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Digitized Arbitration Proceedings Provide a Glimpse of Labor Relations in New York Garment Industry in 1917

November 16, 2011

by Claudia Ibarra

UTSA Special Collections recently digitized the Arbitration proceedings between the Ladies Dress and Waist Manufacturers’ Association and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union : held at the Bar Association, New York City, January 20th, 1917, at 1 P.M., a record of one of many negotiations between the Ladies Dress and Waist Manufacturers’ Association and The International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York garment industry predominantly employed immigrants, since knowledge of English was not a requirement for this type of labor. Due to seasonal conditions, there was not always work and the cost of production fluctuated. By 1917, the cost of living had risen significantly, as Mr. Hillquit points out in his introductory argument in these proceedings, yet workers were being paid the same as they had years before. A $27.50 weekly pay now had the same purchasing power as $22.00 weekly pay in the past. During a rush of production in a busy season, workers were expected to arrive early and were allowed little time for rest or even to eat during their 49 hour week. The workers weren’t even allowed to have the Sabbath off.  It was a petty system of exploitation, with the consequences of partiality further humiliating women in the workplace.

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As discussed in these proceedings, the contracts and union protocol governing work at garment factories did not apply to subcontracting – work done outside of factories. A working woman might finish her work day at the factory and then take pieces to work on home, turning it into a sweatshop. Perhaps if she was a mother, she might ask her children to help her complete the work – or they would be subcontracted as “learners,” who were outside education and labor laws because they were “volunteers.” This system of subcontracting was to the advantage of the employer because it reduced his cost and increased his personal profit, which he would divide amongst his subcontracted workers.

Throughout the arbitration proceedings between the Ladies Dress and Waist Manufacturers’ Association and The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, there are many referrals to the Protocol (union conditions). Mr. Morris Hillquit, Counsel, and Mr. William Klein, Counsel, each sought to ensure that the methods used to make changes in the garment industry were in adherence to the Protocol. The Protocol, as established in 1913, had four main purposes as outlined in Louis D. Brandis’s essay “Purpose of the Protocol.” The primary purpose was to ensure that grievances were presented to the Board rather than a court or through a strike. Secondly, the Protocol strengthened the Employers Association and the Union to ensure compliance to agreements between the two. Thirdly, the Protocol ensured just treatment of employees and stipulated that the provisions would apply to both parties democratically.  Lastly, the Protocol sought to safeguard industrial democracy and business by preventing shut-downs, while still protecting workers. By the Union’s adherence to the Protocol, it renounced its power to strike, giving the Board the means to hold the employer responsible for securing fair and reasonable treatment to the full extent possible.

Mr. Hillquit (representing the Ladies Dress and Waist Manufacturers’ Association) and Mr. Klein (representing The International Ladies Garment Workers Union) discussed all of the following during the proceedings:  the increase of pay for all workers—whether part time or full—by 20%, a weekly hour amount not to surpass 48, and only occasional work on Sundays. The sessions of this arbitration ran from the 20th and 21st of January to the 27th of that month.

An interesting aspect of the proceedings is that each counsel speaks and presents his case as though the other were unfamiliar with the Protocol and with the terms of their debate. At the end of the proceedings, they even begin to interrupt one another with their own interpretations.

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Provisions agreed upon at the end of this arbitration made remained subject to the supposed difficulties of the industry and employers retained the right to give work to those who they felt were most suitable.

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