The Great Uprising in Rochester
THE “great struggle of the Garment Workers of Rochester,” as the strike of 1913 came to be known, for the first time in Rochester history drew thousands of women out of the factories and into the streets to demand changes in their working conditions. The strike began in January 1913. It ended two months later, after one woman striker had been killed by an employer, several others seriously injured, and at least sixteen arrested. Although few of the Rochester women workers who spontaneously walked off their jobs in mid-January of 1913 were union members, many were active, a good number were militant, and a few were effective strike organizers. Women were prominent in the 1913 strike from its beginning. In the first parade by strikers, women who were not on strike risked losing their own jobs to march in solidarity with the women strikers.
This strike, the largest in the history of Rochester’s 150-year-old clothing industry, provides an excellent case to begin study of the interrelationship of women workers, their employers, and the unions in the early twentieth century. During this period, women in garment districts all over the northeastern United States were rebelling against the oppressive conditions that had developed in the industrialization of the highly competitive clothing industry. Rochester women were part of that great uprising.
For a few months in early 1913, the streets were filled with young women marching, singing, protesting, and fighting. Flags, banners, clubs, and guns were the external manifestations of conflict deeply rooted in the long struggle of Rochester’s sewing women to control the conditions of their labor. The lives of women clothing workers, their struggle for better working conditions, the attempts of male union members to organize women workers, the support offered by middle-class reformers, and the response of Rochester employers—all these key elements in Rochester’s labor history were brought into sharp focus by the 1913 strike.
Rochester had a much smaller and more geographically concentrated clothing industry than New York City. By 1910 Rochester ranked fifth—after New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago—among cities producing 68 percent of men’s ready-made clothing. It had the largest proportion of women workers in the men’s clothing industry of any of these cities—61 percent. Over 3,000 women were employed in factories, shops, and homes making clothing.1
While numbers are less significant than the actions of the women in the strike, this number of 3,000 is a rough minimum estimate of women involved in the clothing industry. The number of women actually sewing for the Rochester clothing establishments was never accurately recorded during that city’s rise as a clothing center. Early in the nineteenth century, when male tailors began to employ increasing numbers of seamstresses and to send out clothes to surrounding farm women for finishing, no official records were kept. The 1860 census counted only 745 women in the industry because neither farm women nor women sewing at home were included. By 1879 one local estimate was that three-fourths of the 2700 clothing workers were women and children. The census of 1910 listed about 5,000 women tailors, seamstresses, and semiskilled factory workers, but one local study of the clothing industry estimated that of 12,000 to 15,000 workers, over half were women. Another local study, in 1912, estimated 12,000 women in clothing, millinary, and laundry, with clothing accounting for the largest percentage. In 1912 no one seemed sure exactly how many women were at work with their needles and sewing machines. The best estimate was that over 3,000 women were accounted for, but recognized that women in outside shops of subcontractors and at home often escaped the attention of census takers. An estimated 60 percent of sewing women worked in factories; 32 percent worked in outside shops of subcontractors; and 8 percent worked at home.2 Whatever the exact number, the needlework industry touched a large percentage of working-class women. They or their female relatives worked, or had at some time worked, at the trade; and factories, subcontracting shops, and home sewing operations were visible in most working-class neighborhoods.
Wages for Rochester women clothing workers in 1912 were estimated by social workers to be higher than the wages of women clothing workers in New York City. German women made the highest wages, followed in decending order by the wages of Italian, Jewish, and Polish women. Despite the relatively high wages, Rochester women earned proportionately less than did the female clothing workers of other cities compared to male clothing workers. Rochester women received about 60 percent of the wages earned by men in the same work, while Chicago women made 70 percent of men’s wages. Thus, the high wages of women did not match the high wages of men, over 40 percent of whom made over $12 a week, while over 50 percent of the women made between $4 and $8 a week.3
Records of garment companies are still difficult to find, but books for the Michael Stern Company for the years 1909 to 1912 confirm the low and unstable place of women in the clothing industry’s hierarchy. Of 114 women listed in one set of books, seventy-five made $5 to $7 a week, most as “ticket girls.” Less than one-half of these women ever advanced in wages. One “ticket girl” after three years had advanced to $9 a week. Most of the remaining women quit after short periods of time. The top pay of any of the women listed in these books was $18 a week, paid to a stenographer. Male supervisors sometimes earned as much as $50 and $60 a week.4
The low wages of women were a reflection of the historical development of Rochester’s garment industry. The men’s clothing industry passed through three discernable stages. First, in the 1820s, a few tailors, principally German, developed a retail trade, as the new canal brought to the city itinerant men needing ready-made men’s clothing. The trade was local, confined to small shops, and overshadowed by the growing prominence of gristmills, which were Rochester’s principal form of capitalist investment. In the late 1840s, local markets gave way to regional markets, as railroads allowed wholesalers to develop broader distribution networks. To maintain a place in the more competitive regional markets, shop owners mechanized, introducing sewing machines and buttonhole makers, as well as specialization of work processes. Rochester shops also converted to manufacture of men’s dress clothes (suits and coats as opposed to work pants and shirts), which sold for high prices and allowed them to employ skilled tailors at high wages. Finally, in the 1890s, large factories displaced small shops, and the sewing women performed at home for the market—a transition almost completed by the 1913 strike.5
Each stage in the evolution of Rochester’s clothing industry involved more women in the labor force, because labor remained the crucial element in clothing making, even with the introduction of mechanization, and women could be hired for lower wages than the men. Early expansion in the 1820s resulted in women being employed as tailor’s helpers, primarily as finishers. As employers responded to the pressures of wholesalers for competitive products, more seamstresses were employed, their wages kept low by the large number of women who needed to make a living and who had few job alternatives in Rochester.
The introduction of machines increased productivity, reduced the number of workers needed, raised factory wages, and lowered the retail cost of the garment. According to an 1899 survey by the United States Commissioner of Labor, the use of machine-made buttonholes instead of hand-sewn buttonholes could reduce labor time as much as 95 to 96 percent in buttonhole making, and 88 to 91 percent in buttonhole cutting. For every one buttonhole machine operator, there were fourteen sewing machine operators who reduced labor time from 77 to 93 percent. To sew one of the popular Prince Albert coats would have taken an estimated 100 hours by hand, but required less than 40 minutes by the machine process. The cost of producing a vicuña worsted Prince Albert coat could be reduced at least 66 percent, from $5.91 to $2.00; the cost of vicuña worsted single-breasted vests by 64 percent, from $1.37 to 50 cents; and the cost of cassimere (woolen twill) trousers by 74 percent, from $1.97 to 51 cents.6
While a few women may have purchased sewing machines of their own in Rochester, the highly competitive contractors quickly captured the market for machine work. Establishing small two-story shops, often behind their homes, these subcontractors to large firms in turn hired women to finish garments in their homes after the machine work was completed.7
The introduction of large factories into Rochester during the 1890s began the elimination of work in subcontracting shops and homes. Along St. Paul and Mill streets, capitalists erected large five-story factories, and further rationalized work processes. In the large factories, women received higher pay than in the smaller shops, but were worked harder and pushed to produce more. By 1913, almost all homework, as well as much of the work in the smaller shops, had been eliminated. The strike of 1913 would, in the main, put an end to the subcontracting system in Rochester.
As employers made greater profits and skilled male workers made higher wages, the wages of females remained depressed. At the Second Woman’s Suffrage Convention meeting in Rochester, in 1848, a convention member reported that seamstresses were working fourteen to fifteen hours a day for 31 to 38 cents a day. Two weeks later women made an attempt to increase their wages. Seamstresses met in Mechanic’s Hall to form a Women’s Protective Union which demanded equal rights with men, cash wages, and regular house- and piecework. This organization foundered after a year. Five years later, women formed a Seamstresses Protective Association with more success. The women issued an appeal for wage increases, mobilized public support, and obtained an increase of 60 cents a week.8
Working conditions thereafter remained relatively unchanged. A decade later seamstresses still averaged $1.50 to $3.00 a week, while unskilled and home workers made far less. An attempt to increase wages in 1864 was unsuccessful.9 This defeat left women clothing workers unorganized until the Knights of Labor began their organizing drive in Rochester in the 1880s.
The very skilled male tailors and cutters became highly unionized under the Knights. The wages of men subsequently became among the highest in the country for clothing workers. Employers, however, kept the wages of the female majority of the work force down, by utilizing sex segregation in the workplace and by keeping many women workers unorganized in subcontracting shops or in the home. The main technological invention of the nineteenth century in the clothing industry, the sewing machine, could be adapted to the existing labor force, while affording an expansion of production and profit. The sewing machine was introduced into Rochester for the same reasons that it was introduced into the garment industries of other cities at about the same time. It increased productivity, reduced the number of workers needed, raised wages, and lowered the retail cost of the item. Karl Marx, viewing a similar process of industrialization in Europe, would label this process the surplus labor theory of capital. The productivity of each woman was increased five times with the sewing machine, but her income increased only by one-third. The surplus labor of each woman paid for the machines, which remained under the control of the factory owner along with the surplus profits from her work.10 The only way to counteract the loss of profits to the workers was to organize. The women soon did, following the men into the Knights of Labor.
Women formed two locals of the Knights of Labor in Rochester, one a sewing local and the other a women tailors’ local. While the Knights encouraged the formation of women’s locals in the 1880s, they were unable to exercise responsible leadership for the women workers. Knights acquiesced in the blacklisting and firing of striking women tailors who, as a consequence, went back to work.11 Women workers indicated a continued interest in organizing, but the Knights had disintegrated to such an extent that they would not respond to the needs of the Rochester women. Male garment workers, meanwhile, had moved into the United Garment Workers, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor which began in 1890 as an all-male union. By the late 1890s a few women had followed the men into the UGWA. Women’s locals soon formed within the UGWA, and women joined its general executive board. By 1909 the national UGWA had 17,212 women, organized in 133 locals representing 40 percent of the total membership. Almost 24 percent of all women in the men’s clothing industry had been organized.12 Unionization of women spread first in small towns where men, outnumbered greatly by women in small shops, needed the women to organize any union at all.13 In such cities as Rochester and New York, men were either in a majority or close to it in the factories, and thus had less need to admit women into the unions. As factories became larger, however, more women became involved in strikes when men struck; and as employers began to cooperate with each other on a regional level by supplying garments to strike-bound factories, men became more interested that women become union members. At the same time, women workers were beginning to react to the increased exploitation of their labor power.
That exploitation was increasing as women moved out of subcontracting shops into the large factories where their pay was better, but where they were pressured to produce more, under more structured working conditions. After 1890 the generation of power from Niagara Falls was adapted to industrial power in Rochester, and the largest companies began to supervise increasing operations in large five-story buildings. The expansion of the market in the 1880s allowed capital previously used for supplies to be invested in buildings, and in the last decades of the nineteenth century a few large firms emerged to dominate the Rochester clothing market. By 1893 one-third to one-half of all clothing was produced in factories. By the time of the 1913 strike, almost all of it was produced in factories; nevertheless, the elimination of the remaining subcontractors led the list of strike demands.14
By 1907 an estimated 15,396 working people of the 75,000 workers in Rochester were unionized. Only 268 of these members were women, however; apparently a few of them were in the garment union, the existence of which was being tolerated by the new large companies because of their need for skilled male workers. While factory women in Rochester engaged in small strikes to improve working conditions between 1890 and 1907, they remained unsuccessful in their organizing efforts. Among the organized Rochester workers, strikes during these years were only about 58 percent wholly or partially successful, at a time when clothing workers’ strikes nationally were achieving greater success.
A strike in 1903–1904 had revealed the major weakness of organizing only men and of keeping the shops open to nonunion employees. When new cutting machines were introduced, reducing the number of working days per year, Rochester men struck for an eight-hour day. The largest shops opposed the unions, broke the back of the strike, and kept the shops open. That same year, when New York clothing workers went on strike, the Rochester firms supplied clothing to the struck New York employers. Previously, employers had primarily competed on the national market. The 1905 strike showed workers that employers were helping each other by supplying clothing to strike-bound factories. Because of the open shops in Rochester and the weakness of the United Garment Workers, factory workers in Rochester were forced to perform what amounted to strike breaking.15
The lesson of 1905 was a harsh one, and not forgotten. From that time on, New York unions became increasingly concerned about the health of unions in Rochester, and Rochester unions became increasingly concerned about moving women out of subcontracting and homework into factories, and into the unions. A national competitive labor market was demanding coordinated and broadened efforts to organize clothing workers on a national scale, both men and women. While records do not exist to show how many Rochester women actually joined the United Garment Workers, the union more often received the support of women in the strikes, and offered them support in turn. By 1913 women were a large percentage of the workers in clothing factories, and unions could not ignore them. In the 1913 strike, women emerged as active and effective strike organizers.
Abolition of subcontracting was the first of five formal demands issued by a strike committee formed after an estimated 3,000 strikers walked off their jobs in mid-January of 1913. In addition, workers demanded a 48-hour work week, overtime and holiday pay, a wage increase, no discrimination against union members, and a shop committee and an arbitration committee comprised of one union representative, one employer, and a third representative selected by the two. The strike committee printed these formal demands in four languages—English, German, Yiddish, and Italian. Women publicized other grievances as well. The primary one was sexual harassment by male supervisors. John A. Flett, general organizer representing the strikers for the AFL said, “The women and girls are treated brutally by foremen in their [the manufacturers] employ.” At one point in the strike, newspapers hinted that women strikers might air these grievances at a public meeting, and discuss the “lack of decency” on the part of the foremen. Libbie Alpern, a strike leader, told workers, “The foreman used to pinch and tease me. He asked me to go out to dinner with him and tell my mother that I was going to stay at a girl friend’s house.” The women deeply resented this kind of treatment by supervisors, yet these complaints formed only an undercurrent to the formal demands. The grievances did, however, motivate and strengthen the militance and solidarity of the women.16
Alpern was one of the young Jewish women to emerge as a leader of union organizing efforts. Alpern was born in Bialystok, Russia, and emigrated with her mother in 1911. At seventeen Alpern became a militant strike leader known as “Captain Libbie.” She spoke daily at union halls, describing her oppressive factory experiences and urging support for the strike in both English and Yiddish. Between talks, she and other women searched out independent subcontracting shops that were still operating. Returning with groups of predominantly women strikers, they would call the nonstriking women out and attempt to close the shops. Under the leadership and discipline of Alpern, groups closed twelve shops in the first three weeks of the strike.17
Alpern was sick the day a group of strikers visited the shop of Valentine Sauer and precipitated the confrontation that was to martyr Ida Brayman, another young Jewish clothing worker. Brayman, also seventeen, had come from Kiev eight months before the strike began. After narrowly escaping two pogroms in Russia, the Brayman family decided that Ida and her father should go to the United States in order to earn the money needed to bring the rest of the family to the new world. The father went to work in New York; the daughter found work in Rochester, where an uncle already lived.
At dusk on the afternoon of February 5, Brayman was with a group of strikers that visited Sauer’s shop. At the head of the group was Fannie Gordon, a friend of Brayman’s, and an organizer who had been working with Alpern. The strikers surrounded the small shop, calling on the forty women inside to leave their machines and join the strikers. The specific causes of the violence that ensued are not clear. The crowd outside may have been in an angry, impatient mood; the shop owner may have intended to make a show of defiance. It was, however, more than a show. Sauer fired a gun into the crowd, wounding Gordon and killing Brayman.18 A few days later, women marched by the thousands to the small Jewish cemetery outside of Rochester, where Brayman was buried.
Women strikers became increasingly bitter after Brayman’s death. Their criticism of employers sharpened. One woman who had worked as a buttonhole maker for the ten preceeding years, never averaging more than $8 a week, wrote a paper entitled “Why I Am Out on Strike.” She listed low wages, poor working conditions, and harassment by foremen as the women worker’s main grievances.
The cry of the Rochester clothing manufacturers that their employees have no cause to strike, and that the strike is a result of agitation among the workers by outsiders is more than an effrontery on their part; it is an insult to the strikers. . . . In one of the [big factories] seven of us had to work at one table with only two lights about us. When we asked for an additional light, the so called “system man,” whom that firm employs for the purpose of cutting out expenses, came up to us and said that we ought not to ask for more lights, as expenses are too large. They actually removed one of the lights that very day, and moved the single light to the center of the table.
The small shops, according to this worker, did not seem to encourage personal mistreatment, but in the larger factories, foremen abused the women in every way, from using insulting language to firing the women at will. “There was not a day,” she wrote of one foreman, “that some people were not fired by him, some of them having worked for that firm a number of years.” Or they might hire too much help, and “thereby crush the old piece workers’ spirit. . . . They pick and choose,” she concluded, “just as if we were cattle in the market, without regard to our loss of time and feelings.”19
Brayman’s death occurred during the second week of the strike. There was little violence for the next few weeks, but as the strike entered its second month with no resolution of the conflict, clashes began to occur between groups of strikers and police and between individual women strikers and nonstrikers. Employers seemed to become more stubborn in their refusal to settle the strike by compromise. They employed strike breakers, and their associations encouraged intransigence by the mayor and the police. At the same time, the workers drew on outside supporters to help publicize their cause. The Rochester Socialist Party was active in support of the strike—Norman Thomas marched in one parade and Ella Reeve Bloor spoke to a special meeting of women workers. But as the strike dragged on, Socialists seemed unable to do more than serve free lunches to the strikers and encourage them to hold out. The Industrial Workers of the World also surfaced during the strike. Although there is little documentation of IWW participation, its members did attend strike meetings, and they encouraged Italian women to speak to their coworkers in Italian. The IWW continued to oppose the strike settlement when the United Garment Workers began to compromise. In the end, only the IWW opposed the final settlement, and only the Italian workers voted against going back to work.20
Italian women were among those arrested in the police-striker conflicts. Most of the women arrested in these altercations were between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, but two were in their forties. The militant women were often less than gentle. One woman spat in the face of a scab (strike-breaker) and gave her a punch in the jaw. Some broke shop windows, and a number of women beat up employees who refused to leave their jobs. Others hurled insults, hissed, or gathered in groups at the factories to criticize the women who refused to quit work. On a number of occasions police used clubs to disperse crowds. Women retaliated against police with fists and umbrellas, and one woman bit a policeman’s finger. One group of strikers marched from the union hall to a factory, where they refused an order to return to the hall. Police began clubbing them. They retreated singing, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Newspapers reported that a delegation of women workers had told stories of police brutality to a society women’s meeting, and that the middle-class women planned to support the strikers by going into the clothing district to monitor trouble between women pickets and the police.21
This meeting, held in the home of one of Rochester’s well-known society women, pointed to a growing middle-class concern that the strike might foster increasingly militant worker action, thus intensifying the conflict, rather than leading toward compromise. In other cities, middle-class women had formed women’s trade union leagues to encourage and support unionism. In Rochester, there existed no equivalent of those feminist unions of working-class women and their middle-class allies who supported both trade unionism and suffrage. No Women’s Trade Union League was organized in Rochester, nor did any of its well-known New York leaders appear there to support strikers or to help organize middle-class Rochester women into a support network. Only one WTUL member, Leonora O’Reilly, and the head of one New York suffrage organization, Anna Cadogan Etz, spoke to women strikers. While Rochester was the home of Susan B. Anthony and had a strong middle-class female reform tradition, the women seemed unable or unwilling to take part in working-class women’s struggles in their own backyard. Or across the canal, as the case was in Rochester, for the canal served as a dividing line between the wealthy and the working classes—with factories and the dwellings of workers on one side, and the homes of the well-to-do on the other. Newspapers recorded only the single meeting referred to above, estimating that about fifty women attended. In addition, newspapers mentioned by name ten middle-class women who became active in the strike after police brutality escalated in early March.22
The most active organizer among these women was Catherine Rumball. Her husband, Edwin A. Rumball, minister of the First Unitarian Church and member of the Socialist Party, would become increasingly important in strike negotiations during late March. The Rumballs were both known as independent progressives, active in the publication of a small reform magazine called The Common Good.
The Common Good devoted much attention to the living conditions of the workers and the social injustices they suffered. The concern of the reformers whose writing filled the pages of the magazine was focused particularly on the destiny of working-class children, who were dependent upon the conditions in their homes. Factory conditions of women workers became an extension of this concern, since a significant number of young working-class women would be expected to work in Rochester’s factories prior to marriage and child rearing. The reforms advocated in the pages of The Common Good attempted to fit together the various pieces of working women’s lives into a comprehensive whole whose center was the home.
Given the assumption that the home and child rearing should be central to the lives of women, it followed that workers’ housing should be a preoccupation of the reformers. Single-family dwellings, owned or rented, followed by multi-family houses, tenements, and last, rooming houses, represented the housing hierarchy from desirable to undesirable. One change that Edwin Rumball opposed in the pages of the little reform magazine was a large 200-family tenement proposed in 1911 and supported by such businessmen as George Eastman, head of Kodak Company. The complex was planned with playgrounds, a common laundry and bathing area, drying chambers for clothes, and various common amenities. Even in contemporary times, it is difficult for civic officials to deal satisfactorily with all the problems raised by urban housing complexes. It is therefore not surprising that early twentieth-century reformers cast a skeptical eye on this new proposal. But the philosophy that undergirded the reformers’ opposition held special implications for women, emphasizing their societal role as a stabilizing influence, and seeking assurance of their isolation in the nuclear family. Tenements, according to Rumball, by their very nature should be considered evil, because “democracy” could not survive there. “It is useless to expect a conservative point of view in the working man if his home is but three or four rooms in some huge building, and this home only his from month to month,” Rumball quoted, with approval, from another housing critic. Such housing would break up the sanctity and privacy of home life and the loyalty of children to the home, thereby creating group life in place of family life. Only detached homes offered the stable, orderly life desirable for the working-class family. Rumball helped kill the proposal, supporting instead more stringent health laws and housing legislation to address the problems of the poor living conditions of the working class.23
Studies of infant mortality, the results of which were published in The Common Good, came to similar conclusions: that the only hope for reduced mortality lay in individual homes with mothers present inside. The founding of Mothers’ Clubs (forerunners of later Parent Teacher Associations), the training of young girls for their maternal duties, the establishment of child welfare stations and an infants’ summer hospital, the improvement of the public milk supply—all these measures could help. But, mainly, women had to be educated to their home duties. Although it was desirable that females be educated in the schools, the schools should reinforce the female’s domestic and maternal role. Churches and the settlement houses could also be useful in providing proper models for the working class. In addition, the enforcement of existing municipal laws could solve many problems associated with the living conditions of the working class.24
Concern about children led to concern about women’s working conditions. Reformers argued that poor working conditions sapped the vigor of young working women who, as a consequence, would be unhealthy mothers, neglecting their children. The children thus became a public care, thrusting the community into an area of responsibility where it did not belong. Progressive reformers sought to get at the root of the problem by examining and exposing the condition of working women. The Common Good gave considerable attention to the “factory girl.” One account by a girl described a work life which had begun with a part-time job in a pin factory at age eleven, full-time work at age fourteen, and graduation to custom hand sewing fifty-six hours a week at seventeen. Her shop was dirty, there was no cafeteria, and she stayed inside all day. In the evenings, she learned buttonhole making. By the end of her third year at this job, the young woman was feeling run down; she therefore switched to a large factory where she could make more money, but there she was forced to work even harder. Twenty-two years old, the worker told her interviewer: “So many years I have worked and doing skilled work, and am earning only nine dollars. And then I have such terrible headaches, and my mind keeps working all the time. But then I am better off than most other factory girls, I have better wages and I have more ambition.”25
According to reformers, the poor health of these “factory girls” led to infant mortality. During the strike, Catherine and Edwin Rumball published an extensive study of “The Working Girls and Women of Rochester” in The Common Good. They argued that the districts with the highest infant mortality rates were those where women were factory girls before marriage. The community, they argued, was paying the costs of exploitation by the factory owners. In 1911 the magazine had favored factory welfare: a warm lunch, pleasant eating place, hospital rooms for sick employees, recreational activities, training schools, profit sharing, and insurance benefits. Only a few clothing factories—the Adler Brothers, for example—practiced this type of welfare capitalism, or, as it was then called, “the social spirit.” Now, however, the Rumballs also advocated a more active role for the workers and collective bargaining as a necessity for the working women of Rochester. Organized labor was the only way to progress, they argued. Women needed to insist on the same wage as men for the same work, and to unite with men to demand a maximum wage. Women workers must organize. “The woman’s cause is not only man’s,” they concluded, “it is the cause of all of us together.”26
Catherine Rumball was the most visible middle-class ally in the strike. She spoke to women strikers at workers’ halls, inviting them to address meetings of middle-class women; she did picket duty and urged women to bargain collectively to prevent further deterioration. She was joined in her efforts by Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett, a wealthy Unitarian with Quaker antecedents, as well as by the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, the daughter of a stockholder in one of the strike-bound factories, and by a handful of other prominent women who joined the pickets as observers to prevent police brutality. But unless private correspondence can be found to indicate further cross-class activity, these efforts apparently were all that the sisterhood across the canal could provide for the women strikers. Rumball talked of sisterhood and promised that sentiment in support of the women strikers was growing, but she could never mobilize more than a few other women in the worker’s support. Whatever pressure women may have exerted in traditional private ways to help end the strike, they were only slightly visible publicly and, even then, not as an organized force.27
At the end of the strike the working women did ask their union representative to express their thanks to six of these women for their work with the pickets and for their support, but no evidence exists that sisterhood flourished or that it outlasted the strike. The women Rumball described as having “time and influence at their disposal” may have decreased police violence, but they were unable to exert any major influence on the strike. The working women had to rely on themselves and other working-class women in their struggle.
Italian women emerged from the Rochester strike displaying what at first might seem surprising militance. Researchers have long characterized Italian parents, especially patriarchal fathers, as opposed to daughters working outside the home. Were Rochester families unique, with the daughters somehow more militant than their parents, or were their parents somehow different? Researchers apparently have projected later ideology back into the early period and have deemphasized early militant rhetoric and employment practices. As Miriam Cohen’s study of New York Italians shows, these immigrant families valued the paid labor of their daughters so much that they favored their daughters’ working over their going to school. Because wages of Italian males were low, the most rational family strategy was to encourage daughters to work. Mothers took in boarders and did finishing work—often brought home by daughters who worked in factories. Daughters working in factories were thus valuable contributors to the household income. Moreover, Cohen has shown that this was the best family strategy, for education made absolutely no difference in the earnings of women in the garment industry.28 The pattern in Rochester seems similar to that in New York, and would offer some explanation for the militance of the young Italian daughters.
Beyond the street militance of Italian women strikers, some Italian women spoke to other workers, and a number apparently joined the IWW, the organization representative of the most militant ideology. In Rochester Italian women never moved into prominent strike leadership, as the Jewish women did, but they helped make up the most militant strike forces, and some were among those few hundred garment workers who opposed the settlement of the strike on the grounds that it gained too little from the employers. The activities of the young women from the Italian garment communities of Rochester may not have been unique, but rather part of a pattern of labor, community, and family militancy still inadequately studied by labor historians. They had the most to gain from a favorable wage settlement, the least to lose from militant demands.
The Jewish daughters, on the other hand, while also displaying militant organizing actions and moving to the forefront in strike leadership, had more to gain from peaceful settlement. While one should not forget that Emma Goldman had her first taste of wage slavery in the garment district of Rochester in the 1870s, she also found more congenial radical networks in New York—to which she removed herself with her sewing machine in 1889. The main difference between Italian and Jewish communities may have been the relatively greater security of Jewish immigrants because of their greater number of skilled workers. While Italian daughters came from relatively homogeneous unskilled (at least in terms of earning power) communities of workers, Jewish daughters came from mixed economic communities. This mixture of skilled and unskilled work community gave Jewish leaders an edge in recognizing the possibilities and the necessity of organizing broad-based industrial unions that included both skilled and unskilled workers.
Again, Cohen’s research in New York hints at differences that seem to have existed in the Rochester Jewish community. Jewish males had entered the expanding garment industry before the Italians, using their previous experience in small-scale mercantile operations to set up shops in the garment districts of each major clothing center. Lower infant mortality rates among the Jewish community—perhaps because of better access to health care as well as to economic advantages—meant Jewish families could educate their daughters. They also could, and did, move from homework into factory work in the first decade of the twentieth century, thus finding healthier working conditions. As a consequence, Jewish workers were less tied to subcontracting and homework than the workers of some other ethnic groups. When the Rochester strikers demanded an end to low-paying practices, the Jewish community could more easily support these demands, because it was less dependent on this lowest paying work. The Jewish daughters were also more literate upon their arrival in the United States, and increased their literacy once they were settled. Literacy gave these women greater social, if not employment, opportunities. Thus, the leadership of Jewish daughters emerged in the more moderate wing of the Rochester movement, which voted for settlement of the strike once subcontracting had been eliminated.29
As the strike continued into late March, the middle class seemed to abandon its support for collective bargaining. Edwin Rumball proposed a board composed of employers, workers, and public representatives to monitor complaints and correct abuses through private conferences with employers and publication of facts where abuses were not corrected. State mediators hammered out a compromise that both union and employer could claim as a victory. The strike itself had already forced employers to abolish subcontracts and to establish a 52-hour week. Workers were also granted overtime and work-free holidays. There was no overall increase in wages; workers were merely compensated for time lost in hourly reductions. Employers did agree not to discriminate against union members and to meet with committees of employees; but there was no official union representation on these employee committees.30 Strikers appointed Edwin Rumball, along with a second minister and two union officials, to see that the new agreement was lived up to, but clearly the union did not have an accepted place at the bargaining table. Rumball advised the workers to return to work and, with the exception of the more militant Italian workers, they returned.31
The agreement finally accepted by the majority of the strikers under the guidance of the United Garment Workers was far from the type of collective bargaining most workers wanted. The Rochester strike did not achieve a protocol like that achieved by the New York garment workers, with union-employer arbitration and grievance committees. What then did the workers receive for the million and a half dollars lost in wages?
Most important for women workers came recognition by the male-dominated unions. During the strike of 1913, Rochester women workers became a major part of a previously male union movement. The willingness of women to organize, to risk physical injury as symbolized by the death of Ida Brayman, and to follow female leaders won much support for women workers and for unionism. The solidarity of male and female workers reached a new level.
In fact, this new militance of the women and the new worker gender solidarity could not be contained within the United Garment Workers once the strikers had returned to work. As a result of their strike experiences, women workers became more insistent that they maintain a permanent presence in the union. When the UGWA refused to recognize women as a permanent and active part of the union structure, as shop chairwomen, as business agents, and as organizers, Rochester union women led the movement of clothing workers away from the old UGWA to form a new, more militant Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Women in the ACWA had to continue their struggle within that union for recognition and control, but their place was now within rather than outside a dynamic, growing, militant labor movement.
The decade of 1910 to 1920 marked a gain in women union membership all over the country, especially among clothing workers. But the increase in the city of Rochester was particularly impressive. From a total of 348 women union members in 1909, membership grew to 9,515 in 1920. This was 25 percent of the women gainfully employed in Rochester, a higher percentage than the nationwide average of all organized wage earners. More than 70 percent of these women—nearly 7,000—were in the clothing trades.32 It was the beginning of a new era.
1. For recent studies see especially Alice Kessler-Harris, “Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and Their Union,” Labor History, 17 (Winter 1976), 5–23; and Kessler-Harris, “‘Where are the Organized Women Workers?’” Feminist Studies, 3 (Fall 1975), 92–110; and Nancy Shrom Dye, “Feminism or Unionism? The New York Women’s Trade Union League and the Labor Movement,” Feminist Studies, 3 (Fall 1975), 111–125.
2. Statistics on women in the Rochester clothing industry can be found scattered throughout Charles P. Neill, Men’s Ready-Made Clothing, vol. 2, Report on Conditions of Women ad Child Wage Earners in the United States (61st Congress, 2d Session, Senate Document 645, Washington, 1911), and summarized in Edwin Rumball and Catherine Rumball, “The Working Girls and Women of Rochester,” The Common Good, 6 (Feb. 1913), 133–157.
3. Boutelle E. Lowe, Representative Industry and Trade Unionism of an American City (New York: Gray, 1912); and Alan H. Gleason, “The History of Labor in Rochester, 1820–1880,” Master’s thesis, University of Rochester, 1941.
4. Records of the Stein Company, University of Rochester.
5. Blake McKelvey, “The Men’s Clothing Industry in Rochester’s History,” Rochester History, 22 (July 1960), 1–32; Elmer Adler, “Notes on the Early History of Rochester Industries, I: Clothing,” The Common Good, 5 (Oct. 1911), 18–21.
6. United States Commissioner of Labor, Report on Hand and Machine Labor (2 vols., Washington, 1899), I, 197–204; II, 906–911, 914–919, 923–927.
7. “My Work in Rochester,” by a Factory Girl, The Common Good, 6 (Dec. 1912), 71–74.
8. Lowe, Representative Industry, 45.
9. Blake McKelvey, Rochester: The Water Power City, 1812–1854 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945), 287, 349; and Blake McKelvey, Rochester: The Flower City, 1855–1890 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), 76.
10. McKelvey, Flower City, 76.
11. Ibid., 18; Natalie F. Hawley, “The Labor Movement in Rochester, 1880–1898,” Master’s thesis, University of Rochester, 1949, 205–206, 217, 235; and John Andrews and W. D. P. Bliss, History of Women in Trade Unions, vol. 10 of U.S. Labor Bureau, Report on Conditions of Women and Child Wage Earners, 129. Philip S. Foner, Women and the American Labor Movement: From the First Trade Unions to the Present (New York: Free Press, 1979), 70–97, relates numerous instances of the reluctance of Knights to support militant strike activity of sewing women.
12. Ibid., 136.
13. The total number of union women in Rochester in all industries was only 348 in 1909, Lowe, Representative Industry, 21. The spread of UGWA among women workers in the men’s garment industry is described in Andrews and Bliss, Women in Trade Unions, 161.
14. See printed strike demands and “Why I Am Out on Strike,” in the E. A. Rumball Papers, University of Rochester.
15. Supplying garments to strike-bound factories in other towns was mentioned as a grievance in Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 7, 1913.
16. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 13, 1913; Mar. 6, 1913.
17. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 13, 1913.
18. The most complete accounts of the shooting are in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Feb. 6 and 7, 1913, and Rochester Union and Advertiser, Feb. 7, 1913. Sauer was never indicted but was released shortly after his arrest and left town, Rochester Evening Times, Feb. 20, 1913.
19. “Why I Am Out on Strike,” Rumball Papers, University of Rochester.
20. Newspaper clipping file of the garment worker’s strike in the Rumball Papers, University of Rochester.
21. Rochester Post Express, Mar. 17, 1913, reported on the society women.
22. Their names were Mrs. Cogswell Bentley, Gertrude C. Blackall, Mrs. Clements, Mrs. W. C. Gannett, Laura Griesheimer, Mrs. Florence Cross Kitchett, Alida Lattimore, Mrs. Edwin A. Rumball, Mrs. Joseph Tailing, and Louise Taylor.
23. Edwin Rumball and Catherine Rumball, “Working Girls,” 137–138, 155–156; “Rochester Factories and the Social Spirit,” Common Good, 4 (Mar. 1911), 10–12; John R. Williams, “A Study in Rochester’s Infant Mortality,” The Common Good, 5 (Jan. 1912), 14–22; Wm. Channing Gannett, “The Abdication of the Parent,” The Common Good, 5 (Apr. 1912), 20–23; Edwin Alfred Rumball, “Shall Rochester Have a 200-Family Tenement,” The Common Good, 5 (May 1912), 18–29; and “Model Tenements and the Alternative,” The Common Good, 5 (July 1912), 6; and Mrs. George W. Moore, “Rochester’s 3,500 Rooming Girls,” The Common Good, 6 (July 1913), 301–302.
24. Edwin A. Rumball, “The Fourth Ward Survey,” The Common Good, 5 (Oct. 1911) 22–24.
25. “My Work in Rochester,” The Common Good, 6 (Dec. 1912), 71–74.
26. Rumball and Rumball, “Working Girls,” 156.
27. Rochester Democrat, Mar. 7, 1913.
28. Miriam Cohen, “Changing Educational Strategies among Immigrant Generations: New York Italians in Comparative Perspective,” Journal of Social History, 15 (Spring 1982), 443–466.
30. McKelvey, “Men’s Clothing Industry,” 20.
31. See Rochester Post Exchange, Rochester Herald, New York Evening Journal, and Rochester Evening Journal, for Mar. 20, 1913.
32. Alice Henry, Women and the Labor Movement (New York: Arno, 1971; repr. of 1923 ed.), 83; Leo Wolman, The Growth of American Trade Unions, 1880–1923 (New York: Arno, 1975; repr. of 1924 ed.), 105, 108.