Part II

“Chicago Will Be Ours”


“There Must Be Something Wrong”

When earth produces free and fair

The golden waving corn;

When fragrant fruits perfume the air,

And fleecy flocks are shorn;

Whilst thousands move with aching head,

And sing the ceaseless song—

“We starve, we die; oh, give us bread,”

There must be something wrong.

When wealth is wrought as seasons roll,

From off the fruitful soil,

When luxury, from pole to pole,

Reaps fruits of human toil;

When, for a thousand, one alone

In plenty rolls along,

And others only gnaw the bone,

There must be something wrong.

Then let the law give equal rights

To wealthy and to poor;

Let freedom crush the arm of might

We ask for nothing more.

Until this system is begun,

The burden of our song

Must be, and can be, only one—

There must be something wrong.

“Factory Girls’ Album” (1847)1

The entrance of large numbers of women into industry and their subsequent efforts to organize were part of the vast social upheaval of the period of massive industrialization that followed the Civil War. As the century progressed, more and more workers began to echo this refrain from the New England mills: “There must be something wrong!” The fabric of traditional American society was being wrenched apart. Families were being driven off the land into the cities. Women were going to work for wages. All political life seemed touched with corruption, and the vast wealth that was being produced in the new factories was accumulating in a few hands.

This was the period of the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the monopoly capitalist class. While the economy boomed and periodically crashed—there were depressions in 1873, 1877, 1903, and 1914—the power of a small group of capitalists expanded wildly and in every direction. Cross-country railroads were built in the 1880s: the Canadian Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. By 1906 Edward H. Harriman controlled a third of the total railway mileage in the United States, while James Hill controlled the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific, and the J. P. Morgan group controlled most of the rest. Fierce competition resulted in collusion: the railway magnates created a trust that put all the railroads in the country under the control of three or four men who were already immensely rich and became more so. As Leo Huberman put it, “Up to the 1880s most businessmen competed with one another. After the 1880s smart businessmen combined with one another.”2

With the building of the railroads new industries opened up, to become monopolized in their turn. The invention of the refrigerator car revolutionized meat packing and made Chicago “hog butcher to the world.” The forests of the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest, and the iron and copper mines of the Midwest and West, became accessible by rail and therefore profitable. Under Rockefeller’s leadership, the oil industry was developed until the Standard Oil Trust was worth $70 million and controlled virtually all oil production in the United States from start to finish. Frick and Carnegie established a similar monopoly in steel. J. P. Morgan was one of the handful of men who really ran the country regardless of who was president. In 1901 he united Rockefeller’s Standard Oil with Carnegie’s steel trust to form U.S. Steel, worth $1.4 billion. His financial group dominated the railways, electricity, steel, shipping, farm machinery, anthracite, telephones, telegraph, and insurance. Morgan was also closely allied with the First National Bank of New York.

While a few became fabulously wealthy, most people owned little or nothing. In 1896, according to a survey by Charles B. Spahr, the top 1 percent of U.S. families had more wealth than the bottom 50 percent.3 The profits of those at the top grew so rapidly that they constantly had to seek new investment markets in order to maintain the same high rate of return. Between 1889 and 1917 the United States took over Samoa, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, and part of the Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, U.S. workers were paid as little as possible, worked as long as human bodies could tolerate, and were crushed by blacklists, “ironclad oaths” not to join unions, and, if necessary, the courts and federal troops.

Many of the most exploited of these workers were new immigrants. Between 1901 and 1920 over 14.5 million immigrants came to the United States, and they and their children made up the majority of the industrial working class. In 1900 44 percent of U.S. miners were foreign-born and 61 percent had immigrant parents; 36 percent of iron and steel workers were immigrants and 63 percent had immigrant parents.4 An 1887 government survey found that 75 percent of women factory workers in the large cities were either immigrants or the daughters of immigrants.’5 Immigrants—especially those who could not speak English—filled the lower rungs of the industrial ladder; they were segregated into the worst jobs, usually paid less than their native-born counter-parts, and ghettoized in their own slums.

The differences between native-born and immigrant workers were used to split the working class and prevent its organization. Employers and politicians cultivated antagonisms by using immigrants to break strikes or undercut wages. If a big manufacturer like Carnegie had a strike on his hands, he would send down to the docks for immigrants to use as scabs. He would take them into his mills under guard—so that the strikers could not explain the situation to them—and even lock them into the factory at night, supposedly to protect them. Sometimes immigrants just off the boat were sent clear across the country in locked trains on the promise of a job and, once there, were used as scabs and forced to work under appalling conditions, even at gunpoint. The steel trust broke a number of strikes in both its mills and mines this way. In addition, one immigrant group would be used to undercut another. For instance, an employer would deliberately split his workforce among two or more nationalities, each speaking a different language, thus making it more difficult for them to organize. The boss might further complicate things by favoring one nationality over another or by persuading each that he favored the other.

Despite these hardships, life in the U.S. had much to offer the new immigrants, particularly the women. Most of them came from countries that were largely agrarian, where women were servants or farm wives. Factory work had liberating aspects for them, despite appalling working conditions, discrimination, and disorientation. Middle and southern European peasants stepped over centuries of historical development when they crossed the Atlantic. Customs such as matchmaking and arranged marriages, chaperons, shaved heads and veils, black floor-length dresses, and enforced female illiteracy broke down before the needs of U.S. capitalism. Escaping from these feudal forms of patriarchal control, earning their own money and the right to an independent voice, seemed a great step forward to these women. Abraham Bisno, a Jewish socialist and leader of the cloakmakers in Chicago, described the way work changed their lives:

I found that immigrants who were farmers in the old country considered opportunities to work in factories as a great boon. Women who earned very little on the farm and who earned livings mostly by housework, either in their own homes or as servants, appreciated the opportunity of working a limited number of hours and earning money. Though their wage was small, they considered it large; while the majority of them turned their money over to the family chest, there were quite a significant number who would themselves be holders of their earnings, pay regular board to their families, and either spend or save money for themselves.

This change in their lives which gave them a right to do whatsoever they pleased with their own money, and gave them standing and authority in their families because of their earnings and contributions, was for them a very significant item in their lives. They acquired the right to a personality which they had not ever before possessed in the old country, even married women who worked in shops and were obliged to maintain a household at the same time. These latter felt they were much better off because they had a money-earning capacity, though they had to work very hard. So the factory and even the sweatshop were very much appreciated by these women. It was a historic revolution in their lives and in the lives of their entire people.6

Native-born farm girls were affected similarly by the changes in the national economy; as the U.S. became a great industrial power, millions of women poured into the paid labor force from rural farms and kitchens, as well as from overseas. In 1880 about two and a half million women worked for wages; ten years later, this number had nearly doubled; by 1910, there were over eight million women in the work force, making up 23.4 percent of all women in the U.S.7 Nearly one-third of these women (31.3 percent) went into domestic service as maids, cooks, or laundresses. Another large group went to work in factories—1,820,570 women, or 22.3 percent of all women wage earners. They worked in clothing, textiles, cigar and tobacco processing, shoes, food production, and metalworking. Over a million worked on farms for wages, while more than one hundred thousand worked in white- collar jobs as salesclerks, schoolteachers, and nurses.8

The worst conditions for women workers occurred in industries where work was done on a small scale at home: the garment industry, cigar manufacturing, nutpicking, and various luxury trades. This was the era of the sweatshop, or home workshop, staffed mainly by immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy. In the sweatshop everybody worked—young children, invalids, the aged—on jobs like stringing beads, sewing buttons, or plucking feathers to make feather boas. Such work got minimal pay—five or six cents an hour was the average wage—and the health hazards were immense; filth, disease, and death were the inescapable consequences.9 The workroom spread into the kitchen and bedroom. Many people were crammed together in rooms where they both lived and worked, with no heat, no windows, no hot water. There was never enough space or air. Lint, dust, bits of cloth, and dirt permeated the air, the food, the water, and the bed. Such places were breeding grounds for tuberculosis (the “sweaters’ disease”), smallpox, glaucoma, diptheria, and other diseases of the very poor. Public health authorities pointed to the danger of epidemics caused by germs carried on sweatshop-made clothing, and campaigns to eliminate sweatshops began to get widespread middle-class support.

Although a wage envelope sometimes gave a woman more power within the patriarchal family, it did not completely transform her social situation. Rather, her subordinate position in the home and in society at large was reinforced in the workplace, where employers were able to grossly underpay her and thus derive huge profits from her labor. A Senate commission that carried out a monumental survey of the working conditions of women and children in the United States found that in 1910, as today, there was a division of labor by sex: “Ordinarily the occupations involving skill, training, and responsibility were in the hands of men, while the work of women was apt to be at best only semiskilled and in many cases purely mechanical. Under these circumstances the difference in earnings of the sexes was very marked.”10 Forty percent of women workers earned under six dollars a week.11 Their work tended to be segregated from that of men. They did work men were not trained to do, such as needle-work; work that was considered women’s work, such as laundry and food processing; and work that was so labor-intensive that it did not pay to get men to do it, such as garment work. They did their work for less than men, and they were used to undercut the wages of organized men, like the cigarworkers, when an industry mechanized. These women did not work for self-fulfillment; they worked because they had to. The majority were unmarried girls in their mid- to late-teens and early twenties, whose earnings were essential to their families’ survival. Most of the girl clothing workers under sixteen gave their entire wage envelope to the family budget. Those married women who worked did so either because they were the only support of their children (being widowed, divorced, or deserted) or because their husbands could not earn enough to feed the family.

The high profits derived from their labor were justified by the general belief that women were not really meant to work for wages, that it was “unnatural” for them to do so, that they didn’t really need to work but only wanted “pin money,” and that they deserved less money than men because they were less valuable people. Women were kept both underpaid and unorganized partly by arguments such as these:

1.Women work only to supplement the earnings of their fathers or husbands, therefore they don’t need to earn much, and certainly don’t need equal pay.

2.Women should not be working anyway: it is not their “sphere,” it makes them unfeminine, and they should be home caring for their families. Therefore they do not deserve much money and should be punished for their violation of decency by earning as little as possible.

3.Women are unskilled workers. Naturally unskilled workers earn less than skilled workers. (For some reason construction work has always been considered skilled, but needlework has not, even though aspects of one take no less skill than the other.)

4.Women are only working until they catch a husband. Getting married is their job in life: they are in the workforce too briefly to want to join unions, and they are in any case unorganizable, since all they think about is men. Further, they have neither the staying power nor the fighting ability to succeed even if they want to unionize, because they are women and therefore weak. Consequently there is no point in even trying to organize them.

It is clear that these were not rational arguments based on an objective interpretation of facts, but ideas that grew out of a traditional way of life that was becoming obsolete. On the farm there was so much work reserved for women that there was an economic rationale behind the “separate sphere.” In the city working-class women took jobs because they had to if their families were to eat, and a separate sphere for women was a luxury they could not afford. Still, traditional ideas about woman’s place had considerable strength in the minds of both men and women workers. They were, after all, the ruling ideology, broadcast in every paper, from every pulpit, by every politician. And as time went on they were used increasingly by the labor leaders of the AFL who wished to justify their neglect of working women: “Nice girls don’t work.”

These ideas clashed with reality. Of course most factory girls wanted to get married, and of course they quit work when they did: this was their only possible escape, on an individual level, from the miseries of the workplace. But for increasing numbers of women this escape was an illusion, particularly in the single-industry textile towns of New England.12 Black women had almost never been able to entertain such illusions. No matter how often women were told their place was in the home, the fact was inescapable that they were being driven out of it in ways that brought both greater suffering and greater freedom. The argument that most women stopped working when they got married, and hence could not be organized, was proved totally untrue by the young girls in the New York and Chicago garment industries. Nevertheless, even researchers who were sympathetic to organizing women tended to believe in their docility and flightiness.

The employer invited [the women’s] entrance en masse because they were cheap and above all because they were docile and easily managed. They were cheap and easily managed because they were in the main young, partly because they were unorganized, and partly because, as they expected to stay in the industrial world only a short time, they considered it better to accept conditions as they found them than to fight for improvements.13

So women were unorganized because they were docile, easily managed, and cheap; and they were docile, easily managed, and cheap because they were unorganized. In fact they were unorganized because they had just become workers; because they had so much work to do at home that they could hardly move; because their husbands, boyfriends, and fathers did not let them go to meetings; because they earned so little that they could not afford to take extra risks; and because no one would organize them. And when anyone tried, women often showed that, despite all these barriers, they were raring to go.

The late nineteenth century was a period of great activity among women of all classes. Throughout the country there was a groundswell of discontent that found expression in the People’s Party, the Knights of Labor, the AFL, the settlement movement, the anarchist movement, the Socialist Labor Party, and, among women in particular, in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the suffrage movement, and the women’s clubs. Membership in these groups overlapped; many trade unionists and Knights of Labor were also socialists or “Nationalists”—single-taxers, who believed in the universal panacea of a single property tax, as advocated by the prophet Henry George in his best-selling Progress and Poverty. WCTU members were also suffragists, settlement workers, members of women’s clubs, Knights of Labor, Nationalists, and sometimes even socialists. All this overlap was a sign of the ferment of the period, the radicalism of the laboring classes in the 1880s and 1890s. The actions of the monopolies and the state, the frequent industrial depressions, the blatant alliances of the corporations, courts, and federal government against the unions—all these fed radical sentiments. Such grassroots feelings were summed up at the People’s Party convention in 1892;

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench…. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion is silenced and business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrating in the hands of the capitalists.

The urban workers are denied the right of organizing for self-protection … a hireling standing army [Pinkertons], unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these in turn despise the republic and endanger liberty.14

The newly formed American Federation of Labor was part of this upsurge of popular militance. This may seem odd to those who think of the AFL as a collection of narrow-minded labor aristocrats who kept women and blacks out of the labor movement and cared only about protecting the privileged position of its skilled membership at the expense of the rest of the working class.15 While this was certainly true after the turn of the century, two things must be remembered; first, the AFL was a federation that left room for local variations in the direction of either progress or reaction, and the politics of the top leadership did not necessarily reflect the sentiments of the membership; and second, like any other mass organization the AFL responded to the political climate of the times. Even AFL leader Samuel Gompers, later known for his conservatism, was a socialist in the 1870s.16

The AFL was founded in 1886, when existing trade unions—carpenters, cigarmakers, ironmolders, and other skilled workmen—joined together to defend themselves against raiding and scabbing by certain factions in the Knights of Labor, a rival organization (see chapter 2). The AFL reacted against anti-union aspects of the Knights and felt its cross-class membership made the Knights prone to turn away from union organizing and strikes to such middle-class panaceas as cooperatives and electoral campaigns. In contrast, the AFL elaborated the concept of “pure- and-simple” trade unionism; the union would avoid politics so as not to get dragged into electioneering and forget its economic interests. It would be a purely working-class organization, excluding middle-class people with abstract revolutionary or reformist schemes on behalf of the workers. It would be a federation of separate craft unions with little central control. In practice, the AFL’s pure-and-simple unionism degenerated over the years into protecting the interests of the organized against the unorganized, and jockeying between jurisdictional disputes, but this was not envisioned at the time.

It was early days in the labor movement and there was little to distinguish trade unionists from revolutionaries. Both were lepers as far as the molders of public opinion were concerned. Many of the early leaders of the AFL were Marxists in the loose sense in which this term was understood at the time. Marxism was in its infancy and few of the works of Marx and Engels had as yet been translated into English. Samuel Gompers, the AFL’s founder and first president, had to learn German in order to read Capital. He looked forward to the “first emancipation of the working class” through trade unions.17 Gompers believed that he and the others who built the AFL were the heirs of Marx and Engels, who themselves had believed in building unions, and, like Marx, Gompers opposed the Lassallean socialists who insisted that there was no point in building unions because nothing could be won under capitalism.

In fact the constitution of the infant AFL was a clear class struggle document: “A struggle is going on … between the oppressors and the oppressed … a struggle between capital and labor, which must grow in intensity year by year, and work disastrous results to the toiling millions … if not combined for mutual protection.”18

Despite this militant statement, the AFL avoided taking a position on most general political questions and did not endorse political candidates. Gompers responded to the Lassallean socialists, who were prominent in New York, by insisting on a complete separation between economics and politics; politics, he said, had no place in the labor movement. This was, ultimately, to become the general rule in the AFL unions. But in Chicago the lineup of forces in the craft unions was quite different from that in New York: instead of Lassallean socialists versus pure-and-simple unionists, the antagonists were socialist unionists and labor racketeers.

In the 1870s the Chicago labor movement had been heavily infiltrated by the city political machine and by gangster elements. The head labor politician, also a leader in the Chicago Trades and Labor Federation, was Billy Pomeroy. His associate. Skinny Madden of the steamfitters, charged $ 1,000 and up for not striking on construction jobs; his motto was “Show me an honest man and I’ll show you a damn fool.”19 Abraham Bisno describes the kind of unionism represented by these men:

There developed a sort of irresponsible and gang affiliation between the respective business agents of the respective trades in the building industry, and those leaders would protect the wages of their members loyally but would at the same time use the club of strike over the employers, contractors, and builders for the purposes of getting personal graft. That put the building industry almost constantly in chaos and turmoil; very seldom did a job go through without strikes and violence and slugging and injunctions, with police violence and graft added to it all, and the leaders of the strikers forming a gang with the politicians and crooked policemen forming a fellowship for dishonest purposes.

The initiation fee in all these unions was very high, and grew higher from year to year. To get into any of these unions became very difficult, and each separate union formed a sort of monopoly in its own small group. Most members were continually bent on the idea of allowing fewer and fewer people to enter, making a scarcity of labor in their own calling and therefore making for the maintaining of their standard of wages—but these ideas militated for a selfish group idealism, and were against the sense of solidarity of labor. They made for a sort of aristocracy in each special group.20

In the 1880s and 1890s the leadership of the Chicago labor movement went back and forth between the “labor skates,” led by Billy Pomeroy, and the socialists, led by Albert Parsons, George Spies, and Tommy Morgan. The socialists looked like apostles of purity next to these gangsters. They stood for absolute fiscal honesty, class struggle, and morality—they even opposed free tram passes for factory inspectors as possible graft. They were strong enough to fight the crooks, and workers followed them as much because of their honesty and their class struggle attitudes as because of their theories about revolution.

The issue of who was to lead the labor movements in Chicago and New York was important to women workers because to a substantial degree it determined whether or not they would be organized. In Chicago the socialists actively supported the organization of women, while the racketeers busted up their unions.21 The basic socialist approach to the oppression of women, as developed by Engels and Rebel, saw the integration of women into production as the major way to end their inequality. Though a few backward socialists held onto the idea that women’s place was in the home and that men should protect them, most saw that women were in industry to stay, that this was progressive, and that they should be organized on an equal basis with men.

Gompers, in this period, reiterated the prevailing belief that women belonged at home, and that it was unnecessary for the wife to contribute to the support of the family by working.22 There was therefore no need to organize women, and the priority should be to raise the wage of the working man. Though not all unionists agreed with Gompers’ views, the influx of women into the work force during this period met with a variety of proposals: they should be driven out of the factories; they should be treated with benign neglect; they should be organized as equals into unions or segregated into separate locals or integrated as subordinate members of mixed locals. Many trade unionists undoubtedly hoped the problem would disappear once men had won wage increases that would allow their wives and children to stay home.

Only the socialists worked out a consistent and scientific understanding of the changes in women’s conditions, one that led, in theory, and in Chicago in practice, to the idea that women had to be organized for the good of the entire working class. This approach was developed by the German socialist, August Bebel, whose book Women and Socialism was translated into English in 1903 by Daniel De Leon, leader of the Socialist Labor Party. It immediately became the most popular book on the subject for generations of women activists. After outlining the appalling exploitation and suffering of women and child laborers, and discussing the fact that this suffering often led people to want to turn back the clock and send women out of the factories, Bebel went on:

The trend … of our social life is not to banish woman back to the house and the hearth, as our “domestic life” fanatics prescribe…. On the contrary, the whole trend of society is to lead women out of the narrow sphere of strictly domestic life to a full participation in the public life of the people—a designation that will not then cover the male sex only—and in the task of human civilization…. The dark sides that accompany also this form of development, are not necessarily connected with it; they lie in the social conditions of our times.23

Most U.S. socialists concluded from this that women should be organized alongside men, into both unions and socialist organizations. Nowhere was this idea tested in practice more ardently than in Chicago where, under the leadership of female socialists, the task of organizing working women was taken up more successfully than anywhere else in the country. The trade unions that developed there were supported by a powerful united front of women which combined both the labor movement and the feminist movement.

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