Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pauline Newman: Oral History

About Pauline Newman along with the transcript from the interview.
Pauline Newman giving an interview in 1981 [Pauline Newman was born in Lithuania around 1890 and came to the United States in 1901. Soon after her arrival, she went to work to help support her family. As a young teenager, she became employed at the Triangle Factory. She was no longer employed there by the time of the fire but she wrote the following description of working conditions at this factory and speaks about why workers endured the indignities.
from history matters
Pauline M. Newman (1890? - 1986)
We raise this cup in honor of Pauline M. Newman. Newman was born to religious parents in Kovno, Lithuania sometime around 1890. In 1901, Newman's widowed mother immigrated to America with her children. Nine-year old Newman went to work in a New York City hairbrush factory. Two years later, she began working among other children in the "kindergarten" at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. At the age of sixteen Newman planned and led a rent strike involving 10,000 families in lower Manhattan. It was the largest rent strike New York City had seen, and it catalyzed decades of tenant activism that eventually led to the establishment of rent control. Once Newman's talent for organizing became apparent, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union hired her. For more than seventy years she worked for the Union as an organizer, labor journalist, health educator and government liaison. An acerbic woman whose unorthodox tastes ran to cropped hair and tailored tweed jackets, Newman loved the labor movement. She referred to the ILGWU as her "family" and believed that it was, for all its flaws, the best hope for women garment workers. Newman's "family" also embraced a cross-class circle of women reformers that included Eleanor Roosevelt, Rose Schneiderman and Frieda Miller, Newman's partner of fifty-six years. This circle of women shaped the body of laws and government protections that most workers now take for granted.
In this oral history interview conducted by historian Joan Morrison, Pauline Newman told of getting a job at the Triangle Company as a child, soon after arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1901. Newman described her life as an immigrant and factory worker. Like many other young immigrant workers, she chafed at the strict regulations imposed by the garment manufacturers. One of the greatest industrial tragedies in U.S. history occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 workers, mostly young women, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Although she was not working in the factory at the time of the fire, many of her friends perished. Newman later became an organizer and leader of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
Joan Morrison: So, back to the early days when you first came, and you lived in this flat, with the toilet in the street, and the, ah coal stove. Did you go right to work then? And your mother? Do you remember about your first job, how you got it?
PaulineNewman: We got here in May and I . . . a cousin of mine who worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. And by the time she got me in there it was October. So between May and October I did various jobs off and on, you know? But in October she got me to the Triangle basement.
Morrison: Do you remember your first impressions, of going in there?
Newman: What, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company? You don’t forget a situation of that kind, because it was one . . . In the first place, it was probably the largest shirtwaist factory in the city of New York. By the time I got there, they had something like two, more than two hundred operators. And they had collars, examiners, finishers. All together probably, they had about four hundred people. And that was a large staff. And they had two floors. The fire took place on one floor. And they got, we started work at 7: 30 and during the busy season, we worked until nine o’clock in the evening. They didn’t pay any overtime and didn’t give you anything for supper money. At times they would give you - in those days, the bakery had a little apple pie not very much bigger than this - and they would give you that for your supper. Very generous.
Morrison: A small child then, like you, would go in and work all day with that and .. ?
Newman: You’d work until you got your regular pay from six to nine in those times.
Morrison: And what did they pay you?
Newman: And what, ah, what they did, as I said, at times they’d be generous. You could get a little apple pie.
Morrison: Yes.
Newman: The wage scales. You forget nothing, as long as your memory still serves, and mine does. My own wages when I got to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a dollar and a half a week. And by the time I left during the shirtwaist workers strike in 1909 I had worked myself up to six dollars.
Morrison: Ah, magnificent.
Newman: But you see hours didn’t change. The hours remained, no matter how much you got. The operators, their average wage, as I recall - because two of my sisters worked there - they averaged around six, seven dollars a week. If you were very fast - because they worked piece work - if you were very fast and nothing happened to your machine, no breakage or anything, you could make around ten dollars a week. But most of them, as I remember - and I do remember them very well - they averaged about seven dollars a week. Now the collars are the skilled men in the trade. Twelve dollars was the maximum.
Morrison: And that was piece work, also?
Newman: You were considered well paid, twelve dollars a week!
Morrison: And how about what you did? What did you do for your six dollars and a half?
Newman: Well, what I did really was not difficult for, ah, when you fitted the shirtwaist at the machine, there are some threads that are left. And I wasn’t the only one. We was, we had the corner on the floor. It resembled a kindergarten: we were all youngsters. And we were given little scissors to cut the threads off, like so. It wasn’t heavy work. It was monotonous 'cause you did that from 7: 30 till nine o’clock at night. You had one half hour for lunch and nothing for supper or anything like that. Before I left I was promoted to the cutting department. You’d cut the embroidery, which was inserted in the front of the shirtwaist in those days, and that was . . . They were the kind of employers who didn’t recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren’t allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you’d keep on, you’d be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And that door was locked. And that was proved during the investigation of the fire. They were mean people. There were two partners, Rank and Harris, and one was worse than the other. People were afraid, actually. And finally, it took from the time I got there, October 1901 to November 1909, for the people to really rise and proclaim that they cannot work under such condition any longer. And we had 20,000 of them coming out here, and 15,000 in Philadelphia, you know? And that was the strike, Boston from November 1909 to the end of March 1910.
Morrison: That must have been very hard on the workers, to get along without...
Newman: It was the coldest winter anyone could remember and my particular assignment took me to the coldest part of the State of New York. I was assigned to go to Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, to collect money.
Source: Joan Morrison and Charolotte Fox Zabusky,American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980, 1993). By permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. (c) 1980, (c) 1993 by Joan Morrison and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's an interview of Rose Friedman-last survivor of the fire