‘The Strike of the Brooklyn Shoe Workers’ by Grace Potter from International Socialist Review. Vol. 11 No. 10. April, 1911.
EVER since Nov. 21, 1910, there has been a strike on among the shoe workers in Brooklyn, New York. It is a chapter of the constant story of war between labor and capital—and more. In Brooklyn it is war also between the two branches of organized labor, The Industrial Workers of the World and The Boot and Shoe Workers Union.
They make the finest ladies’ shoes in the United States in Brooklyn. The shoes sell for up to $30 a pair. On such high-grade foot-wear men have worked ten hours a day. During the busy season they made from $8 to $12 a week. During the. two slack seasons they made as low as 60 and 72 cents a week. These two slack seasons lasted, each of them, over two months. The men almost all of them have families of from three to seven children. The result has been that the shoe-workers and those they supported were always half starved.
There has never been any union in the Brooklyn shoe industry except what the men call in all seriousness the “Tobin” Union. Ten years ago one shop in Brooklyn, the Wickert & Gardner concern, was organized in The Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union of which John F. Tobin of Boston is president.
Wages all over Brooklyn were bad enough but in the Union shop they were worse than anywhere else. The men begged and pleaded with the Union leaders for years that they make some move toward a betterment in wages. The answer was al- ways the same, “You are working under contract and we cannot help things now.” Then always when the contract expired, union officials, without proper conference with the men, would arrange with Wickert & Gardner a new scale of prices, binding the men for years ahead to prices as low as ever. The rise in the cost of living the last two years made the men desperate last fall. Their contract under which they were at work would not expire till April. The contract called for work on slippers and the men for a long time had been working on high shoes which took twice as long to make at the old scale of wages.
When Joseph Ettor, a member of the executive board of the I.W.W., came on from Washington, D.C., last October and began to agitate for a new organization, the men were all ready for it. The next time the Boot & Shoe Workers’ Union representative called to collect the $0.25 monthly dues, the men took out their union cards and tore them to pieces under his eyes.
“We are half starving,” the men told him. “The Union keeps us at work at less wages than anywhere in Brooklyn. We don’t make enough to buy bread for our families. We are done with the union.”
The men were told that if they struck the union would furnish workers to take their places.
“We shall see that Wickert & Gardner have all the union workers they want to put out their shoes,” the union officials declared. “We shall live up to the contract. It binds us to the present prices.” In vain the workers pointed out that the contract was signed when a different style of shoe, taking half the time, was made. The union officials said that made no difference. And the men struck.
Shoe Workers’ Local Union No. 168, I.W.W., was formed and shoe workers from the largest shops in Brooklyn joined the strike. The strike had two definite aims, to oust the union men who had been sent to take the strikers’ places and to secure higher wages. Between three and four thousand men went out. The scabs who took their places were provided with new union cards but many of them had never made shoes before and the shops, though paying wages, could not put out work. The only men who remained at work when the strike was first declared were the Goodyear machine men who were making as high as $40 a week. They refused to see that the cause of the poorly paid workers should be their cause too. These men have, however, been idle at their machines ever since the first two weeks of the strike when the available supply of material for them to work upon was used up.
Though the strike-benefit allowed was many times less than a dollar a week, the men have held out wonderfully well, the more so when it is considered that most of them are new to any united action or any effort to better their condition.
The bosses knew that the holiday rush brought the men the best wages of any time in the year and they confidently expected they would come back. shortly. The low wages made it impossible for them to have saved a cent and the bosses thought the cold weather would make new clothes a necessity to prevent sickness. The Shoe Manufacturers’ Association argued in this way to the Brooklyn employers and offered aid in fighting the strike. The employers put up bonds of many thousands of dollars each to the Association not to take back the strikers as I.W.W. men. It is estimated that the Association has spent at least $200,000 in fighting the strike.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn has been sent to Brooklyn by the I.W.W. to assist Joseph Ettor in the conduct of the strike. She has gone to labor organizations all over: New York and Brooklyn asking for financial help for the strikers.
Written appeals of different kinds. have also been sent out. These were prepared mostly by the strikers themselves and bear evidence of their lack of understanding of English. This in many cases has given an added pathos to the request. The following is an example of an appeal sent to their fellow workers to join them in striking:
“To All Workers Working in Shoe Factories in Which the Lasters Are On Strike, Listen a Word With You.
“We who are your fellow workers who suffered and worked under the same miserable conditions that all of you, unable to longer bear in meek submission and suffer to work for miserable low wages revolted, we struck in order to better our conditions.
“Therefore we appeal to you in the name of your shopmates and comrades in misery who are struggling for better conditions that you make common cause with the workers out on strike and common war against the arrogant bosses who seek to starve into submission the brave men who have had the courage to rebel against miserably low pay.
“Desert the shops, Fitters, Firemen, Engineers, all workers without distinction as to trades, sex or anything else. Show in no mistaken terms that you are men and women who love and yearn for better conditions. Don’t be scabs by helping to defeat your shopmates, you may be satisfied to-day and will use your position to help the bosses defeat the striking workers, to-morrow you will be out but without the support of your fellow workers, then there is the sad plight of defeat for all, one group after another.
“Desert the shops, agitate, organize, organize right, join in with the lasters and other workers all into ONE BIG UNION of Shoe Workers.
“We appeal to you to make common cause with us and we ate fervently hoping that you will not turn a deaf hear to our appeal.
“We are going to win, victory is sure to crown our efforts and on the day we return to work and ever afterward we will remember and never forgive those who now remain at work in the struck shops and help the bosses. We will pass the list of names of all the traitors in this fight on and on.
“We will forever remember. We will never forget. Wie will never forgive.
“An Injury to one is an injury to all. Solidarity is the watchword of labor.
“Sincerely yours for the cause of labor. Shoe Workers Strike General Committee. 73 Troy Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y.”
Among the men on strike there are many nationalities represented. Beside the Italians who are in the majority, there are Jews, Germans, Poles, Irish and Americans. As usual, the bosses have tried to create race prejudice, but they have not succeeded.
There have been many arrests of pickets but the orderliness of the strikers has successfully prevented many convictions. Dominique Taropetto, one of the strikers, who was walking along the street with a red sash across his chest, bearing the words, “Striking Shoe Worker,” was arrested by a critical policeman for parading without a license. He was gravely sentenced to ten days in prison by a judge who declared that he hoped that would keep him from breaking any law in the future!
There is a police station within a block of the Wickert & Gardner shop and a de- tail of fifty policemen are sent at noon and night to keep the pickets from speaking to the scabs. These cops have not relished the job of spying on their very neighbors and have done their best to keep their pictures out of the papers. A newspaper representative with a camera went one day with a delegation of strikers to the shop to get some pictures. One policeman whose picture was taken before he realized what was going on, called in a fury to the photographer, “Don’t you dare take another picture around here!” The photographer walked over to the policeman’s side and informed him that it was not against the law to take pictures on the street and it was not going to be stopped. When the policeman saw he was dealing with a newspaper man and not a striker, he tried to cool down a little and said that his picture must not be used in any paper. “I don’t wonder you are ashamed of the work you are doing,” said the newspaper man politely. After a conference with the lieutenant the policeman decided that he could not arrest the reporter and swallowed his wrath.
Among those who have come to the aid of the strikers are individual members of the very union the strike is against. They have expressed the greatest shame and humiliation at the attitude of their leaders and assured the strikers of their fullest sympathy. Other organized workers who have sent money are those from all sorts of textile unions, machinists, glass workers, and miners, beside many Socialists.
Some of the men have worked as long as twenty-three years in one shop. One man said he had begun work when a boy at $4 a week and now, over twenty years later, could make no more than $10 in the busy season. For ten years he had belonged to ‘“Tobin’s” union.
Morris Gladstone, of 1664 Prospect avenue, Brooklyn, who despite his name, came from Italy eleven years ago, said: “I wouldn’t go back to the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union again for anything. I’ll go the river first. My family hasn’t had enough bread for years and I’d rather starve protesting than starve submitting any longer.” There are just nine in the Gladstone family, seven children beside the father and mother. “Sometimes I could make ten or twelve dollars a week,” said Mr. Gladstone, “but often for weeks at a time I could not make a dollar. So we’ve starved!”
The following is a copy of a letter sent out to all shoe dealers:
“Brooklyn, N.Y., January 10, 1911. Dear Sir: — We enclose a copy of the preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World,” an organization which is opposed to both employers and trade unions alike, having for their object to get control of the manufacturies and to dictate their own terms. Their agitators have recently organized most of the lasters of New York and their demands are so unreasonable that it would be suicidal for any manufacturer to attempt to treat with them as they could with the “Cutters,” “Goodyear Operators,” or other like unions. In some shops, they have walked out two arid three times in one week after their demands. had been granted each time. In other shops, they demanded an increase greater than the total profit on the shoe.
“Realizing that if we did not crush this organization, it would mean a large advance in the price of shoes together with inferior workmanship, we decided to protect our trade at any cost. We are the only factory up to date that has been entirely successful and we are pleased to inform our trade that prices and quality will remain the same. So completely have we the situation in hand that there will be no trouble in the future.
“We are now devoting our undivided attention to helping the other manufacturers less fortunate than ourselves. We would seek your assistance and indulgence in their behalf so that this organization will be driven from the city. Yours truly, (signed) KRIEGER SHOE CO.”
The feeling in union circles generally is typified by the following Jewelry Workers’ Resolution:
“The Independent Jewelry Workers’ Union requests The Call to print the following:
“At a regular meeting of the Independent Jewelry Workers’ Union, held on Tuesday evening, January 10, 1911, the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:
“Whereas the 4,000 organized shoe workers of Brooklyn who have been on strike for the past few months, and suffering with those de- pending upon them all sorts of privations, are being confronted with the disgraceful spectacle of their fellow workers, members of ` an- other union, scabbing upon them; and
“Whereas such a state of affairs tends, besides discouraging workers in other trades from affiliating with trade unions, to bring humiliation-upon the whole trades union movement making it a laughing stock and opening up an opportunity for the employing class to point its finger of derision at any attempt on the part of the workers to uphold trades unionism; therefore, be it
“Resolved, That we, members of the Independent Jewelry Workers’ Union, hereby register our most earnest protest against the action of the scabbing union and call upon all self-respecting unions to voice their declaration in a like manner; and be it further
“Resolved, That all labor leaders in and around Greater New York be called upon to exert every effort they can muster to bring about a speedy settlement of a situation that has become a blot upon the history of trades union movement in the United States.
“MOSES L. LORENTZ, President. JULIUS ROSENTHAL, “Secretary.”
If the strikers do not win, it will be because they can not stand the sight of their hungry wives and babies. The. last reports are that half of the men have gone back to their shops rather than see their children suffer as they have for more than three months.
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/v11n10-apr-1911-ISR-gog-Corn-OCR.pdf