, overworked women in thegarment industry today, improvements are overdue. Yet, as pointed outabove, given the competitive pressures, employers individually may bepowerless to alter the labor contract; union power reached its zenith inthe “Protocol of Peace” after the New York City strike in1910, when employers welcomed its stabilizing influence.

But because somuch of the garment industry has moved South or West in recent years,New York City no longer sets the terms of labor-management relations inthe industry. Under these conditions, how can one expect improvementsin workers’ lives? The accounts in this volume of the dedication and perseverance ofthe women leaders among the garment workers–Bessie Abramovitz, DorothyJacobs Bellanca, Rose Pesotta– suggest that improvements may not beimpossible. Whether or no these women received their just due from themale leadership of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union(ACTWU) or the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), they developed their own powers, won the confidence of theircoworkers, and provided role models for succeeding generations of women.Current leaders, whether male or female, must deal with the competitivestructure of the clothing industry, and the increasing importance ofimports from low-wage developing countries.

To this reviewer, it seemsentirely possible that strong women leaders in the garment industry cantoday use the growing political power of women to protect workers ofboth sexes from the dehumanizing aspects of excessive competition. Political action could achieve a strengthening of the regulatorypowers of State and Federal agencies, enforcement of existing factorylaws, and stricter inspections for conformity to standards set by theOccupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for workplacesafety. Such policies, coupled with negotiated import limitations,could bring a degree of order to the wage structure and workingconditions of the industry. Noting the resurgence of sweatshops in NewYork and Los Angeles, where “workers from Latin America and Asiasew under conditions little better than those that so outraged early20th century reformers,” the authors of the concluding essaysuggest that women are “left to rely upon women’s traditionalsources of support–family, religion, and a sisterhood ofcoworkers.” Instead, a sisterhood of voters just might proveeffective.

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