Two Lives in Labor: Sarah Barron Part 1
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.
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!”
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.
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.
[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.