Children on Strike

By PAUL COMLY FRENCH, An Article in The Nation, May 31, 1933

Allentown, Pennsylvania, May 20

SHOCKING conditions in the sweatshops of Pennsylvania, where 200,000 men, women, and children work long hours for starvation wages, became front-page news through the efforts of the “baby strikers” of the Lehigh Valley. Aided by the presence of Mrs. Gifford Pinchot on their picket line, they won the first skirmish in their fight against intolerable conditions when some of the employers signed an agreement providing for shorter working hours, a minimum-wage scale, and an immediate 10 per cent increase in wages. Unfortunately the agreement does not affect all the mills in Allentown or those in Easton, Northampton, and Catasqua, where the children are still on the picket line.

Another victory against the sweatshop was won in Philadelphia when 5,000 garment workers, encouraged by the public support of the children’s strike against the Morris Freezer plant in Allentown and the D. & D. shirt factory in Northampton, a nearby borough, went on strike. Within two days the operators signed an agreement raising wages 10 per cent, establishing a forty-four-hour week in place of the previous fifty-four-hour week, and allowing to complete unionization of the shops.

Meanwhile Governor Pinchot’s commission for the investigation of sweatshops will continue its hearings with a view to recommending to the next session of the General Assembly legislation which would abolish sweatshops and child labor in Pennsylvania. These hearings have so far produced tales of hideous working conditions, long hours, and miserable wages, comparable only to those which obtained in the earliest years of the Industrial Revolution. They have also revealed the forces of reaction against which the reformers must contend. Much credit for the limited victory in the children’s strike must go to Mayor Fred E. Lewis of Allentown, who has vigorously protested for years against the evils and degradation of the sweatshops. But Charles Fox, burgess of the neighboring borough of Northampton, where the D. & D. plant is located, holds a different view. “If I had my way,” he told the Governor’s commission, “I’d give no food orders to unemployed persons who urged factory workers to strike.” And his wife, who handles unemployment relief in Northampton, has even more amazing ideas. “I don’t believe the strikers should be entitled to any unemployment relief,” she testified before the commission, “because they don’t have souls.”

According to a quiet survey which Mrs. Pinchot has made in every section of Pennsylvania, sweatshops are not confined to the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia. And many of the case histories she has collected tell a story of lost youth and saddened childhood. In Gottlieb’s Sewing Factory at York the usual wage is $3 or $4 a week girls in Bernstein’s Factory at York reported a payment of $2.90 for two weeks’ work–an average of 3 cents an hour. At the York Suit Company button sewers receive from $3 to $4 a week for fifty hours; York tobacco workers said they received $2.50 for a week’s work totaling fifty hours, while workers in a second cigar factory in this rich Lancaster County agricultural section said their wages averaged $1.60 for fifty-four hours. A silk mill in York charged girls $10 for “teaching them how to become operators.” Pressers in the Lehigh Valley Shirt Company in Allentown receive $4 a week as against $14 paid for the same work two years ago. At the Adkins Shirt Company in Allentown only three girls in the place were over fourteen; their pay averaged from $1.30 to $2 a week, while one girl, with seven years’ experience, earned the munificent salary of $7 a week. One boy in an Allentown shop earned 10 cents a week for a ten-week period; another Allentown shirt company paid 14 cents a dozen for a complicated operation, a high wage compared with the 8 cents paid for the same operation in another shop. The Caddy Shirt Company of Allentown moved out of town in the night owing four weeks’ wages.

Hale A. Guss, borough manager of Northampton, told the Governor’s commission that either Harry or Nathan Dashefsky–the two operate one of the worst sweatshops in the Lehigh Valley, the D. & D. Shirt Company–suggested having a gun “planted” on a union organizer. Another State official, a woman, said that one of the Dashefskys asked her why he couldn’t have national guardsmen to protect his mill against the “baby strikers.”

“Why?” she asked. “Aren’t the police sufficient protection?” “Yes,” he said, “but they won’t fight.”

One boy said he worked from 7 a. m. until 5 p. m. and then returned to the factory three nights each week to work from 7 p. m. until 3 a. m.; others told of being ordered to hide in the cellar and on fire escapes when State inspectors came to the mill; many of the girls testified they had been forced to accept the attentions of their employers or face instant dismissal. A titian-haired girl receiving 55 cents a week said the mill superintendent offered her a 100 per cent wage increase if she would accept his attentions at least three times weekly. Others, mere children, told of being taken to New York hotels for week-ends as playthings for the owners of the factories and for the purpose of enticing buyers to purchase shirts made in their mills. State officials, aided by the vigorous demands of Mrs. Pinchot, plan criminal action against these men for violation of the Mann Act.

Other testimony, offered by fourteen-year-old Martin Kroboth, a trimmer, explained how the Dashefsky brothers saved the two-cent check tax by assessing each employee. The boy said his last check, for six days’ work, was 96 cents. But he did not get all of that. An additional 10 per cent was deducted as a wage cut together with the two cents for the check tax. Another Allentown employer developed an even better system. He deducted 33 cents a week from the pay envelopes of each child to repay a fine of $100 assessed by the State for his failure to carry workmen’s compensation insurance. Frank Selthofer, considered the “fastest” trimmer in the plant, received $1.73 for two weeks’ work.

According to figures of the Bureau of Industrial Relations, many of the children are attempting to support entire families on their meager earnings. “Hours of labor in many of the Pennsylvania sweatshops range from fifty to ninety a week,” said Stephen Raushenbush, of the bureau, “and the wages start at 50 cents and go to $10. This deplorable condition is responsible for $1.98 silk dresses, 3-for-10-cent cigars, 39-cent silk hosiery, $10 suits and top coats, and 25 cent shirts and neckties.” More than half of the men’s garment industry of the State operates on a sweatshop basis. The average in the cigar-making industry is about 70 per cent, while about 85 per cent of the production of men’s shirts and pajamas is conducted on a sweatshop basis. “The State is powerless in many cases,” Mr. Raushenbush said, “because no statutes prevent women from working for $1 a week or men for any figure they’ll accept.”

Sweatshop conditions affect workers throughout the Commonwealth, from the anthracite coal miners of northeastern Pennsylvania to the soft-coal miners of the southwest, and from the silk and hosiery mills of the east to the shops, factories, and mills of the west. The opening attack on these conditions by the “baby strikers” received immediate support from the Philadelphia Record and the Pittsburgh Press. The Record carried editorials and cartoons depicting the plight of the children, while the Press, a Scripps-Howard newspaper, devoted columns to its campaign to rid the State of the evils of the sweatshop. The editor of the Press, Edward T. Leech, spoke over the radio as part of the paper’s fight. The minor victories in Philadelphia and Allentown are encouraging, but the war on the sweatshop has only begun.

Source: ¬†French, Paul Comly, “Children on Strike,” An Article in The Nation, Vol. 136, No. 3543, p. 611. May 31, 1933. Permission granted for non-commercial, educational purposes by The Nation.

 

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