‘Protecting the Worker’s Wealth: Practical Accomplishments of the Union Health Center, Conducted by the Garment Workers’ by Theresa Wolfson from Labor Age. Vol. 11 No. 8. September, 1922.

‘Protecting the Worker’s Wealth: Practical Accomplishments of the Union Health Center, Conducted by the Garment Workers’ by Theresa Wolfson from Labor Age. Vol. 11 No. 8. September, 1922.

IT IS a far cry from the time the tailor sat Turk-fashion on a table in a dark, dirty sweat-shop on the East Side, subject to all the pains and aches that human flesh is heir to (particularly the flesh of the worker) to the present day, when the garment workers are so well organized that they think not only of their economic welfare but also of education and health. They are pioneers in both these fields. But few trade unions have built up a system of workers’ education comparable to theirs. And few other trade unions realize the necessity of caring for the physical well-being of their members. Yet, the workers’ health is his wealth and should be preciously protected.

“Doctor, Doctor, what shall I do—from sitting at the machine all day long I get such pains in my back and in my shoulders and in my legs, I can hardly walk home at night.” The complainant was an old, worn-out clothing worker, with drooping shoulders, a tired shuffling gait and a drawn expression on his face. The doctor was a young man, the orthopedist of the Union Health Center—and the Union Health Center is the Health Department of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. A relieved expression came over the old man’s face as the doctor told him of things to do that would relieve and help prevent his troubles.

The Triangle Fire changed many things.

The splendid white building, in which the Health Center is located, is a monument to what a union is capable of accomplishing along health lines. It stands at 131 East 17th Street, New York City, and was remodeled from one of the old brown Gotham aristocracy lived. Bought in 1920 by seven locals of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union—at a cost of approximately thirty thousand dollars, and remodeled and equipped to the tune of almost fifty-five thousand dollars,—the Health Center is a model building as far as the physical equipment is concerned.

It grew out of the work of the Joint Board of Sanitary Control—that unique institution, under joint control of employers and the union, which stone houses, where years ago supervises the sanitation of the garment shops. The board found, as a result of its experience, that its health lectures and supervisory work must be supplemented by clinics for the workers, where they might be treated for industrial disease. Later the unions took these clinics over and merged them into the Health Center.

How the Work Is Carried On

The Center’s medical clinic is located today on the first floor of the building. There is a large waiting-room which is also used as a lecture room in the winter season. The walls are covered with charts and picture exhibits on cancer, tuberculosis, etc. There are several specialty rooms,—the ear, eye, and nose clinic, the foot clinic, the minor surgery room, and general examination rooms, in addition to a general laboratory for drug mixtures and analysis work. All of these rooms are well equipped.

The various specialists’ clinics are held on definite days of the week. The eye specialist comes twice a week during the evening session. An optician is also in attendance at these sessions, so that glasses are fitted and secured at cost price to the worker. Because of the nature of their work, under the constant glare of the electric light in the shop, the workers suffer to a large extent from astigmatism and eye-strain. General negligence of eyesight is still so prevalent that it is an important part of the eye specialist’s work to educate the worker on the care of his eyes.

There are other special clinics equally as important to the worker,—the gastro-intestinal clinic for diseases of the stomach and bowels is probably one of the most essential. Sitting at machine, day after day, with no exercise and little change of posture, the worker suffers greatly from constipation. In this clinic, diets are prescribed as well as simple exercises—and much is being done to overcome the indifference, characteristic of the Jewish worker particularly, to what he eats.

Special Clinic For Women Workers

Clinics for the diseases of the skin, for heart affections, for lungs, for ear, nose, and throat are also held. A special clinic for women workers has been organized with a woman physician in charge. One of the latest and most successful clinics is the orthopedic clinic for the prevention of deformities. The number of workers who complain of the ‘‘Pains in their back” is legion—only these pains are supplemented by pains in the legs, flat feet, rheumatism, etc. The presser, standing on his feet eight hours a day, with no chance to relieve his position, is prey to flat feet of the worst type. Something can be done for him—shoes can be prescribed, strapping of the feet and ankles do help, and this the orthopedist can do.

‘Workers at the Union Health Center gathered around a table, examining files.’

The orthopedist, as well as every other doctor connected with the Medical Clinic, is intimately acquainted with the conditions under which the operator, finisher, presser, or cutter works and an attempt is made to prescribe nothing that is impossible of attainment. It is a popular failing of the average physician to tell a poor patient that he must take certain expensive medicines or go to certain expensive places—impossibilities that usually plunge the patient into the depths of despair.

And last, but not least, is the Babies’ Clinic, held during the summer months, where the wives of workers can bring their babies and secure the best advice on their care—giving these workers’ children such a start as their parents never had.

Healthy Workers Make A Strong Union

A young woman worker was anxious to be-come a member of the Union. She was told she would have to have a medical examination before she could secure her Union card. She came to the Health Center and when she was through with the physical examination the doctor told her to go upstairs and have her teeth examined. “‘Ach,” said she, “this is America—to get a Union card to work in a shop, so they look into your teeth!”

‘Pauline Newman, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a garment worker and union organizer before becoming director of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ medical clinic in New York City. Photo ca. 1910’

But this incident is an index of what is being done along preventive lines by many of the Locals of the I.L.G.W. Every worker desirous of becoming a member of the Union must first have a physical examination at the Union Health Center. This ruling safeguards the workers in the shops as well as checks up on the health of the applicant. The locals pay for the examination of the applicants, which is eventually covered by the initiation fee of the worker. It is interesting to know that in the last year, despite the great economic depression and the long period of strike, the Union Health Center has examined 5,113 applicants.

It will prove somewhat surprising perhaps to learn that, as a result, the clinic is self-supporting. There is no financial help received, except the fees for actual services performed. The fact that the worker can secure advice and help of specialists at a very small fee makes these services attractive. The financial independence of the Center is not without its serious draw-backs, however. If a partial subsidy were received from the International Union, the work on individual cases could be done much more carefully and less mechanically. Other needed improvements could be made in the work.

Applicants who are found to be suffering from tuberculosis are not given the health card entitling them to a Union book. Instead, if the case is an incipient one, they are given a temporary card and are requested to come back to the Health Center for frequent periodic examination. No worker can secure a working card unless he has a Health Certificate. When the physician of the Health Center is satisfied that the case is passed danger, he will issue a final health permit, which entitles the worker to a permanent book.

Cases of advanced tuberculosis in applicants are referred to other agencies for treatment and care and the applicant is not permitted to become a member of the Union. It is of further interest to note that any member of the Union who is found suffering from tuberculosis is sent away to a sanatorium or placed under the care of the Health Center physician, as the situation demands, and that the Union pays him a weekly benefit.

Looking After the Teeth

The applicant to the Union who was sent upstairs to the Dental Clinic to have her teeth examined, was surprised that the Union should | be interested in the welfare of her teeth. But dental care is a thing which workers have long neglected, and bad teeth have contributed as much to the workers’ sorrows as any other factor.

The Dental Clinic of the Health Center is also well equipped, with a Chief Dentist in charge, a dental assistant and six graduate dentists in attendance during clinic hours. The dental work is paid for according to the type of work done, just as one pays one’s private dentist. However, the clinic aims to give better work and more conscientious attention, than the private dentist. It has been impossible to have the dental work below the rates charged by the private dentist, for the simple reason that the Health Center, after all, is not subsidized by the Union and must pay for itself as well as for the expenses of the building, and that the Dental Clinic must contribute its share in rent to this latter fund. Approximately 2,612 patients were treated in the Dental Clinic in the last year.

Health Education-Meeting a Great Need

Before going on to the third phase of the Health Center work, it is important to realize that, with all, its popularity, the Health Center has not reached the 150,000 members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in New York City. This is not due to lack of effort on the part of the Union Health Center in bringing itself before the Union members, but rather to the fact that, after all, the workers are scattered throughout the City and Brooklyn, and that it is difficult for them to come to the Health Center immediately after work, also it is because of the sheer apathy toward the Health Center and toward their own health, on the part of the workers. This apathy is the thing which must be fought, not only by those in charge of the Health Center but even by the officials of the Union.

An attempt has been made along these lines by supplementing the curative and preventive work with a successful program of Health Education. Various trade papers, Yiddish publications, etc., frequently have a question box on Health, where some physician answers questions asked as to “how to prevent pimples,” or “what to do for constipation,” etc. These answers are usually one sentence in length, give almost no information and bewilder the worker still further. It has been the aim of the Health Center, through the use of health lectures, health study classes, leaflets, charts, pictures, etc., to fill this gap in the life of the worker.

Union Health School and Health Lecture

The Union Health School, where a small group of workers come every week to study embryology, anatomy, physiology, is a most successful venture. The fact that clothing workers come, bring their wives, and are eager to know all about such subjects which superficially contribute nothing to the making of a garment—the fact that they are eager to know what the subject will be next week, —has stimulated an interest in health; their own health particularly, such as no form of “Health Crusade” can possibly have accomplished.

The Friday Night Health Lectures have become an institution. These are usually illustrated by moving pictures or lantern slides, and men and women have come to realize that the health lecture is a place where they may have any of their questions answered. It will be interesting to the reader to know some of the titles of the lectures — given, — “Errors of Jewish Diet,” “The Human Spine and Its Diseases,” ““The Nervous Worker,” “Psychoanalysis.”

This sort of health education, in addition to the articles on health written in Justice (the trade paper of the Union), and health talks given in the shops and at Union meetings, results in an intensive health propaganda among workers of the industry, by people acquainted with the industry, such as is unique in the development of any trade union, either in the United States or on the Continent.

The program for the next year includes a broadening of the health education work and an enlarging of the Union Health Center. Equipment is being purchased for the establishment of baking, massaging, and similar work. This new venture will be of great help to those workers who are constantly suffering from rheumatism, pains in the back, and other afflictions due to the nature of their industries.

With all this growth, there are many problems to be solved, much room for improvement of technique, and much cooperation on the part of Union officials still needed. What is most important, there exists a great need for more and more trade unions to undertake a similar venture. For, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union will not be able to consider itself successful in the battle with disease unless the printers, the carpenters, the painters, the lead and glass workers are impressed with the great value of such work and the necessity for their “carrying on.”

The Union Health Center is a unique institution. It has a unique growth and potentialities for a unique future, for when workers will become as “health conscious as they are socially conscious or economically conscious,” then indeed shall we have the beginning of a brighter and happier industrial commonwealth.

Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v11n08-sept-1922-LA.pdf

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