Two Lives in Labor: Sarah Barron Part 1

Posted on January 9th, 2017 by

Edited by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part III: We Will Begin the Campaign

Missed parts 1 and 2? Start from the Beginning

Sarah Barron (1901-1993) was born in Ukraine and emigrated to Baltimore in 1914. Soon after, she started work as a thread-puller at Wohlmuth’s. Within the year, Sarah and her sisters left Wohlmuth’s for Sonneborn’s. By 1916, she had advanced from a thread-puller to a sewing machine operator and had joined the newly formed Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

Elected a shop steward, Sarah rose steadily through the union ranks. She became a business manager and a paid organizer for the Amalgamated. During the 1932 strike—which revitalized the Amalgamated—Sarah was arrested numerous times for picketing. Her courage, tenacity, and organizational skills made her a pioneer among women labor leaders of her generation.

The following account of her early years in the labor movement is taken from an oral history conducted by Barbara Wertheimer, June 4, 1976. The sequence of reminiscences has been re-arranged to improve the flow of the narrative, but all comments are those of Sarah Barron. Additional information on Barron and her remarkable career can be found in Jo Ann E. Argersinger, Making the Amalgamated: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Baltimore Clothing Industry, 1899-1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

[My father] was a tailor in Russia, and he used to be a half-rabbi . . . he used to sing, like a cantor. He went to tailoring, but he was very religious and he wouldn’t work on Saturday. So, he’d work up to Friday and he wanted to go home early. That’s how he used to lose his jobs. Because, especially winter times, he wouldn’t work after two o’clock. They told him they had no job for him. And my mother was sick since she came and all. At school we used to play and when I’d go home sometimes, we didn’t have enough to eat. My father didn’t make any money, and my mother was sick, so one of my sisters took me in the factory. It was so bad. We had to work . . . to support ourselves.

I worked for Wohlmuth’s. I was pulling out threads in a basement. . . . They used to lock the elevator when they needed the work. That was the first [factory] where they locked the elevator. It was hot and there wasn’t even no payroll. They used to give my sister the money for me, too.

Henry Sonneborn, Siegmund Sonneborn, and unknown man in the Sonneborn Office at corner of Eutaw and German Streets, c.1900. JMM 1991.55.1b

Henry Sonneborn, Siegmund Sonneborn, and unknown man in the Sonneborn Office at corner of Eutaw and German Streets, c.1900. JMM 1991.55.1b

Most of the time I spent in Sonneborn’s. I was pulling threads . . . but then I started to work on a machine. I was just doing a little job of sewing linings on coats.

Setting tape, that was a man’s job at the time. And making linings. Setting inside pockets, pressing, and under-pressing. That was all man’s jobs. I know they wouldn’t let a woman in to sew sleeves or to do some jobs. Nobody thought about it. When I started working in the basement pulling [threads], I made about four dollars a week. They made twenty-five, the cutters upstairs. But not tailors. They made about ten, eleven, twelve. My father made about nine dollars a week. He couldn’t support all of his children.

You had to be fifteen years at that time to get a permit to work. I wasn’t fifteen years, and there was a few others. And they had inspectors. I never did forget that name, Miss Campes, she was the child inspector. She used to look around. When she came to our shop they used to give three rings. We had to get in a box, that had rags down there. Yes, and they’d close it up and [tell me to] wait in it ‘til she got through looking for me, you know, for children. And after she left, we come out again. Well, the one time we got caught. They took us to Mr. Blumberg [an Amalgamated official], and they took us to juvenile court or something, Anyhow, they let us out and they told us not to go to work, but we went anyhow.

My mother kept house, but my oldest sister—she worked in Sonneborn’s already—she used to be like the head of the household. She used to be like our boss. She’d tell us who had a job. We all had to do a little bit. Scrub the kitchen, scrub the bathroom. My mother was happy to be with the children. She loved the children. But my mother was a rebel. She was participating in a meat strike here [in 1918] because the meats were not kosher or something. And she got locked up one night. We were sitting on the porch . . . and we were right across the street from the union, and they said, “Your mother got locked up!”

The Social Revolution by Karl Kautsky, 1910. Book is stamped from Workmen’s Circle Free Library, Baltimore, MD. JMM 2007.32.1

The Social Revolution by Karl Kautsky, 1910. Book is stamped from Workmen’s Circle Free Library, Baltimore, MD. JMM 2007.32.1

We were political-minded. My oldest sister, the one who came here first, she went away because she was a socialist in Russia and they were trying to line them up. So she came here. She got in illegally, see. She belonged to the Workmen’s Circle and she belonged to organizations that were politically-minded here. Of course, we all listened to it. I was in Yipsel (Young People’s Socialist League) many years ago. I went to the Yipsel school when I was a kid. We used to read everything in the Workmen’s Circle library.

In 1916, they had a big strike here . . . to try to get everybody in the Amalgamated union.  And the United Garment Workers and the Industrial Workers got together with the Amalgamated. And the cutters walked out with the others on strike from Sonneborn’s and from a lot of other places, and so it was a great big fight. Dorothy [Jacobs Bellanca, an early union organizer] came up to Sonneborn’s and worked there with a bunch of young kids, but we had a lot of spunk in us. And she said that the women have to go on the picket line and we’d have to go first because they had a lot of police and we should give a push, and then the men will follow us in back. A lot of us landed in the police station. Some of them had to nurse their babies. They let them out, but they didn’t let us out until the following day.

Officers of Garment Workers Local #114, United Garment Workers of America; Abraham Cohen, secretary of the American Federation of Labor, at middle left end. JMM 1992.39.10

Officers of Garment Workers Local #114, United Garment Workers of America; Abraham Cohen, secretary of the American Federation of Labor, at middle left end. JMM 1992.39.10

I suppose that I had missed childhood, and you had to take something to take its place. So it was an exciting thing then. You came to meetings and I was, I was fifteen yeast old, I was elected chairlady for Sonneborn’s. First I was just for the seventh floor, just for the women.  Then they elected me head chairlady. Later on, I was elected chairman for the seventh floor for both men and women because they saw that I did more for the women than the men did! That must have been in the late twenties.

[In 1920] I was the youngest delegate at the [Amalgamated] Boston convention. [Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca] always went. And she said to a group of women, “You wanted to get elected a woman? You’re entitled to four delegates.” Well, [Hyman] Blumberg was always our friend. He said, “Instead of voting for four, vote for one.”

The next thing was, we went to meetings because we found we wanted something. So we began to work among the women. And then, when [in] 1920 they had a general strike in New York, Bessie Blumberg and Dorothy [Jacobs Bellanca] went to help there. They said they needed money for milk for the children. So we got together in the city of Baltimore with women from other shops because we used to have like a women’s committee.  We didn’t have a local, and we worked with this buttonhole makers local, ‘cause they were nothing but women

And we all got together, and we said, “We’re going to have a bazaar. And we’re going to raise money for milk funds for the children of New York.”  So we had some liberals, we had Elizabeth Gilman, who was the daughter of the first president of Johns Hopkins. She was with us. And Sidney Hollander and Broadus Mitchell who was teaching in Johns Hopkins. He was my teacher at school! The women were crocheting, knitting. Everything was handmade. Everything we brought in, our headquarters was on Front Street, brought it there and we got a big hall on Palmer Street because most of the people lived around there.

Lithuanian women and Italian women and the Bohemian women–everybody was doing something. We had everything and Bessie Blumberg and Eleanor Pankhurst, who was teaching at Goucher College and Emily Richardson and one who taught at Hopkins, they brought the groups to buy the stuff. A lot of liberals and a lot of the workers bought things, too. We made over a thousand dollars! We sent it to Dorothy [Bellanca] to use it for the milk fund, because she was over there conducting the strike, helping to conduct the strike.

Labor summer school for women workers, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 1916-1917. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Labor summer school for women workers, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, 1916-1917. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

[In 1921] I went to summer school, the [Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers]. It was the first year it started. Dorothy got me to go that summer. We didn’t have money so I think some of the liberals paid for me, the fare. I was already active and all.  And there was another girl, a buttonhole-maker, her name was Sadie Coats. She went, too. And after that, I think that every year we sent somebody [from] the Amalgamated [to] these summer schools.

Continue to Part IV: On Strike

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Two Lives in Labor: Jacob Edelman Part 2

Posted on January 4th, 2017 by

Edited by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

The account of Jacob Edelman’s early years in the labor movement comes from an oral history conducted by Bertha Libauer on November 2, 1975.

Part II: A New Era

Miss part 1: The Voice of Labor?

I left Baltimore and went to New York because in order to get a job in another plant whether it would be Schloss Bros. or Henry Sonneborn & Co. they knew that we were involved in a strike, and they knew we were very much involved and couldn’t get a job. The only thing I could do was to go to New York. New York was already a lot different. New York was the so-called cradle of  “Industrial Civilization.” New York was the reservoir of unionism. I went to the union office there, identified myself, and why I had to leave Baltimore, and I was given a job. New York opened all sorts of avenues for me that I would never have had in Baltimore.

I earned my living of twelve dollars a week in the cutting department, and at that time I worked forty-eight hours instead of fifty-six in Baltimore. And we had recognition of the union, and we had meetings in the union–open without secreting your identity, you had shop stewards in the shops, you had committees if you had a grievance, foremen treated you with much more dignity than what I was accustomed to here, and so it gave me opportunities to do things in addition to working in the plant and maintaining myself. I enrolled in the Cooper Union School of Social Science, and there I took economics.

I spent in New York from the end of 1913 to the beginning of 1916, keeping in touch with my sisters, slipping into Baltimore to see them, going back to New York. They were happy to see how I looked and that I was getting along. I was beginning to hear a lot of music in New York, going to the Metropolitan, symphonies, concerts, etc. New York had what was good for my soul as for the body.

Garment Workers' Strike, July 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Garment Workers’ Strike, July 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Then there came a new era in the labor movement. There was the upsurge in leadership upon the American scene. [Sidney] Hillman became the first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. When that organization came upon the scene, it supplanted the United Garment Workers. It was like civil war within the labor movement as to which would predominate and which would survive. The masses of the people clung to the Amalgamated because that was the new liberal spirit that permeated and influenced the garment industry. It was almost like a sister organization to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which dealt with ladies’ wearing apparel. The leadership was of the same philosophical pattern. They were all people who had come from the other side. They witnessed industrial exploitation, political oppression and came to this country and assumed their position in this free country, that was dearest to their hearts and that was human freedom and human dignity and better working conditions and to establish a sort of Bill of Rights to the people in industry.

Sidney Hillman, c. 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sidney Hillman, c. 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

That’s when I came back to Baltimore. I became involved in the Amalgamated, and before long I was on its staff. I became a leader of the cutters. They had crafts–they had coat makers locals, pants makers locals, finishers locals. The finishers were women buttonhole makers–all women, wonderful crafts-people, who were doing delicate kinds of work. They were segregated into various locals, known as the craft locals. I was, of course, in the cutters craft. There it was a democracy, you were not appointed nor were you anointed a leader. You had to be elected by the people and so democracy was in action on the industrial level, vis-a-vis the labor movement. I was elected a business agent and representative of the cutters craft under the Amalgamated leadership.

The labor movement was engaged in various struggles with the captains of industry. As unions were coming in conflict with industry, they wound up in the courts. Often lock-outs, strikes, injunctions, arrests, convictions–unions needed lawyers. They needed defenders and advocates. The leadership contained in their own right advocacy, but they need legal advocates and you needed legal defenders, people within the labor movement who became involved in litigation with industry.

At that time I found a position in the Amalgamated, I was free to be able to study, attended Hopkins to take classes, attended the YMCA Day School to prepare myself for admission to the University of Maryland, and after that, in 1921 until 1925 I received a law degree as Bachelor of Laws & Letters. I took my examination, passed the bar and became a lawyer, and that’s when I began to represent labor to the exclusion of any other economic interest until this day.

I was naturally identified as representing labor, which was not very fashionable, because most lawyers in the profession were fearful to represent labor’s interests because it was a disadvantage to a lawyer who was naturally a general practitioner and if he undertook to represent a labor union, he would lose [clients], because they were not pro-labor minded, they were business men, they were manufacturers, they were industrialists and they would not have any truck with a lawyer who attempts to represent labor. These upstarts were not satisfied with conditions with the status quo. They were rebelling against the establishment. So if you represented labor, you were a labor lawyer, and there were many lean years when labor did not have the wherewithal to compensate a lawyer. You had to be thoroughly dedicated to that cause, otherwise you couldn’t serve labor.

Founders of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, c.1915. M. Serkin (top row, 2md from left), Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca (4th from left), Sarah Baron (6th from left), David Schnapper (9th from left), Morris Michelson (2nd row, 1st from left), Henry Tuerk (2nd from left), Hyman Blumberg (3rd from left), Paul Lesky (7th from left), Jacob Edelman (8th from left), and Samuel Skolnik (bottom, left).  JMM 1990.91.1

Founders of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, c.1915. M. Serkin (top row, 2md from left), Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca (4th from left), Sarah Baron (6th from left), David Schnapper (9th from left), Morris Michelson (2nd row, 1st from left), Henry Tuerk (2nd from left), Hyman Blumberg (3rd from left), Paul Lesky (7th from left), Jacob Edelman (8th from left), and Samuel Skolnik (bottom, left). JMM 1990.91.1

And then labor came into its own. Then came the terrible depression, the Roosevelt Administration. The tremendous upsurge of the CIO. In this city I was the pioneer, the sole and only lawyer at the bar who represented labor’s interests, who understood labor’s problems and at the same time attained an attitude of an even balance because I was taught by Sidney Hillman, and that I will never forget, a man who was a great scholar, a man who was destined to be a rabbi but came over to the side of the rebels to lead masses to effect their economic social and political well being. He taught those of us that were close to him– “In your dealings with employers you must remember and not forget that if you drag the employer down you drive yourself under and under is lower than down, so make sure that in your dealings with employers you must always have a healthy economic employer who will be able to give you what is reasonable for you to receive.” This is the school of labor relations in my time. By these standards I maintained my professional approach in representing labor’s interests.

As much as can be said that labor [today] can be found unreasonable in its demands, the leadership of American industry has in its history, failed to recognize the rights of labor in their days, so that you have a constant clash and conflict between labor and industry, and also labor and capital. If labor had waited, without establishing itself through its own strength, and through its own might and main to demand and secure certain rights, they would have never been given to labor, and that goes for legislation as well. If you turn the clock back about sixty years ago, there was no such thing as workmen’s compensation. If a person lost his life in the line of duty, the widow and children were helpless. If he lost a limb or an eye or what-not, there was no such thing. What would have been the history of this country without the labor movement?

Continue to Part III: We Will Begin the Campaign (Sarah Barron)

 

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Two Lives in Labor: Jacob Edelman Part 1

Posted on January 2nd, 2017 by

Edited by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

Part I: The Voice of Labor

Jacob Edelman (1896-1984) was born in Ukraine and came to Baltimore in 1912, where he joined two older sisters. Within a short time, he went to work as an apprentice cutter at Greif & Brothers. Jacob became active in efforts to unionize, and he was soon blacklisted by Baltimore clothing manufacturers.

Moving to New York, Jacob continued his education at Cooper Union. He returned to Baltimore and again found work in the textile trade. He attended law school at night, graduating in 1925. He immediately opened a practice as a labor lawyer, representing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and other unions. In 1935, he was named a federal labor referee and served for four years.

In 1939, Edelman ran for City Council, where he served until 1971, winning fame for his vocal support for labor and for the rights of minorities. When an anti-discrimination bill failed in 1958, Edelman declared that “a day of infamy in the annals of the council which made Baltimore appear to the world as a bigoted hamlet instead of a great city.” After retiring from the council, he served for eight years as chairman of the Maryland Human Rights Commission.

The account of his early years in the labor movement comes from an oral history conducted by Bertha Libauer on November 2, 1975.

Ad for United Garment Workers of America. JMM 1990.92.1

Ad for United Garment Workers of America. JMM 1990.92.1

When I told my mother I wanted to leave for America, she was very much opposed to the idea. I pleaded with my mother to let me join my two sisters, Sarah and Frieda, whom I loved very dearly. My mother didn’t want me to go – she said America is a great land, but it is only good for people who are craftsmen, such as carpenters, tailors, shoe makers, etc. “What would you do there, you are a child of the book—you are your father’s child and he is no longer here.” I told my mother there were opportunities there where I could find gainful employment—I told her I would not give up my studies and I would not forsake the family tradition or the memory of my father, and that I would try to follow and reach out since education is free as it is not in Russia. I told her I would not get lost and that I would not betray the family tradition.

I landed in Locust Point, February 2, 1912, where I was met and embraced by my two sisters. Each sister wanted me to be with her—they were not wealthy but their husbands provided for their families and I was well taken care of. I was fortunate to find myself under the guidance of two wonderful sisters, who were interested in seeing my advancement in keeping with family tradition and education. Of course, I had to go to work.

On Monday morning, two days after my arrival, I was taken to School #93, at Baltimore and Aisquith, and ushered into the principal’s office—I did not speak English but spoke German very well. This was a German-English School, that’s why they took me there. The principal sized me up, spoke in German, I told him what I had—history, some sciences, math, etc. Yet I didn’t know one word of English—he didn’t know what to do with me. He decided to put me in the sixth grade. I was sixteen going on seventeen years old. I was quite a young man, as tall as I am now, a little thinner. He presented me to the teacher, a Miss Ella. She spoke German very well.

Miss Ella was an angel, she was unmarried, she was a lady in her forties, and she took me under her guidance. She lived on South Broadway, and every day after school, I carried her books and my books and we went together to her home. After a slight repast, we sat down and studied, and she tutored me privately, free, of course in order to prepare me in English, which was so important. I became acquainted with English literature and became an avid reader in literature. I skipped from the sixth to the seventh to the eighth and in June I received a certificate. At that time we didn’t have junior high schools. Grammar school was from the first to the eighth grade. The girls went to Eastern High School and the boys to City College.

Jacob Edelman. JMM 1994.21.14

Jacob Edelman. JMM 1994.21.14

Without going any further I went to get a job. My job was in the clothing industry with Greif & Bros., and later I worked for Sonneborn’s. Of course I knew nothing about clothing or tailoring. I was put in the cutting department and it was there I learned to be a cutter. It wasn’t easy on me because I knew it was only a transitory business in my life–that I was not going to be a cutter the rest of my life–so I didn’t take it too seriously. My earnings were six dollars per week and again I lived with one sister or the other—I walked to save the nickel car fare, my sisters didn’t take any board from me, and saved a little money, and even sent twenty-five dollars from time to time to my mother.

A strike broke out at Greif & Bros. after I was there about a year—in 1913. The strike electrified me—here was a struggle of various ethnic groups, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Bohemians, Jews, and some Americans, all unified together [who] went out on strike against conditions that existed in the plant.

The conditions were the worse kind of exploitation that you could possibly describe. People worked fifty-six hours a week. That was the regular work week, but if you were needed for later, you had to work later and there was no such thing as premium pay. There was no such thing as proper rest rooms, decent facilities, or water fountains, there was a little tin cup with a little chain, and you could dip in and take a drink and that was for everybody. There would be as many as 600-700 people working on one loft. Work began at 7:30 and we worked until 6 p.m. and there was no such thing as unionism. The supervision was always on the alert to find out whether anybody at the machine with another person was talking.

The Greif firm was owned by a German Jewish family, but they were up in the way high top echelon of executive leadership and knew very little about what was going on in the pants shop, in the cloak shop, the canvas department, in the stock room. They didn’t know what was going on there – they had hired executives and the top executive was Sam Brechman – he was a Simon Legree if there ever was one in American history. He exemplified him in every respect.

 

Henry Sonneborn Company workers, c. 1915. JMM 1991.39.2

Henry Sonneborn Company workers, c. 1915. JMM 1991.39.2

As a result of the deplorable conditions that existed in what is commonly referred to as the sweat shops, the people rebelled against them. They found a way to communicate with each other even though the Italians couldn’t speak English and the Jews couldn’t speak English and the rest couldn’t speak English, but they were communicating – they understood each other and they resolved to go out on strike. There was a union known as the United Garment Workers, but the union, itself, was far from being dedicated to the cause of liberating workers from industrial exploitation. [The leadership] was not interested in the improvement of conditions of the immigrant workers who came from eastern and southern Europe. Indeed, they held most of these people in utter contempt. They referred to the Italians as the “wops and the Genies,” the Jews were the “Kikes,” and the rest were known as “square heads.”

Then came the cutters. They were in the main Irish and Germans. There were very few Jews in the cutting craft. The cutting craft was called the aristocracy in the industry. Sometimes they were referred to as the “silk stocking men,” although their conditions were not something to write home about. They were earning in those days sixteen dollars and eighteen dollars per week as against immigrant people who were making from six to ten dollars per week.

The clothing industry at that time was undergoing a complete revolutionary change from that of a tailor making a whole suit [to]180 different operations that were broken down in separate little sections which made up a suit. Each person learned how to do a section – back pocket in the pants, a side pocket, little watch pocket, serging, side seams, back seams, etc. Everything was sectionalized and broken up into little operations and each operation carried a piece-rate to it – these were not time workers. When you punched in the time you got in, you were not guaranteed what you would earn; it depended on how many pieces you made, and each piece represented a quarter of a cent and it depended on how many pieces you produced that day which showed how much you made, multiplied by the piece rate.

Striking garment workers, NYC, c. 1915-1920. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Striking garment workers, NYC, c. 1915-1920. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

They went out on strike. Now when the strike broke out, it lasted for twenty-six weeks, and there was no such thing as strike benefits. The people that were involved in this strike, they were striking more for human dignity than they were for more pennies. They were less interested in asking for more money than to ask for recognition, to have a voice, to have a grievance procedure, to have some machinery established so that the foreman in a particular department could not make a devastating statement. A beautiful Jewish girl sitting at her machine, if she appealed to him physically, and in order for her to keep her job, he suggested that she become his bed-partner any particular night when he wanted her company. These are the conditions that existed, so that the people rebelled at this kind of a system that had indignity rather than human dignity. I was witness to these things. The strike was lost after twenty-six weeks.

They were told there was no point in striking any more, that they better go back to work. Now how did these people live during the twenty-six weeks – how did they sustain themselves? There was the Jewish Charities for the Jewish people, as for the other ethnic people, they had relatives, they had families, there were soup kitchens. There were some brave people in this city. Dr. Kinsolving was a great clergyman, who organized a defense committee, Elizabeth Gilman, the daughter of Dr. Daniel Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University. She was a leader in the Socialist movement in this community. Socially conscious people who set up a system of help; material help to the people involved in the strike. When the strike was over, a number of people were black-listed and were not permitted back to the plant. . . . I happened to be one of them. I found out that to me this was a great symbol of liberation because the strike gave me an opportunity to make speeches–I became very articulate. When the strike was over, a number of people including myself were refused admittance into the plant, on that particular Monday morning when everybody was told they could go back to work, Mr. Wexler and his retinue were standing at the entrance on Redwood Street (then German Street), and he said “You are out.” I was among those who were out.

 Continue to Part II: A New Era

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