As an organizer Jennie Matyas played a central role in the 1938 National Dollar Stores strike and in the emergence of the Chinese Ladies Garment Workers Local 341, and her reporting contributed many of the primary sources brought together in this document project. The following excerpts from a 1955 oral history interview with Matyas provide a retrospective view of her part in this organizing and her judgment as to its significance. Matyas's responses described the initial organizing campaign, the strike itself, and continuing ILGWU efforts on behalf of Chinese garment workers after the 1939 closing of the Chinatown factory that had been the focus of the organizing. Although this interview occurred seventeen years after the events recalled, Matyas offered a remarkably detailed view of the events and conflicting agendas of the period.
Organizing the Chinese Workers
Matyas: In 1937 the Wagner Act came into being.[A] After the repeal of the N.R.A., for awhile things didn't look too good. When the Wagner Act was passed, organization took a new spirit. At this time, the Chinese workers, whom we had tried to organize for years…
Gilb: I remember Rose Pesotta had investigated Chinatown in 1934 and the convention in 1934 had given the officials permission to go ahead and organize. But it wasn't done at that time?
Matyas: We tried. No, Rose Pesotta was in Los Angeles at the time. I was here, but Rose Pesotta had been here before '34 and she tried to organize the workers in Chinatown with no success. It was no reflection on her ability. It was just very difficult to organize the Chinese workers.
I tried for a couple of years or more to do everything in my power to arouse the interest of the Chinese workers for unionization. I couldn't get to first base with it at all. I talked to a number of Chinese intellectuals who spoke English and who were very interested in the welfare of their people. They would have liked to have seen unionization among the Chinese workers in so-called Chinatown. I hate that term, Chinatown. I don't think they like it either, but they just sort of take it for granted. I know that a Chinese doesn't like to be called a "Chinaman." But we had heard of conditions in so-called Chinatown where people worked all hours for six or seven dollars a week and worked at home.
Gilb: Child Labor?
Matyas: I don't know. I learned that the Chinese love their children tremendously and I'm not sure if there was child labor. But they themselves worked all hours of the night and worked at home. While part of the legislation that came in with the N.R.A. forbade home work, still it existed because there was no policing of the matter.
But we couldn't organize them. I remember, Feinberg, the Coast director, and I spoke to a very fine young Chinese intellectual who I think was a graduate of the University of California. He understood the situation very well and wished that the Chinese could come under the protection of unionism, but when we offered him a job and asked him to help organize, he wouldn't do it. We couldn't understand why. We said, "But look, you say you recognize that the workers will go on suffering these dreadful conditions until they do organize and have the benefit of unionism and yet you won't help. Who can? We can't speak to them. Will you explain why you won't?" He said, "Well, you don't know the tradition of Chinese. If ever, ever, ever anything were to go wrong, I wouldn't be forgiven, my children wouldn't be forgiven, my children's children wouldn't be forgiven, by the Chinese."
Gilb: What kind of thing did he expect to go wrong?
Matyas: Well, they believed implicitly in the fact, they used to say so to me many times, they believed they had to be cheap labor in order to be employed at all. They thought that if they were to put a value on their labor commensurate with the labor of the rest of us, "why would the employers give work to Chinatown; why wouldn't they keep the work for the whites, since the employers were in most instances white."
Gilb: I remember your saying that many uptown factories had contracted this work out to Chinatown.
Matyas: The manufacturers in town contracted their work out to Chinatown.
Gilb: Then their argument was a good one, don't you think?
Matyas: No, their argument was not a good one. It was a good one only in so much as they had no protection. Even the finest of employers wanted the labor as cheaply as they could get it. We tried to point out to this man who understood so well, and to anyone who represented Chinese people who would listen to us, that we would sign a contract with the Chinese workers providing that whatever work was then going to Chinatown would have to continue to go to Chinatown.
Gilb: How were you going to guarantee this?
Matyas: We could guarantee that we wouldn't permit it to come into any other of our union shops. The work had to be done. The employers had these orders and were willing to guarantee that we would not permit any of our other workers to do the work that belonged to the Chinese.
Gilb: It still sounds to me as if that would be difficult to enforce. How would you know what work would ordinarily go to Chinatown?
Matyas: It wouldn't be nearly so difficult as it seems. Certain manufacturers who were giving their work to Chinese contractors had no inside shops…what we called inside shops. They made their samples in their main factory, and they did the cutting in the main factory, but they 'bundled' the unmade garments and sent them to Chinatown. Now, they would have to open new shops if they were to take the work away from the Chinese workers and have it made by white workers. Their own shops were not equipped with the machinery, even. They'd have to open new shops or they would have to contract it to other shops, and we could prevent any of our people from making that work.
We were willing to go even further. We said that if the contractors and the workers both would agree to come under union protection (they would, of course, in the final instance, have to withhold, to be on strike if necessary in order to get a contract from the manufacturer), we were willing to agree that we would not write any contract with the manufacturer that didn't guarantee that the work would continue to go to the Chinese contractors and so to the Chinese workers.
Gilb: But despite this promise, they weren't reassured?
Matyas: Despite this promise, they didn't believe it. They were absolutely convinced that the only reason the work went to them was because they were cheaper. I tried to point out the fact that if the industry had sufficient work, say for three thousand workers, and one thousand of those workers were Chinese, the work would have to be done and if there were no more than two thousand white workers and there was work enough for three thousand workers, what difference would it make to the employer whether the work was done by Chinese or whites, he had to have his work done if he had that many orders. Evidently, the industry at the time had sufficient to supply three thousand workers.
Gilb: Now, I know that California labor leaders had for several generations been very anti-Chinese. Were there many people in the labor movement who opposed this organization of the Chinese?
Matyas: Within their own unions, yes.
Gilb: But not in your union?
Matyas: Well, they had no say in our union.
Let me confess a fact that is very little known. There was a time, in the nineteenth century, when some of the shops organized into a union which was subsequently an I.L.G. organization and were opposed to admitting Chinese. But that was a very long time ago and it was in the days when the anti-Oriental feeling was so terrific and there was very little organization anyhow. The only workers that were organized were the most highly skilled, even in our industry.
Gilb: But in the ‘30’s there was no opposition to Chinese organization in your union?
Matyas: Oh no, no. Not only was there no opposition, but ever since its inception, our International as a whole was always completely of the opinion that all workers, black or white or yellow or whatever, were entitled to all the dignity of being human beings.
Gilb: Of course, it was self protection too, because as long as the Chinese weren't organized…
Matyas: Yes, there was that. Most of all, we had the firm belief that race discrimination was a very bad thing morally, aside from the economic.
Gilb: Did you eventually succeed in organizing the Chinese?
Matyas: Eventually we succeeded and fortunately for me, I happened to be on the scene and I had the opportunity to help organize the Chinese workers.
Gilb: When was this?
Matyas: In '36 or '37. I think this started in '36.
Let me tell you how it started. Japan and China were at war. The Chinese people were organized very strongly to help the Chinese back home. Most of the Chinese here had relatives back home. They all felt very loyal to their home relatives and wanted to support them. China was very poor. Sending money back to China was a very serious matter with them.
There was one shop in Chinatown called the National Dollar Factory. The National Dollar is still in existence, but now it is in existency by its stores, its outlets. At that time, while the business of National Dollar was retail, they had this one factory on Washington Street near Kearny. The factory was finally torn down and it's being built into a church by Chinese volunteers.
Well, the people working for the National Dollar worked directly for a Chinese employer, Chinese workers working for a Chinese employer. The factory had about eighty or a hundred workers. Interestingly enough, the workers in the National Dollar factory found themselves underbid by other workers in Chinatown. They found that the work went to other Chinese contractors who did the work cheaper than they did.
There was no unionism anywhere, but the National Dollar factory, instead of having all of the work done by the workers in this large, rather nice factory, sent the work out to contractors where it could be done even cheaper. The workers began to feel very hurt over that. So they got together and formed an organization of some sort, not a union. They just got together in somebody's house and decided to write a letter to the owner of the factory. They never saw the owner, it was run by foremen, but all Chinese. They decided to supplicate the owner to remember that they needed money to send home to China and wouldn't he provide them with more work.
In the meantime, some of them came up to my office and met me and told me about it and asked whether we could do anything to help. Well, I thought heaven had opened up. I assured them that we would do everything in our power to help. By this time I understood that I'd better let the initiative be theirs always, and better just say that I was available and that our organization was very eager to help in any way possible. They didn't want anything more. They wanted to wait for the answer from this employer. They had given some address or another to which the employer was to write.
Now, interestingly enough, when I became an official in the I.L.G. office, Dubinsky put on a young Chinese who was recommended by somebody also to try to organize Chinese workers. We became suspicious subsequently that he was connected with Communism. We had no way of knowing whether he really was or not, but I became more and more suspicious as time went on, although I had no proof of anything. Finally he was discharged. I don't remember on what basis, whether because of no productivity or whether we became pretty satisfied that he had Communist connections. Anyhow, he was discharged.
When these workers from the National Dollar Factory came to see me, they told me that they had hesitated a long time before coming to us because they thought we were a Communist union and they based their thinking on the fact that they knew this fellow and they had suspected that he was a Communist.
Gilb: Was it your feeling that at this time there was very little pro-Communism in Chinatown?
Matyas: There was some pro-Communism and a good deal of anti-Communism. Much more anti-than pro-. The workers in general were much more anti-Communist and they didn't like to come anywhere near the union because they thought the union must be sympathetic somehow, but when they heard that this fellow was discharged, they began to think that perhaps we were all right.
When they came to me, I didn't press them, but bit by bit I gained their confidence and they began to believe me, and more and more came to me. I began to be invited to their homes and I began to be invited to talk to workers who agreed to come to other homes in Chinatown, but not downtown to the union.
Let me confess that when I first began to work with the Chinese, in spite of all my convictions and beliefs in non-discrimination, the Chinese were people I didn't really know. I hadn't known any Orientals and, without realizing it, I believe I was more influenced by the propaganda about smoking opium pipes than I knew. I was almost…I had a sort of a little shaky feeling inside when I went to Chinatown at night alone and when I came away from their homes at eleven or twelve or later and walked through Chinatown alone. My husband didn't like the idea either, yet he was a person who was completely without race feeling of any kind. But one just can't help certain influences, I suppose.
I met with the Chinese in their homes a good deal, met them in restaurants after awhile, and always through an interpreter. There were a few who spoke English but the majority didn't. Not a word of English.
Well, finally they began to organize very strongly, and the employer found out that organization was going on. The man who was most active in trying to organize the other workers was an American-born Chinese whose wife didn't speak any English; she was a recent-comer to this country, but while he was American born, his English was not too understandable either. He was a fellow who was greatly respected by everybody in the shop. Strangely enough, he happened to be the brother-in-law of the man in charge of the factory. He himself was receiving a pretty good wage, but he recognized the situation and he was quite willing to persuade as many workers as he could to come and discuss the matter of forming a union.
Finally, we got the majority of workers to sign certification cards in favor of wanting a union shop. We then wrote the employer and asked for an appointment for a meeting. We had a meeting with him and the meeting was productive of practically nothing at all, but at any rate, we felt that organization could go on. He promised that we would have a meeting again.
In the meantime, this man who was so active in organizing, whose job was not making dresses, but fixing the machines for the dress operators, this man was demoted. His wages were not reduced, but he was given a job that took him away from being in constant contact with the workers. The workers felt so outraged by that. They felt that that was dishonest, that he was being punished, and they came to a meeting and advised me that that couldn't be. They wanted to strike right away.
I advised against the strike and advised that we had better have a meeting with the employer again and have this fellow, Willie Go, reinstated to his job. It was before Christmas and the employer agreed to put Willie back on the job and promised that after Christmas we would sit down and negotiate for a union contract and wages and so forth.
Well, time passed and the workers felt more and more that they were being discriminated against, or that people who had joined the union were being given raw deals. The workers pressed for action.
At that time we were not in the A.F. of L. We were not in the C.I.O. either. We had already withdrawn from the C.I.O., but had not yet gone back to the A.F. of L. One of our own people, a man who was a member of Local 8 was eager to get a job as an organizer. He couldn't get it with us because we didn't think too much of his calibre. Although we needed organizers badly, we didn't think enough of his character to trust him with organization. Since we were out of the A.F. of L., he went to the State Federation and offered to organize in Chinatown and tried to intimidate our members not to join our union, but to join a so-called A.F. of L. union.
By this time the workers had complete confidence in us and wouldn't break away, so that we could go on to negotiate. He actually threatened the workers that the Teamsters wouldn't permit them to go to work. And they didn't care. They felt they were with people they had complete confidence in and they told me about it. I was distrubed by it, but I was glad they had the wisdom to stay where they were.
Well, we tried to negotiate for the agreement after Christmas and we made no headway whatsoever. In the meantime, with the indignities that were going on, the workers were becoming more and more impatient and they were beginning to almost lose confidence in me, they were beginning to think that I was not ready to back them up in a fight.
Gilb: When you negotiated, did you negotiate directly with the employer?
Matyas: With representatives of the employer. Sam Kagel was then working for the National Labor Bureau and he was our representative on the negotiations in this Chinese Dollar situation.
Gilb: Then you had an outside person, Sam Kagel, represent you?
Matyas: Oh yes, and the employers had their representatives.
I was there and, of course, a committee of the workers, but the spokesman was Sam Kagel; or rather, Sam Kagel was working for the National Labor Bureau and I was the organizer for the Chinese workers.
Glib: Did the employer belong to any employers' association?
Matyas: No, I don't think so.
We got nowhere at all and finally we declared a strike. That was an extaordinary thing in Chinatown. It was the first time, to my knowledge, that there ever was an organized strike of Chinese workers. Fortunately, it was a strike of Chinese workers against a Chinese employer. Here were workers demanding the right to organize and the employer saying "No." White or black or yellow, it didn't make any difference. The issues were the same and the methods to handle them were also the same.
Well, people who thought they knew Chinese tried to discourage me. They kept saying that there was no use, the Chinese were not dependable, the Chinese fought among themselves, they'd never stick to anything, they wouldn't do any picket duty. They tried to discourage me in every possible way.
But by this time, I had gotten to know the Chinese too and I learned to have tremendous respect for their character. I got to feel that if they said something, it was so. I accepted their word for anything they said and I learned also that people were just people, there were those who could be depended upon and those who couldn't be depended upon. But by and large, I was very satisfied that the Chinese were at least as good as the rest of us were. The fact that they happened to be Chinese was asid from the issue. They had their other charcteristics, but from the point of view of dependability and integrity and all that, they were certainly as good as anybody else I knew.
The strike was finally declared and it will interest you to know that while I think we demanded something like $16 or $17 a week, I don't remember, actually the hope was that at least they would get $13.33 a week. That was the minimum wage for women in California for a forty hour week, after the $16 minimum had been interpreted as applying to a forty-eight hour week and so there was a propertionate cut. You would be shocked to know how many people worked for much less than $13.33 even. While the figure was brought down to $13.33 and while theoretically, no woman could work for less than $13.33 a week, there was a tremendous amount of chiseling and in shops where the appearances were that the employer wanted to be very law-abiding and pay the wage, there was a tremendous amount of kick-back.
Gilb: In other words, this was a law that was unenforceable?
Matyas: Unenforced, not unenforceable. It was very enforceable.
Gilb: What would have been the medium by which it could have been enforced?
Matyas: Only through unionism. Any worker had a right to go and complain to the State Department of Industrial Welfare, or on wages, I think they would have had to go to the Labor Department. The Industrial Welfare was a part of the Labor Department, but the matter of wages and hours was a function of the Labor Department. But a worker in an unorganized shop wouldn't have the courage to complain, because he or she would lose his job immediately.
Gilb: Couldn't it have been done anonymously?
Matyas: No, you can't fitht…you go to the government and say, "I was employed but I wasn't getting $13.33." Well, they had to take it up and in the final analysis go to court. You can't go to court in behalf of nobody. There has to be a specific complaint. That's why we always point out and contend that the best law is valueless unless it can be properly policed, and unless the workers who use it can be properly protected. While there was a law that said that women cannot work more than eight hours a day and may not work for less than $16 a week for the forty-eight hours, there was no law to oblige the employer not to fire the worker who availed himself of the law. So that the law became a mythical affair actually.
Gilb: As a result of this National Dollar strike, you did get $13.33 a week?
Matyas: Well, it wasn't that simple. We were out on strike for thirteen weeks, a terrifically long time. For one thing, it proved to everybody that they were very wrong about Chinese not sticking to their intention. Incidentally, this was the one strike I had in which I was able to turn almost everything over to the Chinese members themselves. They arranged their picketing schedules; they arranged who was to be on what shift. It was all very democratically done. They took turns, they lived up to it completely. The first shift had to meet at headquarters at six o'clock in the morning. We were there and served coffee at six o'clock so that the workers could be on the picket line at seven o'clock in the morning. And these Chinese, who allegedly never get up until ten o'clock in the morning, were there on the picket line.
The whole city become tremendously interested. Everybody was anxious to help these Chinese workers in this Chinese strike and see to it that they won their fight. As a matter of fact, it was essential to picket the downtown stores, the retail business of the National Dollar Store. That involved the Department Store Employees' Union, which had just been organized and was very precarious too. But when the Chinese workers went on strike and the strike was official and was thoroughly endorsed by the Labor Council, because…we were not yet out of the Labor Council. We were out of the A.F. of L. and out of the C.I.O., I don't remember the exact chronology, but the Department Store Employees' Union called upon their employees in the National Dollar Store not to go through the picket line. The Department Store Employees' Union was threatened with a suit by the National Dollar Store because they had a contract for the sales people to work. When our people were on the picket line, the clerks refused to go through the picket line and they were supported financially by their union. It was a wonderful thing. Very inspiring. Here were white workers jeopardizing their jobs and their union to help these Chinese workers who were not in their industry, who were in manufacturing, not in selling.
Gilb: What was the reaction of the other Chinese in Chinatown?
Matyas: At the same time that all this was going on, unfortunately this fellow who went to the A.F. of L. was very active in Chinatown and went from white employer to white employer, the employers who contracted their work out in Chinatown, and practically intimidated them into signing a union agreement, with a so-called A.F. of L. local, in order to keep "Jennie out of it." He went to employer after employer and said, "You had better sign up, or Jennie will get you."
Gilb: That's flattering.
Matyas: So far as I was concerned, well, for one thing I didn't know about it until one day some of the workers came to me and said, "Workers in Chinatown, him organized." I said, "What do you mean? ‘Him organized?’ Well, speak up, man, what do you mean, ‘Workers in Chinatown, him organized?’ They're not in the union." "No worry, no worry. Him only sign piece of paper. Nothing say, nothing say. Him only sign piece of paper."
Well, I asked them to bring me the piece of paper. They couldn't bring any piece of paper, but I learned subsequently that this fellow, Ted Goldstein, got the employers to sign up with him and to say that all the workers in the contracting shops would have to belong to the union.
Gilb: Did he get any better wages, or conditions?
Matyas: No, nothing at all.
Gilb: That sounds like company unionism.
Matyas: Well, that's all right. The workers got nothing, they gained nothing. They didn't pay anything. Workers in Chinatown felt very uncomfortable because the National Dollar Chinese workers were on strike, and they, who were working for the white employers, contiued to work for the same old wages. Naturally, when I heard about the other union I was petrified. I though that that would definitely undercut the possibility of the strike.
Shortly thereafter an injunction was issued against our Chinese. Incidentally, we organized the Chinese into a separate local, but not because we believed in segregation. We offered to the Chinese that they could either have a separate local or they could come in with 101, but if they thought that it would prove to their Chinese people that they were autonomous, that we weren't meaning to take any advantages away from them to give to white workers, they could have a local of their own.
Gilb: They wanted their own local?
Matyas: They wanted their own local. They had their own local. They had their own officials. I was the organizer and the International representative, but they had their own local with headquarters in Chinatown, on Stockton Street. This, of course, came after the strke was settled, but while they were on strike they met in our headquarters down on Mason Street. At that time we were at 149 Mason Street, not 345 Mason. We were up on the top floor and one Saturday morning we received word that an injunction was coming. We were having a meeting. We were all pretty concerned about the fact that the injunction would prohibit picketing around the stores. We didn't know if it would prohibit picketing around the factory. I was worried about what effect the injunction would have on the strikers.
Gilb: Well, this was peaceful picketing, wasn't it? Had there been any violence?
Matyas: Oh yes, it was perfectly peaceful, but the employer…well, there were a few umbrella incidents, but by and large it was very peaceful. At any rate, I think the reason for the injunction was that the stores were not involved, the retail stores. At least so we thought. I don't remember now whether the injunction was served on the entire thing or not.
At any rate, it was very interesting. It was a Saturday morning that we got wind of it. Saturday afternoon we were having a meeting. Somebody said that they were coming up to headquarters to serve us with the injunction papers. One of the Chinese workers said, "Let's lock the door downstairs." I said, "Well, how about it. If we lock the door downstairs, how long do you want to be up here?" "Well, we won't go out. We won't let them serve us, and as long as they don't serve us, we're not under any injunction."
We stayed in headquarters until about eight o'clock that night, never went out for anything at all. We had people at the window watching to see whether it looked as though anybody was coming to serve us. I don't remember what happened.
Gilb: I don't know how you'd recognize a process-server.
Matyas: I don't know how either, but it was very exciting. Instead of my encouraging them, they tried to encourage me. They said, "No worry, Jennie. Him no can make dresses. Injunction, him no can make dresses."
Well, the injunction was served anyhow and we took our people off the stores, off picketing the retail outlets, but we continued to fight in front of the factory.
It was one of the most inspiring experiences I've ever had. The workers in that strike…I'm thinking of one man, for example, who was the janitor. He was the father of seven children, as poor as he could be. He stuck to the very last. He did all of his picket duties. We tried to relieve him, we tried to tell him that if he could find a job somewhere else, he could do it, but no, he had pledged that he would stay to the end and he stayed to the end. He wouldn't desert.
We had one girl, her name was Edna Lee. Pretty as could be. No parents, she was an orphan, and she had younger sisters or brothers. Anyhow, she was sort of the head of the family. I was told one day that she couldn't be on picket duty because she was sick, so I went to her house to see whether I could do anything. I saw the house in which she lived. It was one room somewhere right on Grant Avenue, a kitchen was shared by the other tenants on the floor. When I went in to see Edna, she was in bed. I asked her how sick she was. "Oh," she said, "I'm not sick at all." I said, "Well, why are you in bed if you're not sick at all?" "Well, you know, it's funny, but if I stay in bed I don't get hungry. And so I often stay in bed because then I don't get hungry."
Now, the International helped with strike relief, but it was just relief, it wasn't wages. This girl, Edna, said, "You see, before the strike I could buy groceries on credit. Now, none of the merchants will give us credit." There are two instances. I could repeat more. Finally, after thirteen weeks…there was intercession and we got the employer to negotiate again and he finally agreed to recognize the union and to make $13.33 the official wage.
Gilb: During the strike had you been helped by any other union besides the Department Store Employees?
Matyas: We had the sympathy of the other unions.
Gilb: No financial help?
Matyas: No, no. We didn't ask for financial help. The International was ready to help. I could have given Edna, this girl, some more money. I gave her a little more, but she wouldn't take it. She was very proud. She said that if that was all the others got, that's all she got.
At the end of the thirteenth week, when we had a compromise offer of a settlement which would assure everybody their job and assure everybody the $13.33, I had the time of my life to get the workers to accept that settlement. They thought it was very insufficient, that $13.33 was way below what they ought to have. Some of the members upon whom I relied very greatly and who had become personal friends left the union because they thought the acceptance of such a settlement was a hurt to their pride, it was so much less than they had hoped to get. Others, the more rational among them, argued that if they had a union, bit by bit they'd be able to raise their standards, and anyhow, with a union contract, they'd be able to insist upon work being there and not going out. They would be certain of fair treatment in general and they'd have a right to a price committee to help make the price of the garments. They thought that while it was a modest beginning, it was a very decidedly good beginning. That finally prevailed after hours and hours and hours of discussion whether or not the agreement should be accepted. It prevailed, but some of my very best friends just quit the union altogether, and as a matter of fact, I never saw them again.
But the shop as a whole went back to work under a union agreement and for about a year they did well enough. They had work. Work was not sent to contracting shops, but the employer just couldn't take it evidently, and he decided to close the factory at the end of a year.
Gilb: Perhaps the competition was still paying much lower wages, which would make it difficult for him.
Matyas: Well, no, because his competition actually came…well, that may have been one thing, but this factory didn't do all the supplying. He bought in the same places that other people did. I don't think it was that. I think that his pride was just as great to him as to have won a union was to the workers. I don't really know just what it was, but at the end of a year, the employer closed the factory. Then, of course, we had all these workers unemployed and the problem was, what to do. It was terrific.
In the meantime, I had tried very hard to get Chinese workers into the regular American shops. It wasn't too easy because many of them couldn't speak the language at all, but worse than that, in Chinatown they had machinery that was a little bit different from the machinery they had in the regular factories. For example, with the regular machines on which all the rest of us worked, the garments were pulled right from the person. In the Chinese shops, they were pulled horizontally, so that is a different machine altogether. I don't know how it happened, but that's how it is. And many of the workers were afraid to venture into the other factories, even if they could.
Little by little, we did succeed in getting them into other shops, but the race discrimination problem was not an easy one to overcome. Everybody pulled hard for the Chinese to win their fight, all the rest of our union was very sympathetic. Theoretically, we had overcome race prejudice among the other workers and among employers, but only theoretically.
Quite a bit after this strike, some of the workers had succeeded in getting into a shop related to the Amco, a shop under George Anthony. Quite a few Chinese workers got in there as operators and some as pressers. One time the workers who were opposed to the idea of Chinese workers in their shop threatened to strike. They came to the union and said it was all right while there were just a few, but the Chinese were getting to be so many. The outbreak against the Chinese workers came because the employer intended to hire a Chinese man to be in charge of the cutting the department. One of the fellows in the cutting department who had his eye on being in charge when the opportunity arose was furious. This fellow went to the other workers and cooked up a nice little readiness for a strike. They were going to walk out.
I didn't know what to do. I was afraid of hurting the feelings of the Chinese workers who were there, but I felt that a meeting had to be called. I had to decide whether to have the Chinese workers present at the meeting or not, and I decided that they may as well be present and learn the facts of life.
Gilb: Also, they might interpret their absence…
Matyas: Well, I wasn't thinking of that. I was thinking that they may as well be present and learn what facts are facts. And the whole shop came to the meeting and I had a long talk with them on the basis of "haven't all workers a right to a job? Haven't all workers a right to live? Etc. Etc." I made no impression whatsoever. The workers were just not going to have so many Chinese working there.
Interestingly enough, the agitation for the strike was led by an Italian girl. I don't know whether I like to say this. Unless you know the situation very well. It might have been an all-American girl, it might have been a Greek girl, it might have been anybody, but it just so happened that this girl was an Italian girl. She was the spokesman for the opposition to so many Chinese in the shop.
Well, finally, I could make no impression on the basis of human rights. I pointed out the fact that if they were insistent that no Chinese should work in their shop, if the employer had more work than the workers in the shop could do, what would be his next step? His next step would be to contract the work out. Where would he contract it out? He would contract it out to Chinatown, where there would be no control whatsoever, where he could pay whatever he liked, and the cheaper he got his work done in Chinatown, the less likelihood there would be that the work would be done in the factory by them.
Gilb: Do you mean to say that there was a scarcity of workers during the depression?
Matyas: Not at that time. When the season was on. Our industry is very seasonal, this was already in '37 or '38, and in our industry at that time and in that particular season there was no depression.
Gilb: So there was a scarcity for you.
Matyas: A scarcity of skilled workers. Not a scarcity of labor, but of skilled workers, and these were skilled workers. Operators, pressers, cutters.
Finally, the argument that their work would be sent where there would be no control over the wages that were paid convinced them and I suppose the next day the thought did enter their heads that human beings were human beings and who were they to set themselves up as superior to another group of human beings.
The key man in this situation, however, was not convinced. I was nervous as the dickens. I was afraid all the decision would be undone the next day, unless he would be convinced. I called him into my office and had some more talk with him. I made no impression.
Finally, I decided to do what through all my married life I was certain I would never do. I decided I would bring my husband into it. This fellow was tall and blond; my husband was tall and had been blond--he was grey by this time. This fellow was Irish; my husband was Scottish. I thought maybe they could talk to each other as perhaps I couldn't. I asked whether he would come to my house for dinner. He said he didn't think his wife would like it. So I called his wife and asked for permission for Larry to come to my house for dinner. I called my husband quickly and I explained. He said, "Sure, bring the boy along."
We had a very nice dinner. Then we went on to discuss the issue. My husband just radiated fineness, he radiated status too; and coming from my husband, I had a feeling that it would be very different than coming from me whom Larry would consider a professional union official. My husband was in no way related to our industry.
That evening went very nicely and I thought perhaps it was all right, that Larry was convinced. As Larry was going out, I said, "Well, Larry, how about it?" "Well," said Larry, "I'll tell you what. I won't quit the job, but I'm not conviced." Just so long as he agreed not to quit the job and not to engage in any dissatisfied agitation in the shop, I was satisfied. The thing cooled down for awhile.
But still this was about the only shop that was accepting Chinese workers and I was very eager to get more of the Chinese workers integrated and into our regular shops. Progress was very slow. It was almost nil.
One day one of our factories, a blouse factory called me up for a presser. I knew that we had all these Chinese pressers unemployed. We had our own people unemployed too, but we had these Chinese girls from the National Dollar factory unemployed.
I said, "Well, I have a very good presser. She's Chinese. Of course, that wouldn't make any difference to you. She's very good presser and I'll send her up." "Oh, no." said the employer, "Don't send me a Chinese." I asked him what difference it made to him, why he should care, that she was an excellent presser. "Yes, I know, but don't send me a Chinese."
I tried to persuade him as gently as I knew how that after all he wouldn't want to be accused of having race prejudice, that I could guarantee that the work would be well done and if not, he could fire the girl just as he could fire a white girl. What difference should it make to him? "Well, yes, you're right. I guess you're right." I though I had him thoroughly convinced… "but send me a white presser." So I said, "Well, I'll try."
But, may the Lord forgive me, I didn't try for three days. According to the agreement, he was obliged to call the union for workers. He kept calling me, and I kept telling him that I was awfully sorry, that I was trying, but all the pressers were working; that I had these good Chinese pressers and he could have his pick if he liked, but if he didn't, I didn't know what I could do about it.
Finally he said, "Well, you know. Even if I would agree, the workers wouldn't." I assured him that I would take care of that. If he would agree, it would be all right. "Well," he said, "If you positively can't find me a white presser send me a Chinese, but don't blame me if the workers object."
I assured him I wouldn't blame him and that the workers would not object, but while I assured him, I must say, I held my fingers crossed and I was as nervous as a kitten over what the workers might do, having remembered the other situation. I decided that I had better prepare the ground.
This was just about lunch time and I ran down to the factory and waited for some of the girls to come out for lunch. I went to have lunch with them. I spoke to one person who was sort of the leader in the shop, who was the most influential in the shop, and I said, "Look, of course I can't talk to everybody, but you're different and you understand what a marvelous opportunity it is for this girl." The girl I had in mind was Edna. "This girl is a wonderful worker and she was out on strike to make a union shop. In fact, you didn't have to go out on strike because they were out on strike and your employer knew he'd better sign an agreement without risk of a strike. We really owe it to people like that to do something for them. She's a lovely girl. What I'd like you to do, Nelly, is to sort of take her under your wing because when she comes in, she might feel very shy about meeting a lot of white people. If you take her under your wing and get her to meet the other girls, I think it will be an awfully nice thing for you to do."
Well, Nelly thought it was wonderful that I came to her and asked for her help. And I sent in Edna. I wanted to send in a good worker, a girl who could speak English, and a girl who was pretty and very personable. Somebody whom everybody would love, they just couldn't help it. And it took.
And after that, I had the employer call me for workers and say, "If you can send me somebody like Edna, it will be all right." And I must confess that every time I sent in a Chinese worker, I picked one who in addition to being a good worker would also have other qualifications that would make him very acceptable. I thought that during the transition period, anyhow, let it be as easy as possible.
Gilb: Were Chinese workers eventually accepted on a widespread basis?
Matyas: Eventually, when the war broke out and there was a shortage of workers anyhow, Chinese standing rose in general. Even before that, bit by bit, Chinese workers went in to work in regular shops.
Gilb: Has there been a recession in this situation after the war?
Matyas: Of Chinese workers being accepted? No, Chinese workers now will be accepted in any of our factories. It depends on whether they can do the work. But a great many of our Chinese workers still prefer to work in Chinatown.
Gilb: Did you gradually get more Chinese people into the union?
Matyas: Oh yes, we gradually give up the separate local. When the National Dollar shop went out of existence, the local had no real reason for being in existence either and they voted themselves that they would abandon the charter and come in to Local 101. They were dress operators and dress finishers, they were dress workers. As a matter of fact, there is absolutely no anti-Chinese feeling now at all. A Chinese worker can get a job, and pretty nearly all of the workers that were on the executive committee of the Chinese local are working in very very good jobs in white factories.
You know that in our union a secretary and a president are volunteer, and professional workers. They are workers in the factory who have been elected to preside at meetings and to take minutes at meetings. The secretary of Local 101…I'm a member of 101…the secretary of my local is my dear old Chinese friend, Sue Lee, and she's not only the secretary of my local, she's secretary of the Joint Board as well.
Well, she's one of my best friends, certainly, and she's one of the finest union members we have. Interestingly enough, she's not only employed in one of these white factories, but she's in charge of quite a department. She's still a member of the union and a very active member because she has nothing to do with the problems of hiring and firing. She's one of the rare people who accepted responsibility and accepted a job in a supervisory capacity and yet remained a genuinely true and loyal union member.
A. The actual date of passage of the Wagner Act was July 1935.
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