Rose Pesotta, the author of this document, served as an organizer for nine years for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Born in the Ukraine, she immigrated to New York in 1913 and worked in the shirtwaist trade, joining the ILGWU, and participating in the labor education opportunities it offered. She became a paid organizer in 1933 and organized dressmakers first in Los Angeles, but later in Seattle, Boston, San Juan, and Montreal. In 1942 she returned to garment work in New York City.
A perceptive observer, Pesotta illuminated the way garment manufactureres in San Francisco were dependent on Chinatown contracting shops and used the existence of these shops as a weapon against workers interested in unionizing. this account demonstrates how federal agencies, such as the National Recovery Administration, could be tools in the enforcement of decent wages and working conditions, and reveals that unions, some manufacturers, and New Deal administrators occasionally allied together to root out sweatshops in the garment trades. (For another set of Pesotta's observations, this time on conditions in the Puerto Rican garment industry in 1933, see Document 17 of "How Did Women Needleworkers Influence New Deal Labor Policies in Puerto Rico?" also on this website.)
Subterranean Sweatshops in Chinatown 
* * *
I had received a call from International Vice-President Israel Feinberg to address a dressmakers' meeting in San Francisco and to do some intensive organizational work. He met us at our hotel and took us to dinner.
Negotiations were then in progress with the San Francisco cloak manufactureres, and Feinberg was confident that a collective agreement would soon be reached. The dressmakers, led by David Gisnet, manger of Cloakmakers' Local 8, had received a charter for a new local, No. 101, from the national office. Under the President's Blanket Code, Gisnet already had collected back pay for a considerable number of workers who had suffered from wage-chiseling.
Soon many enrolled members were laid off, for the fall season was over, and they dropped out of the union. But a small militant group clamored for organization. Feinberg persuaded me to remain and help. Samuel S. White, young former editor of the Bakersfield Labor News, was called as manager for the colakmakers, so that Gisnet might devote all his time to the dressmakers' problems.
About 300 girls and women turned out for the meeting next evening, in union headquarters at 739 Market Street.
Bill spoke first. Usually he was skilful in warming up an audience, but it became apparent that this wouldn't be an easy task now. He tried some of his best anecdotes-sure fire in Los Angeles-but they were duds in San Francisco.
"What a forzen crowd!" he murmured behind his hand as he sat down during the perfunctory applause.
"Cheer up," I whispered. "They'll thaw out!"
Bessie Goren reported recent developments in the Los Angeles dressmakers' local, and Feinberg gave the higlights of the negotiations with the cloak and suit manufacturers. By this time the audience was more animated.
I told of our achievements in Los Angeles, and of our hardships there, expressing the hope that we wouldn't have to repeat them there. But we must be prepared for an eventuality.
"Don't sit around frozen stiff!" I admonished the listeners. "This is your union, and we're here only to help you. The gains we make will be for your benefit. And please remember that nothing will ever be won by waiting around. You've got to put your shoulder to the wheel to get ahead."
It was understood that we would try to avoid drastic action, but they must be ready to stand by the leadership.
Their applause and subsequent singing of Solidarity Forever indicated that they got the point and saw the necessity for building a strong union.
* * *
Our threat to picket the style show brought a quick response from the employers that they would meet us after it was over. We accepted this promise in good faith, and when the show ended we conferred with their spokesman. As usual they tried to evade the issue, and raise objections to dealing with the union. One objection was that much of their work had been leaking into Chinatown in recent months, and that since the NRA Code of fair competition had become operative there seemed no way of stopping this leakage. What guarantee could the union give that an agreement would also include Chinatown?
"Leave Chinatown out of this for the time being," we argued. "A collective agreement must be signed by the group represented at this conference. A substantial majority of the dressmakers in your shops is already enrolled in the union. After we settle with your group, we will proceed to Chinatown and into other industries. If you intend to dilly-dally, trying to stretch the time season is over-our only alternative is to repeat our Los Angeles procedure."
"No! No!" one of them cried. "We don't want a strike. We can't afford one here. A strikes right now would ruin us. Buyers in this part of the country avoid a town where strikes delay orders as they would poison."
We had won our first skirmish.
On Thursday, February 9, the Regional Labor Board with its director, George Creel, presiding, held a hearing on the dressmakers' charges on NRA violations. Several hours later, the cloakmakers' local staged a mass meeting to air their grievances at 3 p.m., which of course meant a work-stoppage. This worried both the cloak and dress manufacturers, who feared it signified an immediate strie call. We assured them the cloakmakers had "only called a mass meeting."
Here, too, a small dual union, a fragment of the Communist Needle Trades' Industrial Union, began to issue circulars assailing us.
When the cloakmakers announced their mass meeting, this so-called union, which really represented no workers at all, put out a leaflet calling for "mobilization" and a mass meeting on the same day at the same hour. Audaciously it said that "at this meeting the question of a general strike in the cloak trade will be decided upon." The leaflet urged that certain demands be made upon the employers to force an agreement "with real conditions" (whatever those words meant), and continued: "To secure all this, rank-and-file leadership must be established. Guard against fake agreements and arbitration schemes… Fight for better conditions."
None of the cloakmakers attended that meeting.
The women's garment manufacturers, fewer in number that those in Los Angeles, and presumably not backed by any outside organization, evidently realized that while Los Angeles was notorious for anti-unionism, San Francisco was traditionally a strong union town. Moreover, the Central Labor Council indorsed our campaign, and designated its secretary to help with our negotiations.
We prepared a short agreement which provided for a union shop and all that went with it. But there was a new hitch. We gathered that the dress employers' group had consulted the Industrial Association, an alliance of manufacturers and merchants, and had been advised to stall.
Soon the cloakmakers ratified their pact with the factory owners, which embodied most of their original demands. The membership swelled in numbers, and it was necessary for Local 8 to move to larger quarters.
Constantly the question of work leakage to Chinatown cropped up in our conferences with employers, and we felt we must do something about it promptly. Since the previous August all the Bay region skirt-making business appeared to have vanished into the Chinese factories. Blouse production followed, and latterly rayon dresses.
Checking the list of local dress and blouse producers, I found the 20 mid-town shops had to compete with 40 Chinese-owned and Chinese-operated establishments, located in the heart of Chinatown, where the work was done exclusively by Chinese. Some factories employed as many as 200. The Chinese contrcting shops made goods for mid-town and out-of-town jobbers. Some sold directly to the retail trade, turning out everything from silk blouses and silk lounging pajamas to dungarees and mackinaws. There was keen competition in Chinatown, with wages miserably low, hours limitless, and no semblance of any kind of labor organization.
When we attempted to line up the employees of the city's worst exploiter, we discovered that the bulk of his "product" was being made in Chinatown. He told his white workers that if they attended even one of our meetings he would send the rest of his work there and close his factory. They remained in the shop.
To organize the Chinese workers would be a tough job, infinitely more difficult than dealing with the Mexicans. Most of the workshops were situated in Chinatown, with its paradoxical swank retail stores on the street floor, and unsanitary underground dwellings below, at times three cellars deep.
Tourists in Chinatown saw but one side of the picture. They moved amid the glitter of many-colored lights, visited well-appointed restaurants where excellent food was served, and shopped in luxurious stores which displayed Oriental antiques and arts and crafts of bygone Manchu days. [A] Beyond the edge of the glitter, tourists did not go; they never knew that the shadowy adjacent streets and narrow alleys hid factories in which conditions were worse than in the old tenement sweatshops on New York's East Side.
Within a few square blocks some 15,000 Chinese were crowded in tiny rooms above and below the street level. Workshops making adult and children's garments were confined chiefly to three squares.
We brought the situation to the attention of Leland J. Lazarus, chief field adjuster for the National Recovery Administration. In a few days I was invited to accompany him and a representative of the manufacturers' association on a visit to some of the Chinese factories.
They called for me at the YWCA, and together we drove to Stockton Street. The building we intended to inspect first was locked and without lights. We proceeded to the next on the list-in a dark alley, where we felt our way to a door.
A knock. "Who is there?" from inside.
"A government officer."
Cautiously the door was opened a few inches, and some one peered at us through the narrow space. The NRA investigator stuck his foot into the opening and forced the door wide open. We heard movements within, and presently a dim unshaded light was turned on by a grizzled elderly Chinese.
To my amazement I saw a small room, containing half dozen sewing machines. Four had been removed from their table-bases, which were being used as sleeping berths. Four Chinese, fully clothed, sat up on these improvised bunks, rubbing their eyes. We learned subsequently that they were both owners and workers in the factory, which produced men's and women's work clothing-dungarees, shirts, overalls, and coveralls. Contractors for a large midtown manufacturer, they worked whatever hours their orders demanded. We had come in while they were taking a nap preparatory to working later in the night.
Making the rounds, we discovered that many of the Chinese factories had both day and night shifts, in violation of the Dress Code, which expressly prohbited two shifts in order to spread employment in slack periods. Three stories down, where daylight and fresh air never penetrated, we entered long narrow lofts with barely space enough between rows of sewing machines for one person to walk through. A wooden partition, the height of a seated operator, separated the machines. Thus workers were prevented from seeing or conversing with their neighbors. They toiled under electric lights, seldom bright enough and often unshaded.
In these holes, unfit for human occupancy, [B] garments were being made by the thousands-cotton, silk, and rayon dresses, skirts, blouses, overalls, corduroy pants, shirts, pajamas, slacks, nurses' and waitresses' uniforms, shorts, women's underwear, and children's apparel.
On Grant Avenue we entered a fashionable store, walked down steps that were little more than rungs of a ladder into a cellar, and then descended to a second cellar. On both levels men, women, and children were working silently. The NRA man asked questions, but the workers, either gave evasive answers or indicated that they couldn't understand English. Manifestly they were unwilling to tell anything about themselves or their pay. It was easy to see that enforced regulation of hours or wages was impossible here, since no inquirer could learn the hours these people worked or the amount of money they received.
We saw entire families of three generations engaged in making garments-husband, wife, grandparents, grandchildren. I asked what the youngsters were doing there so late at night, and what they were getting for their labor. "These are our children," was the answer. "They're waiting for their mothers to go home with them. While they wait they help by pulling out the bastings."
One employer explained the late working hours by saying: "They came back to make the buttonholes," adding the bizarre touch that his mother-in-law was working on the buttons at home.
Around 11 o'clock we returned to Stockton Street where the car was parked. The factory we had found dark earlier was now brightly lighted, and people were moving about inside. About two dozen men and women were at work. The women were making rayon dresses, which came from the jobbers already cut and put up in bundles. The place was equipped with the newest special machines for hemming, making buttonholes, and button-sewing. Some of the women were old, with dark shriveled skins. Men did the pressing.
The employer-contractor and his family lived in the basement. There he worked busily with his wife and their four children. All the workers on both floors, as in every factory we visited that night, were concentrating deeply on their tasks, hardly looking up as we moved about them and talked, their busy fingers never stopping an instant.
Yet when we ended our exploring tour after midnight, I found it hard to believe that the Chinese employers were as callous as their white competitors made out. I asked how long these shops had existed.
"The Chinese," one of my companions answered, "have been doing needle work in San Francisco since '49."
Going home I began to see what a great task it would be for Occidentals to establish any kind of organization among these people, who, though raising a new generation in the country where many of them were born, lived in it as unwanted tenants. I knew that past attempts made to approach the Chinese in the name of our union had met with suspicion. In the Chinatown stores, attempts of white Americans to engage in conversation usually ran into snags; the talk was held closely to the business at hand by the merchant.
The NRA investigator promised that the Chinese employers would be summoned to a conference the following week under federal government auspices, and that several of us from the ILGWU could attend.
But I was not content with what I had seen. I wanted inside information. Recalling that a letter to a group of Chinese students had been given me by a friend in New York, I wrote to one of them, and received an immediate invitation to tea.
My host lived on the fourth floor of a walk-up tenement on Stockton Street, above a Chinese grocery store. I entered a dingy gas-lit hall, mounted creaking stairs, and breathed an odor of stale meats, over-ripe fruits and vegetables, and dried fish, emanating from the basement. But the room to which I was admitted was bright and cheerful. Chih Ling and a friend, Yung Lee, both cultured young men, welcomed me.
Chih Ling's home comprised a small living room and kitchen. The walls were lined with shelves, crudely made and unpainted, but crowded with books and pamphlets. Browsing through these, I found numerous English and French works, as well as those in Chinese. Obviously they had been read repeatedly. On some of the pamphlets were the familiar portraits of Lincoln, Washington, Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-shek, H. G. Wells, Karl Marx, Kropotkin, Proudhon, Jaures, and other writers and social reformers. Several national journals of opinion were scattered about the room.
My note had explained the reason for my being in San Francisco, and Chih Ling had moved swiftly to be helpful. Presently two young Chinese women arrived, garment workers, coming directly from a nearby Chinatown shop. They brought their contribution to the party—lichee nuts and almond cakes. These girls were American-born, Christians, trimly dressed in short dresses made in Chinese style, with fresh permanents and long scarlet finger-nails.
Our host began to tell them about me and the ILGWU in English, but after a few sentences switched to his own language. Soon the four were in rapid conversation, their faces lighting up and clouding by turns. For several minutes this kept up, while I sat studying the earnest expressions on those clear-skinned faces and sipping my tea. Then the talk stopped, and Hilda addressed me.
Choosing her words carefully, she explained why girls in the Chinese factories would not join the union.
First, they were afraid of their parents. Second, in nearly every instance most of the employees in the Chinese contracting factories were kin of the owner, regarded him as a benefactor, and would not go against his wishes. Third, they would lose their jobs, and probably would never be able to get others.
This last reason did not seem insurmountable. I told the four that if any Chinese girl lost her job, the union would see that she got another, in one of the organized plants.
Chih Ling interrupted. "My dear friend," he said kindly, as if speaking to a child, "you do not seem to understand Hilda's predicament. What she tells you is correct."
I persisted in my argument.
"How long have you been in San Francisco?" Young Lee inquired.
"Since February first."
"Then you don't know our history on the Pacific Coast."
Asking my indulgence, Yung, in his impeccable English, traced for me, with occasional interpolations from Chih and the girls, the story of what the Chinese had undergone throughout the Far West and especially in California, since the Seventies.
A grim narrative of white exploitation of Chinese labor, then reaction and discrimination against the Chinese bolstered by law. And without law, there was a great drive against them in which they were robbed, beaten by mobs, and wantonly killed. … All this was new to me. I listened aghast.
Yung told of the first Chinese in California, two men and a woman, brought by sailing ship to San Francisco in 1848. After the discovery of gold in the Sacramento valley, Chinese, came in large numbers. The lure of "easy fortunes" was held out to them by captains of ships touching the port of Hong Kong, who thus filled their vessels with passengers for the return voyage to America.
Public officials in California welcomed the Chinese in those early years, praising their industry, honesty, and respect for law. It did not take the newcomers long to realize that this friendliness was due to the Americans' need for their labor. Many Chinese went to the gold diggings, but Yung never heard of any of them making a fortune there. For the white men took all the good claims, and the Orientals were left to work the "tailings," claims abandoned by the whites. Each Chinese, too, had to pay a tax of $4 a month for a miner's license, which the whites did not have to pay.
Numberless Chinese became laborers in the mines at low wages, while others worked as cooks and laundrymen, became vegetable gardeners, or hired out to farmers. Many were utilized to drain great stretches of swamp lands.
When the first transcontinental railroad was being built in the Sixties, the contractors were desperate for a labor supply. They tried to recruit sufficient white men for this hard work, but comparatively few whites were willing. So the railroad heads sent to China, and brought over contract laborers by the thousands.
Completion of the railway started a stream of white workers rolling from the East to the West. Depression hit the Coast and the Chinese were no longer wanted in California. The whites now resented their presence, regarding them as competitors. The Chinese laborers were used to low living standards and worked for less pay than the whites. A great anti-Chinese drive was begun.[C]
In 1871 a Los Angeles mob lynched 19 Chinese in one day, because one of their number was suspected of shooting a white man. … Politicians made capital of the sentiment against the Orientals, branded them as undesirables. California enacted laws restricting their liberties, tried to oust them from the state.
Nearly all these laws were found unconstitutional, because they violated treaty provisions, the Civil Rights Statute, or the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. But in 1882 the California politicians raised such a loud outcry against "our danger from cheap coolie labor" that Congress passed the frist Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese immigration for 10 years.
"If our people worked for low wages," Yung commented, "it was not through choice. Tens of thousands of them had been urged to come to this country. They took what pay they could get, in order to live. They were not organized to resist the employers who cut wages."
Yet the Exclusion Act was not enough. Violence against Chinese broke out anew in various parts of the West. They were robbed, beaten, murdered. Hoodlums shot them down like dogs and were immune from punishment. In the Eighties there were anti-Chinese riots in Eureka and other California communities, with numerous fatalities, many homes burned, and many deportations. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, a mob killed 28 Chinese.
Additional laws were enacted to keep Orientals out of the country, except students, merchants, government officials, and others who might enter temporarily, and to prohibit their naturalization. Chinese men who had established legal residence there were not permitted to bring their China-born wives into the United States, which forced them to choose between celibacy and consorting with prostitutes.
In the face of the onslaughts against them, the Chinese on the Pacific slope centered in tight colonies. In San Francisco many of them burrowed into the ground, away from the light, away from the menacing hands of the whites who opposed them. Here they multiplied, and some prospered in trade, despite prejudice and discrimination. They could get business by underbidding on prices.
Even in 1934 the kinds of jobs open to Chinese in the United States were severely limited. University students, when not in classrooms, worked in restaurants, laundries, and in other menial capacities.
And there was another difficulty, a family angle.
"Our parents look down on us," Yung explained, "because many of my generation do not speak good Chinese, and because we have American ways. Because of this lack of language we would not be welcomed in China, either. We are a lost generation without a homeland. Here in the country of our birth we are step-children, and in the country of our forefathers we are aliens."
Yes, I was beginning to see. But surely something could be done. The San Francisco labor movement would help us, I was certain. I wanted to consult with my associates in the union. Meanwhile I assured these four courteous young people that the Chinese garment workers would find a welcome in the ranks of the ILGWU.
That evening I conferred with the union staff and active members—David Gisnet, Joseph Minkoff, Sam White, Ethel Blumberg, Mary Gonzales, Beatrice Lopez, and Henry Zacharin—posing the question: "What shall we do next?"
Clearly it was necessary to convince the Chinese workers that the International would not permit any discrimination against them, so long as they were working in the women's garment industry and were eligible to join our union. Moreover, it was important that we take them into our fold because of the disproportionate number of Chinese apparel factories in San Francisco. If these remained unorganized, the rest of the local industry could not continue to exist on a competitive basis.
We requested John O'Connell, secretary of the Central Labor Council, to come with us when we met the Chinese manufacturers and contractors. As official spokesman for the San Francisco labor movement, we pointed out, he could confirm our statement that the ILGWU was ready to take in all the Chinese garment makers. It never occurred to me to ask him about his own views on the question.
We met nine of the Chinatown employers in the NRA office. There was lengthy argument. Some objected to unionization and standardization of working conditions.
Chinese workers would not work in other shops, they said, preferring to work among their own co-racials, because white workers refused to sit side by side with Chinese. Chinese workers were satisfied with their conditions of work, and there was no need for a change. Finally, they added, the changes demanded by our union would increase production costs and force some of the smaller firms out of business. Their employees would be doomed to continued unemployment.
"Our union is ready to put up a cash guarantee," Gisnet and I assured them, "to place any and all who may lose their jobs in Chinatown in union shops elsewhere."
I turned to the secretary of the Central Labor Council for verification. "Isn't that correct, Brother O'Connell?"
"Damn right, I say! Why should these Asiatics get the jobs that our white girls could keep?" He spoke as if he had not heard my question. We were stunned by such an answer from a representative of organized labor.
To my dismay, I learned that the Chinese did not have many friends among the San Francisco labor groups, and that all Asiatics were barred from union membership there except in our own ranks.
And in the end I realized that this was not only a San Francisco dressmakers' problem. It was closely bound up with federal government policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the attitude of the general labor movement toward Asiatics, the susceptibiltiy or resistance of the young Chinese workers to union education. Our dressmakers' local prepared a strong resolution and instructed its delegates to the ILGWU national convention, opening in Chicago on May 28, to present the case for the Chinese there. The San Francisco delegates were Vice-President Feinberg, Beatrice Lopez, dressmakers' executive board member, Charles Silver, and myself. Introduced jointly by the Coast delegations, our resolution was adopted by the convention. It indorsed a plan for a campaign to organize the Chinese garment workers.
I wrote a detailed article on my observations of the appalling conditions in Chinatown and sent it to Max Danish, editor of our International's official publication, Justice. After he published it, the article was reprinted in several foreign-language papers and in the other labor periodicals, including the San Francisco Central Labor Council's organ, the Labor Clarion, which also used an editorial calling attention to it. The Clarion discussed the problems of the Chinese workers at some length, with a query: "Does their organization into trade unions answer this question?" But the attitude of the conservative unions in San Francisco toward the Chinese remained unchanged, and the issue was left hanging in the air.
Subsequently, after I had been called to work in other sections of the country, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union chartered a local in Chinatown. Yet the subterranean sweatshops lingered.
In 1943, however, new friendliness and sympathy for the Chinese people spread widely through this country—because of their courageous fighting against our common enemy, Japan, and because the Japanese were emphasizing American discrimination against Chinese in their radio propaganda. So Congress, in December, repealed the anachronistic Chinese exclusion laws and put China's nationals on the same quota basis as those of other nations. It provided also for their naturalization. Thus a long-existent stigma was removed.
With this social wall at last torn down, I am confident the labor movement will in the near future admit Chinese workers to equal membership. Together the two races will eradicate the industrial blight I saw in the fetid lower levels of San Francisco's Chinatown.
[These three annotations all appeared in the original autobiography by Pesotta—ed.]
A. After Pearl Harbor some of the best shops there were closed down by the municipal authorities, because they were Japanese-owned.
B. As late as 1941, according to the San Francisco Housing Authority, approximately 3,000 of the 3,830 dwelling units in Chinatown were totally without heating equipment; three of every five Chinese families there lived in one or two rooms, often windowless; and the Chinatown tuberculosis rate was three times that of the rest of the city.
C. Later I dug into books and other records which bore out Yung's story in detail.
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