Selection from interview with Earl I. Birdsall, Endicott Johnson Employee, by Gerald Zahavi. May 5, 1982
Subject: The Great Depression, Welfare Capitalism, Unions
EIB: It was during the Depression. I went to work in the Infants Factory which was located on Willow Street. I went to work at what they called a lining laster. In other words, you worked the lining around the last with your hands and from there, I went into heel trimming which is trimming the heels after they're put on the shoe. I always wanted to get in the cutting department which was considered at that time a fairly good job. Upper leather cutter. So I applied for cutting in the Pioneer Factory under the supervision of Bill Benjamin. William Benjamin. He told me that if I'd get a transfer from where I was working, that he would give me a job learning to cut shoes in the Upper Leather Department. At that time, it was 120 upper leather cutters in the Pioneer Factory. Primarily making high cuts work shoes and I went to work there and worked there for probably, golly, I can't remember now how many [years], but anyway it was until they opened up the new factory which was across the tracks called the...used to be the old South End Factory. . . . On cutting, almost all [the workers were] older workers. Most all up in their 50's and 60's. 40, 45, anywhere from 45 on up. Upper leather cutting was considered the...well, I don't know whether you'd call it one of the best jobs. But I would say it was one of the better jobs of EJ and you made better money. You made the best money in upper leather cutting. You could make anywhere from...in the neighborhood, depending of course on your speed and on, as I say it was all piecework. But you could make anywhere in the neighborhood at that time, I would say between $50 and $75. A week which was good wages at that particular time. You could buy a loaf of bread for a nickel.
This was during the Depression, I got married, was married in 1937. The Depression was really hitting then. Our work went down to well, 3 half days a week, 3 days a week. Sometimes you'd make $8 a week. Sometimes you'd make $15. It was really rough times. But I remember George F. Johnson coming into the Pioneer Factory and making a speech one time. Getting all the workers together and he said, "Well, times are tough. But there's lots of dandelions on the hills and fish in the rivers so you'll have I guess to live on that for awhile. We're not gonna lay nobody off. We're all gonna work, take what little we got and work along." Of course, it was an excellent place to work at that time because you got your free medical, you got your benefits were exceptionally good. That is primarily probably what held the biggest share of the people there. Was the benefits that they got. They could have their children and not cost them anything.
I was on upper leather there for probably 3, 4 -- 4, 5 years. I don't remember. Then they wanted to know if I wanted to learn the stitching department. So I learned the stitching department. I was put in as foreman of the stitching room. I run the stitching room for 8 years. Then the superintendent retired and they wanted to know if I wanted to be assistant superintendent of the factory. I was assistant superintendent for about 5 years until it come along til the Johnsons died and Casella got in there and they were gonna close down half of the factories and so I got out.
GZ: How did you manage to get a job there during the Depression?
EIB: Well, my father was a foreman in the Scout Factory. We knew Walter Riale. He was the Personnel Manager. He knew him and I knew him. So we went to him and asked him if he had anything a guy could do. He said he would check in to it and he found this job in Infants and lining lasting. I said I would take anything to get a job because jobs were pretty scarce. . . . I had been out of school just a short time. . . . Well, at that time it was...it was...it was a job, let's put it that way. It was nothing spectacular in learning it. Your earnings were about anywhere...it was all piecework. See everything in EJ was all piece work. It was up to you what to earn. You could earn the potential on that job was probably around $20-$25 a week. Which was good money at that time. You young folks don't know it.
GZ: Was there much talk about the union when it was active [in the late 1930s]?
EIB: Oh yeah, at times. At times, there was a lot. It was very strong. They had voted on it. They voted 2 or 3 times on the union coming in. [The] Johnsons would go around and talk against it and have these ham dinners and feed everybody and try to make them feel that the union was nothing they should have. As long as they were in control, they kept the union out. Charlie Johnson was listed in Wall Street as one of the smartest industrialists there was for the simple reason he could hold 20,000 workers together and not pay any more than they paid and a union not get in. You gotta be smart to do that.
GZ: I thought that the wages were fairly good in comparison with other companies..
EIB: Some. See, when IBM come up, they went right by...as far as higher wages was concerned, they went right by EJ.
GZ: Did many of the cutters want to go with the union in the '30's?
EIB: I wouldn't say so. No. There were a few radicals, there's a few radicals in every
group. . . they go strong for something. But I do know this. I know that Endicott Johnson,
the higher ups, they had a way about it, that they knew anybody was really strong on
the union, they found ways of getting rid of them. . . . I tell you. What most of us were
afraid of -- we were afraid of losing some of our benefits. That's the main thing. When
you have benefits that you can go and get a tooth out or you can go and get anything
you want done physically, medically, operations, it didn't cost you a penny. Especially if
you had a family and you weren't making big money, that meant a lot. Of course, EJ
built homes and the workers could buy the homes and have it deducted from their pay,
the payments on their homes. That was another benefit that was -- three-quarters of the homes in
Johnson City and Endicott were Johnson-built. Of course, they built on a large scale. So
therefore they could build the homes cheaper than any person could. They built
thousands and thousands of homes and then if you wanted one, you put your name in
and when your turn come up, you had a pick of three houses. Three different styles and
you could pick what one you want in a particular location that they were finishing. And
those things, rather than wages, they held the people together, see.
. . . . I guess it was just the idea that they thought they could make more money with the union. They thought they could get bigger wages if they went to the union. That was the primary reason. It certainly wasn't for benefits. It definitely hadda be for...the only alternative there was, was wages. They figured they could get more take-home pay in their paycheck if they went to the union. In other words, that was primarily what the union was offering them.