COVER: Dressmakers aligned with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union take a break from the picket line at a Dallas diner during their historic 1935 strike. Their employers refused to negotiate on higher wages and better hours; after 10 months, the women relented and returned to their jobs. PHOTO VIA FLICKR
This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
A labor official from the Midwest was so shocked by the starvation wages and wretched working conditions of women hatters in Dallas sweatshops that he said they were “worse off than former negro slaves.” Dressmakers did not have it much better enduring 10 and 12-hour days in hot and suffocating factories for a weekly paycheck of $9.50.
Clothing manufacturers defended the scandalous status quo with the absurd argument that their employees were not breadwinners but wives and unmarried daughters working for pin money to buy the little extras their husbands and fathers could not afford.
Most Dallasites — male and female, white-collar and blue-collar — swallowed that self-serving line hook, line and sinker. The single mother down the block struggling to support her children and the married woman at church forced to go to work because her husband could not find a job were merely isolated exceptions to the rule.
Women that worked for a living were considered “unladylike” by their upper-class sisters, who had been the conscience of the city and an effective force for change for half a century. Through their civic clubs and charities, the grandes dames of Dallas mounted successful campaigns for a public library, playgrounds and parks, a board of health, pure drinking water and other worthy causes that improved the quality of life for every citizen. But when it came to the workplace, especially those ruled by their husbands, the compassionate crusaders had a blindspot.
In 1934 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) codes that established minimum wages and maximum hours for most American workers. When local manufacturers of work clothes rolled back their wages, Big D dressmakers had reason to worry they might be next.
A hundred concerned women formed a “sewing club” and after several secret meetings decided to pick the brain of the president of the Dallas Central Labor Council. He knew just what to do and contacted the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
With a five-fold increase in membership in the past two years, the ILGWU must have been doing something right. Meyer Perlstein, an experienced organizer from New York, was sent to Dallas in November 1934 and within four months signed up more than 40 percent of the city’s 1,000 dressmakers.
Perlstein served notice on the bosses that if wages were not raised and hours reduced, they would have a strike on their hands. Company bigwigs refused to talk to the ILGWU representative much less recognize the union and fired every suspected member. Determined dressmakers started walking off the job during the first week of February 1935, and in a matter of days the strike spread to all 15 apparel plants in the Dallas area.
At first the daily newspapers reacted to the all-female revolt with amusement. The Morning News reported picketers “chatting good-naturedly as if they were on an outing” and patted them on the head for showing “how even-tempered Texans can stage a strike without getting excessively ‘riled up.’”
The condescending tone of the coverage changed on Feb. 12, when an attempt by garment workers to keep strikebreakers out of a factory ended in a brawl with Dallas police. Injuries inflicted on the women by the burly cops forced The Journal to concede that some law enforcers “may have erred on the side of vigor rather than on that of mercy” in their handling of a “tremendously difficult and distasteful task.”
Violence on the picket line became commonplace as the bitter strike dragged on into the spring and summer. Even Dallasites that regarded unions as the work of the devil were repulsed by photographs of policemen roughing up women half their size and questioned the chief’s defense of strong-arm tactics.
The press accused the ILGWU of manipulating traditionally docile women from rural Texas and the Deep South for their own sinister purposes. Organizer Perlstein’s name rarely appeared in print without the label “Russian-born Jew,” a blatant appeal to anti-communism and anti-Semitism that alienated potential strike supporters.
Much to the embarrassment of the Dallas establishment, the Aug. 7 stripping of ten female strikebreakers received sensational newspaper coverage across the country and as far away as Europe. Merchants complained of a drastic decline in sales because middle-class women were afraid to shop downtown.
Nevertheless, no amount of pressure could force the factory owners to the bargaining table. With no settlement in sight and running out of money, the strikers voted to end the walkout in November 1935.
But the story had a happy ending for the defiant dressmakers. The large majority went back to work, remained loyal to the ILGWU and by 1936 could point with pride to five apparel plants under union contract.
Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.