The cavernous warehouse in which I worked for eight weeks and one day in late 1971 was divided into several dimly lit rooms. In each, employees ticketed items sold at a downtown Dayton department store. The huge, echoing room in which I worked housed clothing piled on long, rectangular tables. Each table might have four or five piles of different items such as blouses, shirts, trousers, dresses, ties, underpants, handkerchiefs.
The employees ranged in age from teenager girls to women in their sixties. These older women had worked in the warehouse much of their lives. They stood for eight hours a day on concrete with no cushioning and so had varicose veins.
They welcomed me with open arms. During lunch break, they shared their life stories. None of them had been nuns or had the educational advantages I’d had. All of them dated or had been married or were married. Most had children. Their stories seemed to me to be filled with tragedy. They were truly poor. I had the hope of someday finding a better job. They didn’t.
We were dissimilar in many ways. And yet we were all women—with hopes and dreams. All of us knew what being broke meant. All of us knew pain and disappointment and fatigue. And so we shared our lives with one another.
U.S. sweatshop circa 1890.
What the older women didn’t share was the large sewing-machine-like equipment that enabled them to ticket more articles of clothing than could be done with the handheld taggers. They could wheel these cumbersome sewing machines from one pile of clothing to another. Claiming seniority, they refused to let newcomers use the automated machines.
Why? Because the company based its raises on how many items an employee tagged in a year. The sewing machines enabled a woman to label many more items during the day than a simple handheld tagger.
These women had all started at minimum wage. Their wages grew slowly. That’s because only one woman a year got a raise—the woman who tagged the most clothing.
That longed-for raise was five cents an hour—two dollars a week, minus social security, so a dollar plus some change.
For your information: One dollar in 1971 had the same buying power as $5.67 today. Click here to discover what a person could buy for that dollar in 1971. Then you’ll see why the raise was so important.
All the women—and I do mean all of them—worked hard. Some deftly wheeled those heavy sewing taggers from pile to pile. Their hands flashed as they lifted each item and labeled it. Others rushed from pile to pile and hand tagged. No one was a slacker. Picking up and tagging the most items each day had a reward—that year-end raise of five cents an hour.
The floor manager of this beehive of workers was a thin, angular young man of perhaps twenty-two. He sported a straggly mustache and stood watching all of us work industriously for eight hours each day. He wielded great power in our lives. He could take one of the large machines from anyone and wheel it to another woman to use. Thus, he could determine who had tagged the most items at the end of the year.
Moreover, we had to ask his permission to leave the room and use the lavatory. He timed us. If we took more than five minutes, he docked items from the number we’d tagged for that day.
I’d been using the handheld tagger for seven weeks when I decided that these women and I needed a trade union. I’d come from a union family—my father was a pipefitter—and I recognized a sweatshop when I worked in it. We slaved in a warehouse with no ventilation and no fans. I didn’t stay beyond November, so I’m not sure whether the company heated the warehouse in winter.
I knew nothing about how a person unionized a group of workers. I wasn’t Crystal Lee Sutton. Eight years later—in 1979—her valiant efforts to unionize a shop in North Carolina would be told in the movie Norma Rae for which Sally Fields won an Oscar.
I had met no trade union organizer as Crystal had. I didn’t even know how to get in touch with one. I just saw injustice and knew that we needed to be part of a union that could effectively protest the working conditions. I knew that life could be better for all of us.
On Monday of my eighth week there, I began to approach the other women in the parking lot where they stood in groups, smoking their cigarettes during the lunch break. I explained what a union could do for them. One by one, they walked away. As the week passed, however, they stayed to explain to me that they couldn’t afford to protest or go out on strike. They needed the money they earned. They warned me that anyone who complained was fired.
The 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
On Friday of that week, the young twenty-something of a floor manager followed me as I moved from group to group. Seeing him, the other women faded away. When I stood alone, he said, “You’d best stop agitating these women. You'll get them fired. You too."
The following Monday, while I was ticketing socks, he escorted me to the warehouse overseer’s office. “There’s never been a union here,” the headman boasted. “There never will be. We don’t need troublemakers like you around. Get your things and get out. You’re fired.”
That pipsqueak who’d reported my actions accompanied me to my locker and then to the warehouse door. “I warned you,” he sneered. And so he had.
No buses came out that far from the city, so I sat on the curb the rest of the workday. At the end of her shift, Char—the woman who’d gotten me the job—left the warehouse, and we drove home together as we’d done for the preceding eight weeks.
“I hope you don’t get in trouble for my actions,” I said to her.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Watson already told me that he knew it wasn’t my fault. That you’d fooled us all. He said the FBI had tried to warn him, but he wasn’t going to let the government tell him how to run his warehouse.”
So. . . there I was in November 1971. Broke and fired.
On Tuesday, May 1, I’ll share my next job—teaching in a black dropout center. Trust me, things went better there.
Afterword: Between now and May 1, I won’t be blogging—life has intervened, again. However, I’m going to preschedule a post for every Tuesday and Saturday in April. These edited postings will be early ones I wrote last May and June when I had only a few readers.
I hope you’ll comment on them even though I won’t be able to respond. The thing is that at some point I hope to use my stories in a memoir. Your comments will help me know which aspects of my life interest you the most.
Also, in your comments please let me know if there are postings of yours that you’d like me to read when I return to blogging in May. I won’t be able to read a whole month’s worth for each of the blogs I follow, but I’d love for you to direct me to the ones you most want read.
Photos from Wikipedia