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

To read this collection of studies of women workers in the garment
industry is to risk discouragement. Yet, suprisingly, on reflection, a
bit of optimism emeges. Joan Jensen, professor of history at New Mexico
State University, and Sue Davidson, information director of the National
Female Advocacy Project, have jointly edited these historcial accounts
of women needleworkers in in 20th century struggles for better wages and
working conditions. Jensen has also provided summary introductions to
each of three sections covering the evolution of needlework technology
and department store marketing; the “great uprisings” in a
number of major cities in the early 20th century; and the role of women
within the garment idustry unions. Although there is necessary
repetition of similar circumstances in the record of labor disputes in
the second section, there is value for labor historians, for
women’s studies specialits, and, among general readers, for women,
in the cumulative effect of successive accounts. There is less detail
of day-to-day lives of women workers (communicated so poignantly in
Richardson’s “The Long Day,” or Foner’s Factory
Girls), but instead a clearer picture of the economic determinants of
their depressed status.

A recurring characteristic of women needleworkers, from the
1900’s to teh present, has been their immigrant status, often
accompanied by difficulty with the English language, and sometimes by
problems of “illegal” status. Thus, there is a short answer
to the question as to why women continue to endure the deplorable
working conditions, the pressure for impossible output quotas, and the
minimal pay (or subminimal, where “off the books” employment
is accepted). For such women, employment opportunities are limited, and
the family need for income is often desperate.

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Considering the demand for labor in the garment indsutry, it is
clear that the typical small employer, contractor, or jobber, also has
limited options. In automobile, steel, and other major industries, a
few of the larger employers operate in an environment of high capital
requirements for entery into the industry, with relatively long runs of
standardized products. The resulting financial strength and political
power arising from the less-competitive industry structure, has (in teh
past) shielded producers’ profit margins by ingibiting domestic as
well as international competition, and thus has permitted substantial
improvements in wages and working conditions through industry collective
bargaining. In contrast, the low capital requirements of jobers serving
major clothing manufacturers, and the fashion-dominated short production
runs, assure a perpetual influx of small contractors into the garment
industry; the resultant low profit margins in this highly competitive
industry exert downward pressure on wages and discourage concern for
working conditions. The rising tide of clothing imports in recent years
has exacerbated the competitive pressure. In such a situation, it is
not surprising that union negotiators might make concessions to preserve
jobs in a particular geographical area, prompting charges of
“sellout” by the predominantly female labor force, who
continue to be greatly underrepresented in the union hierarchy. Thus, a
purely market approach would predict that poorly educated immigrant
women with language difficulties, burdened with family responsibilities,
who are forced for lack of feasible alternatives to seek employment in a
highly competitive industry (where firms face competition from low-wage
“runaway employers” moving West or South, as well as from
lower-wagfe foreign producers) would find only low wages and poor
working conditions. So much for pessimism.

Where then are there grounds for optimism? It is not enough to
point out that, although newly arrived workers of both sexes have
historically always been subject to low wages and poor working
conditions, within a generation or two, the low-ranking groups will move
up. (As the studies in this collection indicate, the ethnic composition
of the U.S. garment industry has changed from the Italian, Jewish, and
Irish of the early 19th century to the Hispanic, Asian, and Chicano
workers of the 1980’s.) In the long run, we are all dead, as John
Maynard Keynes noted, and, for the ill-paid, overworked women in the
garment industry today, improvements are overdue. Yet, as pointed out
above, given the competitive pressures, employers individually may be
powerless to alter the labor contract; union power reached its zenith in
the “Protocol of Peace” after the New York City strike in
1910, when employers welcomed its stabilizing influence. But because so
much of the garment industry has moved South or West in recent years,
New York City no longer sets the terms of labor-management relations in
the industry. Under these conditions, how can one expect improvements
in workers’ lives?

The accounts in this volume of the dedication and perseverance of
the women leaders among the garment workers–Bessie Abramovitz, Dorothy
Jacobs Bellanca, Rose Pesotta– suggest that improvements may not be
impossible. Whether or no these women received their just due from the
male 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 their
coworkers, and provided role models for succeeding generations of women.
Current leaders, whether male or female, must deal with the competitive
structure of the clothing industry, and the increasing importance of
imports from low-wage developing countries. To this reviewer, it seems
entirely possible that strong women leaders in the garment industry can
today use the growing political power of women to protect workers of
both sexes from the dehumanizing aspects of excessive competition.

Political action could achieve a strengthening of the regulatory
powers of State and Federal agencies, enforcement of existing factory
laws, and stricter inspections for conformity to standards set by the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for workplace
safety. Such policies, coupled with negotiated import limitations,
could bring a degree of order to the wage structure and working
conditions of the industry. Noting the resurgence of sweatshops in New
York and Los Angeles, where “workers from Latin America and Asia
sew under conditions little better than those that so outraged early
20th century reformers,” the authors of the concluding essay
suggest that women are “left to rely upon women’s traditional
sources of support–family, religion, and a sisterhood of
coworkers.” Instead, a sisterhood of voters just might prove


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