‘The Cloakmakers’ Strike’ by S.A. Stodel from the International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 3. September, 1910.
THE cloakmaking business is dead.” Standing with a friend of mine in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel I heard these scraps of conversation pass between two men, unmistakably buyers from some large western department stores.
“Yes, I tell you the d—m business is dead. I can’t contract for anything. My house wants cloaks and suits, but cloaks and suits ain’t made anymore apparently.”
“I can well agree with you. Been here ten days”, said the second buyer,” and I am unable to do any business.”
Little did these two buyers know the soundness of the economic principle they were uttering when they said “the cloak-making business is dead? The cloak- making business is as dead as a doornail. It died when the hordes of cloakmakers deserted the establishments, leaving the tables and the machinery standing idle and alone.
It was a grand exhibition of working-class solidarity. These great numbers of different nationalities had been welded together in the seething furnace of capitalistic exploitation and had come out in one solidified mass, the proletariat. Seventy-five thousand quit at the time agreed upon.
At the beginning of the strike, or, rather when the strike talk first started, there were probably less than eight thousand organized cloakmakers in New York city and vicinity. Now it is safe to say that upward of thirty thousand have joined the union, so that the union embraces fully one-half of those on strike.
And the struggle they are waging is a marvelous exhibition of endurance. These thousands of men, women, and children for many of them are here also, have been most of them at least, months out of employment. They had stared hunger and want in the face long before the gage of battle was thrown down.
Thousands of them knew that in the long struggle that was to come, there was scant likelihood of their getting any relief whatever. They had no union strike benefits to look forward to. They belonged to no union. Many thousands now sticking sturdily out on strike don’t even now belong to the union.
It is not for themselves that they strike, it is for the trade, for living conditions and against a system which has become insupportable.
The employers are quoting the high wages earned by the cloakmakers through the columns of the papers favorable to their interests. This is done for the purpose of attempting to prove that their employes have no cause for grievance on that score. When they say that a cloakmaker earns from $25 to $30 per week, they are telling only a half truth, They fail to state that the work is only seasonable and the cloakmaker works but a few months in the year,
The business usually starts up about July 1st, becomes accelerated about the middle of August, and dies out about the middle of November. In the few months that the cloakmakers are employed, so intense is the strain under which they work that they spend double and treble the strength used in an ordinary working day. They work from five in the morning till long past the midnight hour. Fathers are compelled to press into service every member of the family able to end a hand. Even babies are taught to pull out basting threads.
And he who has worked twelve hours in the shop in the evening carries home a huge bundle upon which he and his family spend almost the entire night working, stitching, stitching, until they fall asleep amid their chairs or on the floor.
This is the man who earns $25 or $30 a week.
The manufacturers hold, that to raise the pay of their employes, they will have to raise the cost of the garments. Nothing could be further removed from truth than that statement.
The average consumer has but little idea of the cost of making a suit that she pays $25 to $100 for. Almost the highest price paid for the making of any kind of a coat is $10, The material in such a coat will cost probably up to $3 per yard, and the trimmings about $10. Thus, the entire cost of producing the garment, material, labor and all included is about $35. For such a garment the manufacturers get $100 wholesale.
The labor cost of producing the cheaper grades of suits, those that sell for $25, is about $2.50, This is considered a high price, Many jackets are made for twenty to thirty cents apiece.
There has never been such a strike as this one in the history of the cloakmaking industry. Every worker has joined in, and intends to stay out until he has the assurance of better pay and better working conditions. They want a chance to lead better, more rational and human lives. They want the system of taking home work, abolished. This home work is a violation of law and the bosses know it; but it saves them money. It saves loft rent, the cost of power and light and these money-hungry manufacturers are fighting tooth and nail for more profit.
There has probably never been a strike in New York that was fought with the resolution of this one. Thousands came out of shops—and are keeping out—that never were organized,—when there was not a single union man or woman in the place, Many of these the employers have attempted to draw back with promises of better work at higher prices; but in vain. No inducements, however subtly presented, have caused them to desert their fellows.
Attempts were made by out of town factories to do the work of some of the “struck shops,” but as soon as this was discovered, that firm had a strike on its hands also. One Boston firm, Joseph Rudy and Son, accepted some work from the National Cloak and Suit Company. The entire shop walked out and stayed out until the employers were compelled to ship the goods back to New York.
Another Boston concern got itself into deeper trouble. When the shop struck and refused to do scab work, the firm advertised for help in the papers and failed to comply with the law which makes it mandatory to state whether a strike is on, or not. The union got after them and warrants have been issued for the arrest of the members of the firm.
Of course, and unfortunately as is almost always the case in a big strike like this, there is the irrepressible “labor leader” who would exalt himself, by even standing upon the prone bodies and reputations of his fellows to do so. The snob, who is anxious for notoriety. One of the officials and we are happy to state— one who will undoubtedly be gotten rid of after the trouble is over was anxious to have his picture in the papers and a story told of his “greatness, tact,” etc.
On the whole the best feature of the strike so far is that the workers are beginning to realize that industry depends upon them. They see that since they have struck, although millions of dollars of money has been invested in the 1,600 factories and shops, now idle, not one single garment can be made without their labor.
They are realizing that capital is impotent and Labor is—Invincible—when Labor understands its value.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v11n03-sep-1910-ISR-gog-Corn-OCR.pdf