Looking for the Union Label in LA, Part II
We left off with a quasi-successful strike by the new Local 96 dressmakers union in Los Angeles in 1933, successful in part because it did result in a functioning union for at least a couple years. Above, the strikers at their headquarters, 1110 South Los Angeles Street, enjoy their daily meal provided by the union, about a week in to the strike.
But even as this strike wrapped up, the garment industry in LA was changing: sportswear, which had been just beginning to blossom in the early 1930s, was becoming the bulk of the industry. New firms were sprouting up all the time that were not unionized, and workers in Los Angeles continued to face low wages and poor working conditions. The ILGWU authorized another strike of 3400 workers in 1936 in an attempt to close all the shops to union workers only. Most of the smaller shops and some of the small ones were reportedly ready to deal, but the larger ones—those that had more clout and more to lose—were holding out. Workers walked out on August 7, and at first the picket lines were relatively calm and peaceful. Union organizers anticipated a swift agreement to be reached, since the strike had been called at a critical time in the dressmaking season.
But tensions escalated quickly, with some newspapers calling the conflict at the picket lines downtown a “wild melee” and a “bitter skirmish.”1 As the newspapers rarely advocated for the striking workers2, it’s difficult to suss out what really happened from these accounts; the LA Times makes it sound as though picketers violently attacked both police and random women just trying to get to their non-garment-related jobs downtown, while the Herald Examiner and the Daily News described the victims, such as they were, as “strikebreakers.” Seven women were arrested and ultimately three were charged with violating the old anti-picketing ordinance we read about last time: Frances Sanchez, Charlotte Duncan, and Ethel Goldstein, shown here left to right with Louis Pine, head of the Local 96.
In addition to the anti-picketing violation, Frances and Charlotte were also charged with disturbing the peace, refusing to disperse and resisting a police officer. It should be noted that the only serious injuries in this “melee” were among the striking workers; one man had his jaw broken, mostly likely by a police officer breaking up the picket lines. None of the women were charged with assault, though one strikebreaker claimed that Charlotte had hit her with a paper bag containing grapes, which Charlotte denied. All three women were convicted only of violating the anti-picketing ordinance and sentenced to a $50 fine or 25 days in jail. I love this picture of them, especially Charlotte in the center, looking totally satisfied with their actions.
As predicted, this time the strike was over quickly, and an agreement was reached on August 10, just four days after it began. Manufacturers signed a three-year agreement with the union that all workers should become union members by November 1, and thereafter any new employees should become members within two weeks of their employment. As initially thought, not all manufacturers were on board. We probably wouldn’t recognize many of the names of the 44 manufacturers that did sign, but among them were Affiliated Fashionists Irene Bury and Viola Dimmitt, as well as the Malouf Dress Corp, which will become significant in 1941 when Rose Pesotta returns to Los Angeles. They also agreed to new wage scales, which provided for compensation higher than what had been established as the state minimum wage that had been set in 1920.
But once again, as the Depression continued and the garment business continued to change, the union’s foothold in Los Angeles did not drastically improve. The ILGWU leaders back east were still openly skeptical that Mexican and Black women could be organized and seemed to make little effort to involve them in union negotiations or activities. And it appeared that the wage scales established in 1936 were not being honored, either because new sportswear firms were not unionized or because union shops just weren’t honoring them. I couldn’t find a lot of published data on what these women were earning, so I did an informal look at the 1940 census to see what they reported as their earnings in 1939:
Unspecified garment worker:
White - $20/week
Mexican - 15/week
White - 15/week
Mexican - 15/week
White - 23/week
Mexican - 18/week
White - 20/week
Mexican - 15/week
White - 18/week
Mexican - 15/week
White - 37/week
Mexican - 27/week
The wage scales set forth in the 1936 agreement provided that finishers earn a minimum for $18/week, operators $23/week, pressers $27/week, and cutters at least $27/week. It appears, in my totally non-scientific semi-brief study of the 1940 census and its self-reported data, white women in the garment industry (specified sportswear if possible, otherwise “ladies garment” or just “garment” but not “menswear” or “tailoring”) were earning on average $19/week and Mexican women were earning just over $15/week (I’m not including the Designers in these averages because those weren’t part of the agreements, and I wanted to focus on workers that were on the factory floors). At any rate, no specified category I saw was paying women what the union agreement had stated.4
If these rates seem abysmally low—and they are—it also helps to keep in mind that the California minimum wage set in 1920 was 16/week. This means nearly 20 years later, many women, mostly Mexican (I couldn’t find enough data to include Black workers) were making less than the state minimum wage, but the dollar was actually worth less in 1939 than it was in 1920. Deflation during the depression was such that $16 in 1920 was equivalent to $11.85 in 1939 so it’s possible that either wages were not reported or not enforced during this time. Sixteen dollars in 1920 is about $236 in today’s dollar.
So was the situation when in January 1941 the ILGWU sent Rose Pesotta back to Los Angeles. Though she’d been busy in the intervening years, organizing unions everywhere from Detroit to Puerto Rico, she was growing frustrated by the union’s male-dominated leadership and patriarchal assumptions. She was Vice President of the organization and frequently felt like a token whose opinions were not taken seriously. Still, she was passionate about organizing, and the booming sportswear industry in Los Angeles was once again providing her with ample opportunity to bring new workers into the union fold. She had maintained contacts among the Latina working community and felt confident she could use these to revive interest in organizing.
I was going to do this as a two-part series but I fear this one got too long, so next time we’ll wrap up with Rose’s adventures in 1941 and a brief discussion of how the ILGWU fared in Los Angeles after she left.
Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1936
The Los Angeles Times in particular was vehemently anti-union. See the Los Angeles Times bombing for more context.
This refers to unnamed designers, not the famous folks I usually write about. Lower priced dress houses and department stores employed designers that were never recognized by name as part of a design staff, and usually named designers employed such a staff as well.
I’m focusing on women here because looking at the same census data, it seems like men had no trouble earning according to these wage scales. For example, white men who worked as cutters reported on average $40/week, and Mexican men reported about $30/week.