HELEN QUIRINI'S MEMOIRS
Helen Quirini at an April 1997 demonstration
The following document is a compilation of selections from Helen Quirini's self-published memoirs. They appear here with her permission. Ms. Quirini was extensively interviewed by the Schenectady General Electric in the 20th Century Project over the past six years and has been the subject of a number of academic history articles.
speaking against corporate welfare
Prof. Gerald Zahavi, April 5, 1997
University at Albany-SUNY
Helen Quirini and General Electric : A Personal Memoir of World War II
Selections from: Introduction
Because of the interest and activity regarding blue-collar union endeavors, my nephew, Dr. Robert Dunn, suggested that I write about my life as a factory worker in the General Electric Company. Because there is so much to tell, I decided to write only about the World War II years and the 1946 strike in this first effort.
If there is enough interest, I will consider another book about my experiences as a woman factory worker, a union officer, and a community volunteer from 1946 to 1980, when I retired after 39 years of service. I have tried in this book to be as factual as possible. I have researched union newspapers and other sources, including my extensive records to make this a historical account of these years in my life. In a few cases, I have decided not to use people's real names.
I worked with some fantastic, beautiful people during my time at G.E. Blue collar workers should be written about because of their great contributions to our war effort as well as throughout history not only for our country but the world. This is my tribute to the people who work with their hands. I was proud to be one of them. I proudly dedicate this book to the women who are profiled in the last chapters.
Selections from: CHAPTER 1: JOINING UP
I wondered if there was some kind of omen in the fact that I was sitting in the waiting room of the personnel office at the General Electric Co. in Schenectady, N.Y. on April Fools day in 1941. I was apprehensive and scared as I waited my turn to be interviewed. I was twenty-one years old.
I had vowed that I would never apply for a job at G.E. for several reasons. I had heard that with thousands of people out of work during the depression, "job selling" became a vicious racket practiced by men in high places. If you had the money and made the right contact, you could purchase a job for about $300 which was a lot of money in those days. People had told me about this and said this was common knowledge and the "big shots" of the company knew about it. But shortly after 1936, the union had cooperated with the district attorney and the police department to expose this "job selling" racket. As a result, the G.E. Schenectady employment office manager was discovered to be the man behind the job selling. He was found guilty, sentenced to prison, and later discharged by the company. But I wondered "why did the company allow it to exist in the first place?"
During the past several years, I had attended discussions sponsored by the federal government at our high schools. I met men who were unemployed and asked them why they were not applying to G.E. since they were hiring. I was told that they were too old. In answer to my surprised question, they told me that they were over 21 and the company was only hiring males under 21 because they called them boys and they paid boys and women lower rates than they paid men.
Paying women lower wages also made me angry but since this was common practice and not against the law, there was not much I could do about it except decry such discrimination.
I also reminisced about how I did not want to go to work in G.E because I really wanted to go to college. But since my family could not afford to send either my brothers or my sister to college, I was forced to take the commercial course in high school so that I could support myself. I had also taken a key punch course in night school and worked for the state on a temporary basis during income tax time.
My sister had worked in one of the five and dime stores before she took the key punch course and finally landed a job in G.E. My older brother was working in the cafeteria in G.E. and my other brother was just hired to work in the factory.
When I graduated from high school with a commercial course I could not find a job. The only ones available were working for a family which meant live in and only have Sundays and one other day off. My brother had worked in a grocery store in the vegetable department and had than moved up to renting a concession in a meat market. I worked part time for him and then the store owner who ran the meat and grocery sections needed a "delivery man" who also worked in the store. I applied for the job and with some apprehension, he hired me. Some of his customers did not like the idea because I wore slacks and besides this was not the traditional "womens" job. The job was tiring because it seemed that all the customers lived on the second or third floors of the houses. After a while, they accepted me and even asked me to have a cup of coffee which I refused because I had other deliveries to make.
My brother and I then decided to become entrepreneurs and opened the "Brother and Sister Cash Market". We sold bakery, vegetables, and groceries. My brother's job was to get up at the crack of dawn and go to the farmer's market to buy vegetables and my job was to pick up delicious bakery from Scotia and bring it to the store for sale.
I remembered with a smile about our first day of operation. The bakery was hesitant to sell to us because we were so young. So to prove to them that we were reliable we decided to get orders for over 25 pies. We ended up with four times that amount. The bakery had to hire extra people to bake these pies and we worked overtime to deliver them. We didn't make any money on this deal, but we did prove that we were "reliable". We worked 7 days a week about 10 hours a day. I made $12 a week and gave home $10 for room and board. It was hard work, but we liked the idea that we were our own bosses. We were forced to close our store because of the difficulty of getting supplies because of shortages and the war clouds over Europe.
I was brought back to reality when I heard my name called and I went into the office of Mrs. Mary Holmes, personnel director. I handed her my application for a job in the factory.
Upon looking at my resume and seeing that I had worked as a key puncher for the state; that my diploma from high school was for the commercial course, which included shorthand and bookkeeping, Mrs. Holmes asked "why do you want a job in the factory with all of your background which would qualify you for a job in the office?" I told her that I had heard that people in the factory made more money on piece work than office workers. I was planning on going to college and the sooner I could raise the money, the sooner I would be able to realize this dream.
She tried to persuade me to reconsider. She said that there is a better class of people working in the office. Her statement did not surprise me because this reflected the "feelings in the community".
There was widespread discrimination. Words like "kikes," "wops," "chinks," "spics," "niggers," "polacks," and so on were common. Added to this was discrimination based on where you worked; the type of job you worked on; what education you had, and where you lived.
But the one discrimination that transcended all the above was the discrimination based on sex. Regardless of all other considerations, if you were a woman, you were to be discriminated against based on this fact alone. In many industries including G.E., married woman would not be hired and if she was employed and married she was asked to leave.
Polish people were changing their names by deleting the ending "ski" because of discrimination. Rumor was that if you were a Mason, you had a better chance of getting a job in G.E. I asked a Jewish classmate if she was going to apply for a job in G.E. and she said, "very few Jewish people are hired in G.E."
And, of course, a Negro was only considered for a job, if at all, to work as an elevator operator, sweeper, porter or on a lower paying, less desirable job.
We were brainwashed to believe that all Indians were bad people. That's the way they were portrayed in the "western movies". The best baby sitters on Saturdays were the local movie houses. For a nickel, a child could be entertained for several hours. Western movies were the most popular ones shown.
Also the history of Schenectady included the "burning of the stockade by the Indians". It wasn't until I became older that I understood the true story about how the Indians were used by the French and the English.
During my school days, I was exposed to many ethnic groups except Jews, Asians and Negroes. When I was in grade school, junior high and high school, my best friend was Italian. I went to school with her, played with her, and often ate at her home. Her family was very close and I couldn't understand how anyone could discriminate against Italians. Of course, being Polish, I resented the demeaning jokes that were told about us.
In high school, I was very active in sports and met girls of all nationalities and races as we played together on baseball, soccer, basketball teams, and other sports. Nationality, or race did not matter when a teammate scored a basket or a home run. But there still was a tendency to associate with your own kind after the games.
While in Mont Pleasant High School, I became friendly with a great gym teacher, Miss Julia Van Voast. She took me under her wing and taught me a lot. She taught me how to drive and I was happy to run errands for her. Mont Pleasant High School had great boys basketball and track teams. One of the track stars was an Indian, Ray Trail, and another was a Negro, Ernie Marshall. I thought the Indians and Negroes can't be all bad if they were represented by two such great guys as Ray and Ernie.
Ernie had to work after school to help support his family. Miss Van Voast asked me to drive him home after his workout. She even had me buy steaks for him so that he would be in top condition to run track. I was surprised and shocked when another teacher told me that I should never drive with a Negro sitting in the front seat with me. If I had to transport him, he should sit in the back. Miss Van Voast said "don't pay any attention to her. She comes from the south and this is how she was brought up." I was happy when I was given permission to drive Ernie home. This incident added to my hatred of discrimination.
* * * *
I answered Mrs. Holmes by saying that as far as I was concerned people were people. That just because circumstances forced them to live in a certain life style it didn't make them any less important than others. Realizing that my mind was made up, Mrs. Holmes signed my papers and instructed me to go first to the G.E. clinic for a physical and than report to building 89.
As I walked out of the door to the inside of the grounds of G.E., I thought that my father and my sister were not going to be happy because I was going to be a factory worker. I remembered how my father had refused me permission to work as a waitress during my summer vacations. I know he was going to ask me "Why can't you be like your sister and aspire to work in a job that you could be proud of?"
I glanced down the street and saw all the buildings on both sides and looked down a long avenue as far as the eye could see. I thought "wow, this avenue looks like the main street of a small city" As I walked past the buildings, I noticed the numbers on the buildings. To my right was an office building no. 5. This building was connected with an overhead enclosed walkway to another building.
I read the numbers of the buildings. On my right was buildings 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19. On my left were buildings no. 10, 12, 14, 16, 18. I noticed how the ground trembled as I walked in front of buildings 17 and 19. I later found out that these were the punch press buildings which contained big machines which the people called monsters. These machines were used to cut various shapes out of sheets of metal which were fed under big cutting jaws. The sheets of metal came in big sheets about 2 feet wide and only fractions of an inch thick. These sheets were covered with a thin film of oil so that they would move easily. Every time the top of the cutters came down it made a nerve-wracking noise which the operators had to endure during the 8 hours of work. To add to the unpleasantness of the job, with the noise and the oily surfaces, there was the isolation because the operators could not talk to anyone while they worked.
I had ridden on the street on the outside of the G.E. plant next to this building and felt the earth shake. But the noise inside the plant was much louder. I thought I am glad that I was not going to work in either of these buildings. I walked in front of building 41. Across the street was building 40. Another street next to a small park behind which was another building no. 50 and the cafeteria. On my right between the fire station a little back from the main street was the G.E. clinic. I went in and had a complete physical. After which I was told to go to my building and they would let my new boss know whether I had passed or not.
As I resumed my hike down the avenue I saw building 52 and the G.E. store on my left and building 60 and 69. There were a lot of little buildings behind these buildings. I got tired of keeping account of the numbers and continue until I finally came to building 89. I thought no wonder they call this the mother plant of the G.E. the electrical workshop of the world. It had so many buildings, miles of paved streets, its own fire department and police department. It really was a city within a city.
I walked into the building and was pleasantly surprised as I looked at my papers and saw that the boss I was going to report to was a woman. "This is great, imagine a woman boss in the factory. Maybe this won't be such a bad place to work in after all". As I walked down the aisle, I felt the eyes of all the workers following me. I noticed rows and rows of tables on both sides of the aisles. The workers were seated about 4 feet apart. And there were a lot of panels, parts and screws and nuts on the tables. Some women were working with a soldering iron, pliers and screw drivers.
I presented my papers to Anna B. as the people called her. She had a Polish name that some found hard to pronounce. She looked over my papers and called one of her leaders to show me where to hang my coat, where the ladies room was and where I would work. I was also taken to the tool crib where I had to sign for tools that I would be using.
My leader was a caring woman who was kind and patient as she explained the ropes to me. Stella was a widow with a 10 year old son whom she adored. Her husband had died several years ago. She had to go to work to support herself and her son. Stella and I later got to be good friends and she would join me and the other women when we went visiting, or to movies, crazy auctions, and other events.
I was told that I would be on piece work. My wages would depend upon whether or not I could produce enough pieces. I had a breaking-in period of 4 weeks to show that I could produce enough pieces to be kept on the job. During this 4 weeks, I would be guaranteed a minimum hourly wage, if I did not make more money on piece work.
The first job I had was monotonous and really tried my patience and perseverance. To break the monotony, I developed a game which I used every time I worked on piece work. I would check the price paid for each piece and calculate the amount of pieces I had to do in an hour to make the A.E.R. (Anticipated Earning Rate). This was the minimum a piece worker had to produce to be kept on piece work. Then
I would try to produce more pieces to make a percentage above the minimum.
The job involved forming wires on the top of a fixture. A set up man would set up pins in the proper holes and when a straight piece of wire was placed on the fixture, a handle was pulled toward the front and it would form the wires in the desired shape needed to be assembled.
To break the monotony, workers would talk to the person sitting next to them. Many beautiful friendships were made this way. Many inner thoughts, anxieties etc. were shared during the many hours of working.
* * *
In order to do the job, one had to understand and know how to read blue prints, wiring diagrams, schematic drawings, and instructions. As part of our breaking-in we were given a variety of different panels to work on utilizing all of these papers. Anna B's area was an area where people were trained and then moved out into different departments when they proved they could read directions, blue prints, wiring diagrams and work with soldering irons, pliers, screw drivers and other tools.
The other requirement was that the worker could make out on piece work. Each job had a minimum of pieces that had to be completed to make your money on piece work. I liked piece work because it gave me the opportunity to make more money than those people on day work. The number of pieces determined your earnings. Usually a piece worker would make a minimum of 15% above what a day worker would make.
My sister who worked in the office couldn't understand why I would go into the factory when I was qualified to work in a nice clean office. When I came home from work, she couldn't wait to confront me. "Let me see your hands," she asked. "I bet they are all cut up and bruised". She was shocked to see that they were the same as before. I had always liked working with my hands, keeping my car clean, changing the oil, working around the house, and the work I did in G.E. didn't affect my hands at all.
And after being on the job for a month, I compared checks with her and found that I was making as much money as she was with five years service in the office. This fact reinforced my decision to work in the factory.
Anna B's area worked on sub-assemblies for the building of transmitters. When workers were needed in other areas, they would be transferred. I slowly learned the ropes about piece work. Piece work rates were established by the timing of the job. I watched while such a time study took place. Before a job was to be timed, a good union shop steward would make sure that all conditions were normal. During these times, the company would conveniently have material handlers, porters and supervision to stand by. During regular working hours many of these people could not be found.
The rate setter used a special watch that recorded hundreds of a minute. He would keep track of the operations and write down the time for each operation. After a certain number of the operations was recorded and if there was no protest, the union and the company would negotiate the results.
Protests by the company might include accusations of workers intentionally stalling, working too slowly, or failing to follow instructions. Union objections were based on the worker being nervous or so concerned about making a good impression that he/she worked faster than normal. Some workers could not work at a normal pace while being timed because they are nervous. It isn't easy to work while someone is timing you because you know your time study will be used for all future prices on this particularly job.
Ideally the effort should be at normal pace or 100%. If this were so and the times seemed to be about the same for all operations there usually were no disagreement. However if the times were erratic, than the company wanted to take out the "slowest" times while the union representative would try to take out the "fastest" time. There were negotiations to everybody's satisfaction or the job was timed over either with the same person or with another person.
The company and the union had negotiated that ideally a job would be made standard within 6 months. In the meantime the company had the option of putting on a "temporary" rate. Or in certain cases, the workers would be paid their "average earnings" which they had established by previous earnings.
* * *
The world was shocked with the dastardly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This was the beginning of many changes at the plant. We were told that from now on to be ready to work all kinds of overtime. And the regular work week schedule would be seven days a week with only the second Sunday every two weeks off. The whole country was being put on a war alert and our servicemen needed supplies to fight the war. President Roosevelt declared war on Japan on December 7, 1941.
The windows of the factory were all painted black so that no light could be seen outside of the building. We never saw the sunshine. We were told that because of G.E., the American Locomotive Company, and the colleges in our area we were a likely target if the Japanese ever got over here.
Needless to say, I, like most people, was angry at this shameful action of December 7th at Pearl Harbor, and I knew that people on the home front would have to work harder to supply our troops with the much needed weapons and equipment needed to fight this war. The union, being very patriotic, signed a "no strike" pledge on December 23, 1941, despite opposition from some members.
Our group was one of the first to be moved to a huge building on Campbell Avenue. It had been the Weber Electrical Company and G.E. made arrangements to move its transmitter department there.
We were originally put on an unusual shift. We worked from 6 A.M. until 1 P.M. with no time off for lunch. I loved this shift because it gave me a lot of time out of the shop. We were in a big room all by ourselves in the beginning. It was cozy. We worked hard but there was less stress and noise than where we worked in the big factory.
For example, one day I brought in lollipops for everyone. Even our boss, Anna B., took one from me and as we were all sucking our lollipops while working when a group of big shots walked into the room. Anna B., upon seeing the surprised look on their eyes in seeing the lollipop in her mouth immediately took it out, apologized and disposed of it.
* * *
To break the monotony of working, we played games when time allowed. One day I took a few workers aside and told them to watch me. I told them. "I was going to pretend to yawn and asked them to do the same." I predicted that before long the whole area would be yawning.
Sure enough after several fake yawns by me and the partners in crime, the others started to yawn. It wasn't too long before the whole room was yawning. The original small group started to laugh and all others joined in and even playfully threw small nuts and screws at me.
Another time, I told this inner circle of workers that I wanted to try an experiment. We would choose a co-worker who came into work feeling fine and after we conducted our "game" she would not feel so well.
When our victim came in and greeted everyone with a cheery good morning, the first worker looked at her and asked whether she felt all right -- she looked awful. Where did it hurt? Well, after several people gave her the same story, the victim really doubted her well being and really looked ill. We finally let her in on the game and told her that she really looked good and that we were pulling her leg. She was much relieved but ready to kill us.
Another day we discussed how people have a tendency to embellish a story when they tell it to others. To prove my point I set up a situation. I took a few into my confidence and we started with a simple fact that one of the women had very hurt her finger very badly. She told a worker who was not in on the game and asked her to tell the next worker and pass it on. Before this experiment was over, the original hurt finger developed into a broken finger, then a broken wrist and than a broken arm. My point was proven.
* * *
After being in the shop about a month, I was asked to join the union. I said "no way". During my high school studies, unions were not held in high regard. Also my father had condemned unions because he said they were communistic. I also felt that the company would always treat a worker right if the person was a good worker and gave a good day's effort. I had been reading the derogatory criticism of unions in our local press and how unions collected a lot of money and were mishandling the money. Also, I wondered why, if the unions were so good, did they allow favoritism in the passing out of jobs. That was normal in my area.
I also was disturbed that discrimination against women was allowed and blamed the union until I started to read Local 301's newspaper. The union was fighting against discrimination not only against women and boys but also against Negroes. I read about the Local's initiating the fight for Equal Pay for Equal Work way back in 1936, that it was their consistent support of that principle that resulted in the highest women's rates of any UE local in the G.E. chain. In fact, in 1942, the National UE was the first or one of the first unions to adopt the Equal Pay for Equal Work principle.
I was happy when I read that Pope Leo XIII backed unions in 1939, and that the UE national officers--James Matles, Director of Organization, Julius Emspak, Secretary and James Carey, President denied being Communists.
I read that in 1940 Philomena Desienna ran for the executive board from Building 53. I thought this was great that women were allowed to run for leadership positions in the union.
Just after I had been hired, the union asked for 10 cents an hour and was turned down. I was very impressed to see that 5000 people attended a mass meeting at the hall. I also saw that they negotiated a contract they wanted.
In July of 1941, 1,862 new members joined. As of October 6, 1941 the local union had 18,000 members which shortly increased to 19,280. The union had 240 shop stewards. The local had 10,000 members and the National had 375,000 members.
Even though I had read all the newspapers, I was still apprehensive and still refused to join the union.
Selections from: CHAPTER 2: RECRUITED
During high school I had been involved in athletics. I loved to play basketball and softball. I became aware of the G. E. Athletic Association, and was pleased when I visited the club house and saw the great facility. The building included a basketball court, a bowling alley, an area where ping pong and billiards could be played. There was a library, lockers, showers, and a room where you could relax and meet before or after the sport you may be involved in. There was also a cafeteria.
The outside facility consisted of tennis courts, baseball courts, and a running track. I was very impressed and felt "Gee, G.E. really cares about its workers." This facility was mostly funded by the money made on the many vending machines in the plant.
I joined a softball team and a basketball team and met many women from throughout the plant. We became very good friends and these relationship lasted for many years. I use to go to the annual meetings. One day, Billy Mastrianni, an active union man, asked me to vote for him at the annual meeting since he wanted to get on the G.E.A.A. (General Electric Athletic Association) board of directors.
I was surprised and shocked when the election was held that I was nominated and elected. Billy was not.
I became a very active member of the board. I was the only factory woman on the board. There was a staff person who helped to arrange schedules and made sure that everything was handled right. Working with him, I organized not only internal but inter-work softball and basketball games. We also had a woman's bowling league. We hosted games between the Fitchberg, Pittsfield and Syracuse plants. I also organized "canning and baking" contests and was able to get Martha Brooks and another local radio celebrity to be the judges. We were all surprised when a man won the baking contest.
I was asked by the personnel director, Mrs.Holmes, if I would arrange meetings for women. A Mrs. Kisby was to be sent here from the war department to teach civilians about the dangers of syphilis or gonorrhea. This civilian effort was also aimed at preventing servicemen from getting infected when they came home on furlough. I had formed a women's club at the G.E.A.A. I was happy to arrange a series of lectures to be given by Mrs.Kisby.
Mrs. Kisby, who was sent here was very knowledgeable about the different kinds of liquors. One of her jobs was to check bars to see if they were diluting their liquors with water and overcharging their customers.
We had a favorite spaghetti restaurant. Many of the women would meet with Mrs.Kisby before the lectures. We had a great time. She told us how when a serviceman returned to his base and had contacted syphilis or gonorrhea he was asked who he had been with. Many would not even know the name of the woman or to protect the person would say "I don't know her name". But this was not good enough. The next question was describe her, when did you meet her?, Where did you meet her? This information was put together and before long this woman would receive a knock on the door and be taken care of by the armed services.
I was very concerned about the fact that there were so many women working in the plant who were naive and hadn't really been "out in the world" before. They were easily flattered by some of the male leeches. I asked at many meetings that a woman staff person be hired to plan programs for women so they would have a safe place to go to and have something positive to do in their spare time. I was ignored and finally on October 18, 1944 I handed in the following letter:
My dear Mr. Myers and the gentlemen of the G.E.A.A. board of directors.
At our last director's meeting, I mentioned the fact that I had some new business to discuss but because of the lateness of the hour and other business waiting to be discussed, I left with the promise that I would write it out and send it in. Well, here it is.
Please consider this as my letter of resignation as the woman factory representative on the G.E.A.A. board of directors effective at once. I would, however, greatly appreciate the privilege of being allowed to continue to handle Mrs.Kisby's lectures which will be over November 21.
In resigning may I state the following facts in all sincerity with the desire to really open up the G.E.A.A. for women..
In the first place, too little attention is given to the women employees of GE in relation to the clubhouse. I strongly recommend that equal representation be given to women on the board of directors in proportion to the number of women employees in the Schenectady GE Works.
Nothing I can say or have said apparently makes any impression as to the absolute necessity of securing a qualified and competent woman director for the clubhouse. This should have been done long ago even before this war emergency. I think I fully covered this issue in the letter I sent to Mr. Myers a short time ago.
As you all know, during the 9 months of my directorship, I attempted a great deal of diversified activities for women. On the whole, I can unbiasedly state that they were all successful considering the fact that I had only a limited time to devote to the activities and also the fact that the publicity angle doesn't help much. (I wrote the articles for the works news listing the meetings with Mrs. Kisby but had to use the terms "social diseases" instead of syphilis and gonorrhea). I know from my experience in these activities that there is much interest among the women employees and that a good director of women's activities in the clubhouse could do a swell job. But it is a 40 hour job and there is no getting away from it if there is a sincere desire on the company's part to really provide the women employees with a well planned and organized system of recreation.
I know that I cannot properly handle any future activities that may come up because I haven't the time in my spare time and I feel as though I have no right to expect my supervisors to be as lenient as they have been in the past in regard to the time I must spend in work not only answering telephone calls but also making contacts. It is with regret that I hand in this resignation but I feel that if I can not do a job well, I don't want to try to do it at all.
May I say in closing that I have enjoyed my short term as a member of the G.E.A.A. board of directors and I sincerely hope that the conditions I have brought out today will be alleviated in the very near futures.
* * *
In an article In the G. E. Works News, about the election of a new president, the following paragraph referred to me:
"Following the election, Helen Quirini, of C.A.P, who has given much of her time to the promotion of women's activities at the club, briefly reviewed the club's progress in furthering the women's program and presented movies taken at outstanding events held for women members during the past year."
Right after my letter of resignation was received, a member of the GEAA board of directors visited me at work and asked me to please reconsider. I asked if they were going to recommend hiring a woman director and upon receiving his negative answer told him I would not reconsider my resignation.
* * *
Thousands of UE members went to war. Those who stayed behind and together with other factory workers had the gigantic responsibility of supplying the forces of democracy with the weapons needed. Before too long several thousand people were working in Campbell Avenue.
I was transferred out of the "women's" area and placed on a job doing assembly on transmitters. This was a job formerly done by a man. I loved this job because it was not quite as monotonous, and required me to use my brain. I had to read diagrams and assembly instructions. I also moved around a lot instead of sitting in one spot. These transmitters were about 5 feet high and 2 feet wide by two feet. They were placed on pedestals and my job was to assemble transformers, capacitors, and other parts for the first operation. Then someone else did the next operation and another person did the next operation. We sat on little stools to perform our job..
One day as I was deeply engrossed in my work I felt the presence of a man standing watching me. I looked up and the gentleman introduced himself as Fred Jones. I thought "Wow this is the new Assistant Superintendent. What did I do wrong?" I stood up and he extended his hand. He called me by name and complimented me on being active in the G. E. A. A.
We talked for a few minutes and he moved on. He made "rounds" in the factory and talked to many people regularly. In subsequent talks I got brave enough to express some of my concerns. I criticized the suggestion committee and the way people were placed in jobs and the need for woman counselors throughout the plant because of the number of women in the plant.
In regard to suggestions, I told him it took forever to get answers on suggestions; the suggestions did not seem to to be properly investigated; that many suggestions, if adopted, could help our war effort; that if you were a boss's pet, you were more likely to get your suggestions adopted and paid more money. I further suggested that awards based on one year's savings was not fair. The payment should be based on the savings over the lifetime of the suggestion.
I told him that women had special problems that could affect their work but that they were reluctant to talk to male bosses about them. The problems could better be handled by a woman counselor.
He asked if I would be willing to talk to people about my ideas. Of course, I agreed. Several weeks later he greeted me with the news that he had set up appointments with the plant manager, Mr. Barney Tang, and the suggestion committee and with Mrs. Mary Holmes, head of personnel.
When he told me about this, I was skeptical. What was I getting myself into? Would my immediate bosses resent my going "above their heads"? Who did I think I was to be criticizing these top "big shots"? But I went home and collected documentation that I needed to back up my complaints.
I had handed in a several page suggestion about the way people were hired. I listed eight cases where people who had good skills were being put on jobs that ignored these skills -- such as the jeweler who was accustomed to working with small tools and was put on jobs required the use of heavy tools. And they were always looking for people who could work on jobs requiring working with small tools. His hands were swollen from using the heavy pliers. In another case, a music teacher, who certainly had skills of reading the fine details of music notation, was hired as a matron. Yet money was spent trying to train people who couldn't read blueprints, wiring diagrams, and other documents. And there was another case about the man who was a shortwave ham operator and had repaired radios. He should have been used in inspection or in some job requiring his knowledge. I emphasized that not only were the people unhappy in their jobs but the full utilization of their skills would help the war effort.
I also wrote in detail about the need for "woman counselors in personnel" throughout the plant so that women would have someone they could relate to when having problems. I pointed out that in Cambell Avenue there were about a thousand women. And with the proper counseling there might be less absenteeism and hopefully the women could produce more.
I met with Mrs. Holmes on September 27, 1943. As I entered her office, she greeted me with "I remember you, you were the person with office skills who insisted on going into the factory". I first thought she must have a good memory until I saw that she had my personnel file in front of her.
We met for several hours. She discussed each of my cases, justifying the placements. We also discussed the part of my suggestion dealing with woman counselors throughout the plant. I reiterated that with so many women in the plant that if they had a woman counselor to talk to maybe their problems could be solved and absenteeism would be reduced. She indicated that she did not think this was a good idea. Imagine my surprise when these counselors were appointed later, even though I never was paid for the idea. A Mrs. Simonds was appointed in Cambell Avenue. We became good friends and discussed how to make life easier for women workers.
But realizing that Mrs. Holmes was not going to approve my suggestion I said, "Mrs. Holmes, you are a busy person and I have work to do so thank you for your time." After exchanging pleasantries I left.
The next meeting was with the suggestion committee. I was flabbergasted when I saw the names of the men from top management who were on this committee. The plant manager, Mr. Barney Tang, was the chairman. They had my suggestions in front of them and we discussed them. I pointed out that it took almost a year before suggestions were answered, and that with the war some good ideas should be put into usage as soon as possible. I also complained that the cash awards were not fair. The amount of the award was calculated on the amount of money the idea would save in a year. I argued that the award should be based on the amount saved from the time adopted. I pointed out suggestions that had been rejected but later used which I had reopened to get paid for. I had suggestions that were adopted and paid for that were never used. There were other abuses of the system I listed.
They also thanked me. The time for answering suggestions was speeded up and many years latter, the method of paying for awards was liberalized. . . .
Selections from: CHAPTER 3: UNIONS
When there was a lack of work in your regular area, because of a shortage of material or parts or paper work, you were "farmed out" to whatever area had work.
During one of these times I was transferred to a "shipping job." The job involved working on a table 4 feet wide by 8 feet long. At one end of this table there were two pipes about 4 feet high which held a four foot pole across the width of the table that held huge rolls of shipping paper. New rolls were about two feet in diameter.
The job consisted of first pulling the paper to the full length of the table, putting the part on the paper and cutting the paper to fit the part. Heavy tape was used to keep this package together.
When the new roll was first put on the pipe, which was than put on the two supports, it was so heavy that a battery truck had to be used to put it in its place. When I pulled the paper onto the table, it required a great deal of physical effort. When the roll was new, I had to grab the paper from the sides, pull it to about 3/4 of the length of the table, and than placing myself in the middle of the four 4 foot width, I would brace myself at an angle so that I would have enough strength to pull the paper to the end.
After working on the job for a while, I found that I was so tired that I would go to bed as soon as I got home and sometimes didn't even want to eat. I didn't associate my fatigue with the job because I was a strong athletic person. It was a slow gradual building up of physical exhaustion
I remember stopping in to see Mrs. Simonds, the woman counselor, and starting to cry. I told her that I didn't know what my problem was because I was so tired all the time. Then my stomach area muscles hurt. I first resisted going to my doctor but finally the pain was so bad that I made an appointment to see him. He examined me and asked, " You have a great deal of tenderness in the area of the pain. What have you been doing differently which could cause this pain?"
It wasn't until I told him about changing jobs that it finally dawned on us that the job was creating this condition. He gave me a statement asking that I be taken off of the job. Which did happen, thank goodness.
In looking at the situation, I came up with a suggestion that the ends of the pole holding the paper be put on a ring of ball bearings so that it would not take so much energy to pull the paper. This was turned down.
* * *
One of the jobs assigned to me was sitting next to a stout woman who was a union shop steward. The job took several days and I was fascinated as I listened to her answer to my questions about the union. She had been around a long time and knew from firsthand experience of what she spoke. As we worked we exchanged ideas and I learned a lot.
She had an answer to the many criticisms I had about the union. She told me what it was like to work in the shop without a union. That even though there was much yet to be done and things were not perfect, at least there was the opportunity to speak up and have your complaints listened to.
She described conditions before the union--outright favoritism and a lack of equal justice for all. People had to brown-nose their supervisors in order to keep their jobs or get a fair shake on the jobs that were passed out. She spoke about how in one department the foreman sold a certain brand of automobiles on the side and how it was not coincidental that most of the people working in that division owned this brand of car.
She spoke about employees working on their bosses' camps or homes after work hours for no pay to remain in the boss's favor. In some incidents women had to put up with sexual advances and harassment by their bosses; and in order for women to keep their jobs, they would tolerate this behavior from their male bosses.
She spoke of the times when foremen were "God" and could fire anyone on the spot if the worker did something the foreman didn't like. The foreman had the power to give an employee three or four days off. He had unchallenged power. There was no such thing as seniority. The foreman could go out into the streets and hire someone to replace the worker. And once you were laid off, you were in trouble. The same divine right exercised by foremen in laying off employees was practiced on recall. Many people came back to the plant, day after day, month after month. Maybe they were finally put back on the payroll. This reemployment had no relationship whatsoever to seniority, their previous work assignment or their previous rate of pay. Those who were lucky enough to be rehired often found they were being treated as new employees. In some cases, the company deliberately kept "laid off" employees out longer than their service date, which automatically changed their status to new employee.
She answered questions about the "job selling" which had been allowed to exist in the company. She pointed out that this was the company's responsibility. G.E. allowed this to happen. She spoke of the union's role toward the elimination of this cruel practice of selling jobs for as much as $300, how it would take a new employee more than several months before he/she could earn enough to make up for this bribe.
She spoke of how the company would cut wages, give time off, eliminate vacations, fire people and other actions without the workers opportunity to protest. Employees wouldn't even be given any notice. When you received your pay that was the moment you were told that you were fired. There was no use complaining about it. G.E.'s decrees were law in those "good old days" before there was a real union. She recalled that in 1938 the company decided to put a wage cut into effect. Our union notified management that it would take all steps necessary to prevent this wage cut. Salaried workers were cut but the union members were not.
Before the union, management alone decided when and if an employee should receive merit wage increases. Foremen would withhold raises from thousands of long service employees who were clearly entitled to job rate raises. At the same time, favorite employees with less service, were rewarded with regular raises and job rate increases.
I asked "How could it be that favoritism still existed right here in Anna B's area? For example, those who brought in food and bakery for their leaders would get better jobs."
She said "This was hard to prove even though it seemed to be common knowledge. But there was no union member who was willing to sign a grievance about being affected by this unjust practice. If a worker asked me to file a grievance, I would gladly do it."
In regard to my questions about the criticisms of the union she replied "Don't believe everything you hear or read in the local press. Go to your union meetings and judge for yourself. Listen and ask questions. If you don't like the way things are being done, work to change it. This is a precious right but members must exercise this right. No one is going to do it for them. The union is only as strong as its members want it to be. It is easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize the union but the opportunity is there for members to take part. Get involved. If you find things you don't like, work to change them. First make sure that your facts are accurate. Then work for change."
She spoke glowingly of the fact that Local 301 had grown to 650 members out of a plant of 11,000 blue collar workers in 1935. But today in 1943 there were over 10,000 members out of a workforce of over 25,000 workers.
She explained that we had a very democratic union that really cared about the members. Procedures were to have a shop steward for about every 30 workers under a foreman. There were hundreds of shop stewards who handled thousands of grievances. Settlements of these grievances have already resulted in millions of dollars in the pay envelopes of union members. She also explained the process of electing the board of directors who each represented a certain number of shop stewards, and praised the democratic procedure for the election of the officers of the union.
I questioned her "Why does the union let the company get away with discrimination against women and males under the age of twenty-one?"
Her answer was that the union has grieved about this but to date have not been successful. It is an ongoing battle to end discrimination. She said "You were working here in 1941 when the union negotiated an agreement with the company which established the principle of equal pay with men when they do equal work. This agreement now gives the union the right to grieve about this discrimination".
And then I asked her the sixty-four dollar question. "Mary, are you a Communist? Are our officers Communists?"
She said "I was waiting for that one. No, I am not a Communist and as a matter of fact President Carey and other officers have denied being Communists." She angrily stated "This accusation is one of the most difficult to explain to all union workers. Red baiting has been used as a gimmick to keep people from joining unions for many years".
She continued "One of the most significant documents of our our union is our constitution. Our leaders were long-time union activists before the United Electrical Radio Machine Workers of America was chartered. They had seen what happened to people when they complained in some unions. So they wrote a constitution that guarantees everyone rights. All shop stewards, board members, and officers swear to uphold our constitution when they are sworn in".
She gave me a copy of the union's constitution which states" 'We, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers form an organization which entitles all workers in our industry on an industrial basis, and rank and file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed or political beliefs or affiliation to lawful organizations, and pursue at all times a policy of aggressive struggle to improve our conditions".
She said, "There is one word that you should be happy with -- 'sex'." All unions do not welcome women. As a matter of fact many unions only admit craftsmen. Our contract with the company does not include the word sex in the discrimination clause. And we must fight to get that word in the contract."
She gave me a printed history of the union (full text in the appendix 1). This extended conversation was quite an eye-opener. It was difficult for me to absorb all she had said.
I joined the union and attended union meetings and later was elected a shop steward and an officer. I was happy that we had had this important interchange of ideas.
I knew that without the union advocating for the end of discrimination against women and minorities the company would continue to treat some people as second class citizens.
* * *
I was asked to run for shop steward for a newly appointed woman boss. Before I accepted, I went up to the union headquarters. Sal Vottis, one of the officers who worked at the hall asked if he could help me. I told him that I was asked to be a shop steward and before I accepted I would like some questions answered.
He invited me into his office and, in answer to my requests showed me the books of the union. I wanted to find out what the Union did with all the money it collected each month.
The books revealed the many ways that the money was spent. Regular monthly allocations were sent to CIO, the National United Electrical & Radio Machine Workers of America, Districts Three and other organizations we belonged to.
He explained the monthly reports passed out at the membership meetings where anyone can ask questions. Also the annual audit that was conducted by the elected trustees.
The salaries of the office staff, the business agent, assistant business agents, and the janitor was another item. But the biggest amount was spent to reimburse the members, shop stewards, board members and officers for lost time involved in handling grievances and the running of the business of the union. The rent of the hall and equipment necessary to run such a big outfit also cost money.
I looked for any evidence that Communism was a factor in the information. I found none. Being satisfied with what I learned and feeling sure that I could answer questions from the membership about how the money was spent, I decided to agree to become a shop steward.
I did have some reservations because I knew my father was not going to approve and I worried that the company might retaliate against me for becoming active in the union.
The concern about retaliation by the company stayed with me until I retired. I never felt completely safe. When I purchased property, I made sure that there was a rental unit included. At times, I also had reservations about the union discriminating against me. Unfortunately, this concern had merit after some years of involvement in the union.
I also hesitated because I was basically a shy person who avoided controversy. But my desire to correct injustices overruled this feeling. I felt that any injustice would eventually affect me and if I could resolve the problem, I would also benefit.
When the newly appointed woman boss acknowledged my appointment, she told me, "I can get all the cigarettes I want." I told her "Number one, I don't smoke and two all you have to do is treat everyone fairly and live up to the contract and we would have little or no trouble."
I wish there had been more training for stewards and was pleased when many years later, the union did have classes for stewards and I was proud to be one of the teachers. I felt more secure when I learned about the Wagner Act and the protection of union members for union activities.
I didn't mind too much arguing with the foreman about a grievance because it was the way I could correct an injustice or resolve a problem. But I will never forget the first time I made out a written grievance. I called the board member and asked advice about whether the grievance was properly made out, the proper reference was made to the clauses in the contract, and of course get his signature on the grievance.
When it came time to give the grievance to my foreman, my palms were sweaty and I had butterflies in my stomach. I had been brought up to not bite the hand that feeds you and be glad that you have a job, and respect authority.
I handed the grievance to the foreman. I put the time on it and requested an answer within 24 hours. If there is no time on the grievance, the foreman can take his sweet time to answer it. After this ordeal was over and the guards didn't come in to take me away or the devil didn't appear, the next time I handed in a grievance these anxious feelings were lessened. I still had some qualms about this process especially if I happened to really like the foreman. I also discovered that the actions of a foreman are not necessarily his decisions.
Passing this hurdle, I had to get prepared for the next step which was in Building 41 the first level of union negotiations. The first time I had a case at this level, I got the same feeling of anxiety, sweaty palms, and butterflies in the stomach because I didn't know what to expect. I always thought that it would be great if the new stewards were allowed to attend a meeting in Building 41 to see the process even before they had a grievance to be handled there.
Then there was the third step where the union met with the plant manager. If the case could not be settled locally it was referred to the national level in New York City.
The first time I was involved in a case in New York City I again was apprehensive about speaking up. After all, the company top negotiators were there.
I had been part of a foursome of women shop stewards who were affected by the discriminating case around the Anticipated Earning Rates. The company treated women differently than men. The company representative was very insulting and really said in effect that women were second-class citizens. I was taken aback and hurt by his blatant remarks about women: that women only worked for pin money, they didn't need as much money as men who were heads of families, and they weren't smart enough to do the work that men did, the proper place for them was in the home.
I was sitting next to the business agent, Leo Jandreau. He argued for our side and waited for us women to join in. The company man finally said something that really made me mad. Leo bent over and asked "Are you going to stand for that? Answer him."
What he said that upset me was "My five year old son could do any of the jobs that women worked on."
I answered him "Mr. so-and-so, you know, I have a 3-year old nephew who could do your job. Because all you can do is say "No" and he can say that as good as you do." There was silence in the room and I was never afraid again to take on anyone with whom I was negotiating.
* * *
As more Negroes were hired in the factory, there were incidents that had to be handled by shop stewards. I was very surprised when a group of white women came to me and said they had a grievance, they did not want to use the same toilets as the Negro women, only they used the N word.
I looked at them in disgust and gave them a lecture about discrimination. How an injustice against anyone is an injustice against all of us. I told them to get out our union's constitution which prohibits discrimination against many groups, including because of race. I also told them that various directives from the Federal Government also prohibit any kind of discrimination.
My words fell on deaf ears. They said if I wouldn't handle the grievance they would go above my head, contact the union board member and go to union headquarters, if necessary. They said they had already gone to management but got no satisfaction.
I told them, "Be my guest." They angrily asked "What are we supposed to do if we don't want to use the same toilets as the Negro women?" I told them they could always go outside the building. But my position was firm. They did go above my head, but thank goodness they got the same answer wherever they went.
I thought about this incident when I was asked by the union to go to another building because the office women were refusing to use the same toilets as the factory women. The company was trying to accommodate the office women, but it would mean building more toilets which they did not intend to do.
I first talked to the factory women to get their side of the story. I asked about the toilets, whether they may be at fault by messing up the toilets more than the office workers. Their answers were that they are just as clean as the office workers except for their clothes. They wore long aprons over their regular clothes. But they said that they would take these aprons off when they went to the toilet.
I made up a written report stating that the office workers had no reason to refuse to use the same toilets. I thought this was another example of subtle discrimination that was inherent in Mrs. Holmes telling me that office workers were a better class of people. The perpetuating of this class distinction does a disservice to many good people. . . .
Selections from: CHAPTER 7: WOMEN AT WORK
Edna Bailey Miller was a tall, proud stately Negro. Her mother had told her since she was a little girl that her family came from "the best black blood in Virginia." When Edna first told me this I kiddingly asked, "Isn't your blood the same color as mine?" Her answer was, "You know what my mother meant."
Her father was Pastor of the Dyer Phelps African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Saratoga Springs. Edna had attended Howard University for several years majoring in playground recreation. While Commissioner of Girls Scouts in Sarataga Springs, she was told that if she had a college degree he Girl Scouts would hire her. Her younger brother graduated from high school and since her family could only afford one tuition, Edna had to leave college. She came home and enrolled in a Troy Business School. She also worked as secretary to her bishop.
In 1942, Edna applied at the Schenectady G.E. Works for a job. She like many others were bombarded with pleas to go to work in the factories because they were badly needed for the war effort. She was shocked when after reading her resume, which listed all her college and business school credits and her serving as secretary to her bishop, that the woman personnel director told her the only jobs open were as a sweeper or elevator operator.
She refused these jobs and pointed out to the director her office experience. The director said again, the only jobs open are as a sweeper or elevator operator. Edna left and applied several times but again was told that there were no other jobs available. She went home and continued her job as secretary to her bishop.
Then one day her mother was reading the newspaper and pointed out to Edna an article that said it was illegal for any company receiving federal grants to discriminate against minorities. She called the office of the Federal Employment Practices Commission and explained the situation. A man from this office came to visit her and gave her papers for her to get filled out by the General Electric Co.
Edna waited several weeks before she got the nerve to go back to the employment office. Some of her other Negro friends had taken sweeper jobs or elevator operator's jobs and told her she couldn't fight the General Electric Company.
As she walked into the office, the personnel director impatiently told her that there still were no openings other than what she had been offered.
Edna said "I hear you, but will you please sign the enclosed forms so that I can send them to the Federal Government?" The director became flustered after reading the papers and said "let me check and see if anything else has opened up." Edna remembered that the director had to go through several other doors because of security and everytime she went through the doors, bells would ring. It was quite noisy for a little while.
She finally came back and said "it so happens that there is a job in the factory." Edna was very disappointed. She felt that she was qualified for an office job but she sized up the situation and decided that she would have to take the factory job.
When she entered the building she was to work in, she had to walk down a long aisle to get to the foreman's office. It was the longest walk in her life. She said she knew how a convict feels as he walks down the aisle to be executed. The girls sitting behind the benches on both sides of the aisle poked each other to see the Negro lady walking by.
Upon greeting her, the boss said "you look terrible. What is the matter?" She told him how she felt and didn't know if she would stay. He talked her into staying and even asked if she had other friends who may be interested in working in the factory. She said that as a matter of fact there were several people in her car in the parking lot waiting to see how she made out. He urged her to tell them to apply at the personnel office -- that factory jobs were available.
Edna left but she was so unnerved that she waited two weeks before finally going to work. White girls wouldn't eat lunch with her and ignored her. But soon she became friendly with an Italian girl and a Jewish girl.
Saratoga Springs is 25 miles from the Schenectady G.E. plant and Edna had to get up at 5 a.m. to get dressed, eat and catch the bus. At night she didn't get home until about 2 hours after leaving work. It was dark when she went to work and dark when she came home. The bus would get stuck in the snow and slide off the road adding to the time that she had to spend going to and from work. She also had to walk 6 blocks from her home to the bus and 6 blocks from the bus to her home at night.
She often thought there must be a better life than this. One day while uptown on her lunch break, she saw a poster with Uncle Sam pointing a finger at her and the words "Uncle Sam Needs You". This was a recruiting poster for the Army.
She impulsively walked into the office and before she knew it she was sworn in to go to the Army. She said once you raise your hand and swear to go into the service there is no return. She went home and cried herself to sleep. She didn't tell her mother or her brother but her picture was in the paper with Skidmore College girls who had entered the service. Her mother was furious when she finally found out, but the die was cast.
As she packed up her belongings and was ready to leave G.E., she was pleasantly surprised when the girls presented her with a beautiful wrist watch. She couldn't believe it. Unfortunately it was stolen from her after she got in the service.
She went through basic training with many others but when she was assigned her regular unit, it was a segregated one. She remembers the discussions they had between the Damn Yankees and the Crackers as they called each other. This was when she found out the meaning of "Cracker." When slaves were reprimanded by being lashed with whips, the whips had several ropes at the end to which were also added small parts so that when the whip connected with the flesh of the slave it would crack.
Edna was promoted to Corporal. After D Day, she was told that she had to go to England. However others who had gone to England called her up and told her not to come. The conditions were awful and they didn't even have basic supplies such as soap and toilet paper. When she told her immediate commander that she did not want to go to England, the commander became very angry and said the Army didn't spend money on training you so that you can get out now.
Edna went over her commander's head and explained to the officer that she had a mother in the states and that she really didn't want to go overseas. She was convincing because he gave her permission to leave and before her commander knew it she was on her way home.
Edna had been home for several weeks when an employment officer at General Electric called to see if she wanted to continue working in GE. She then got rehired and continued her service with the company. After working in the factory for a time, she was injured in an automobile accident and was out for several months. Her medical records stated that she could never work in the factory again. She was offered a job in the office.
She was always offered only lower-rated jobs. She continued to speak out against discrimination, and many Negro women are treated better because of her advocacy.
In the beginning of this book, I wrote about widespread discrimination -- based on where you worked, your occupation, your education, where you lived, and so on. I remember attending a panel on discrimination which had an Irishman, an Italian, a Polish man and a Negro. The Irishman told about discrimination in this country and how the Irish were forced to do hard labor on the railroads and that there were the Shanty Irish and the Lace Curtain Irish; the Italian told about how they had a hard time finding anything but hard labor. The Polish man said they had to change their names and take the "ski"s off of their names if they wanted to be treated fairly. The Negro man said very simply: "All people have to do is look at me and I am automatically discriminated against."
I cringed when I realized the full impact of his words. And like women--where sex alone is the factor that leads people to discriminate against you, so too, it is with the Negro; color alone is grounds for discrimination.
I am proud to know Edna. We developed a beautiful friendship, I know that her courage in fighting discrimination as with so many other "salt of the earth" Negroes has made life better not only for her race but for anyone who is discriminated against.
Camille was a tall, slender Italian-American who was very proud of her ethnic background. She wore her hair combed straight back ending in a braided bun. Her mother had died suddenly right after twins were born. Her family consisted of her father, two boys, and five girls. Many teens during this time had to leave regular school to go to a continuation school part-time so that they could either work to help support the family or help in the home. Camille become one of this group of teens. She got a job at G.E. Her wages were necessary to supplement her family's income.
She never really had a childhood as most people do. She had to grow up in a hurry to assume the void left by her mother's death. This was not unusual. In many large families the oldest girl was expected be a mother's helper in the raising of the other siblings.
There was a lot of love in her family. Because of her influence, the family would gather for all holidays and join each other in the celebrations of birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and other occasions. She especially loved Christmas because the entire family participated in the preparation of the various fishes and other foods that are a part of her Italian tradition.
One of the nice things about working was the half hour we had for lunch. Many of us would eat lunch together and talk about our families and other thoughts that we wanted to share. Of course during the holidays we would talk about what we would be doing with our families. Camille would share with us the happy get-togethers that her family shared. We got to know each of her brothers and sisters as she talked about them. And later as we would visit each other's homes, we would meet them face to face.
She was most proud that her family stayed together. We knew it was her influence that kept her family together. And even after many of her brothers and sisters married and had children of their own, they still got together for holidays and other events.
When I first visited Camille in her home, I saw that it was like so many of the two-family homes in Schenectady that had been built when there was a great influx of workers hired by G.E. There was one flat on each one of two floors. Her flat had a 9-by-12 living room, a somewhat smaller dining room, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms that measured about 8 by 10 feet each.
Realizing that Camille's family consisted of one parent and six children, I asked "How did you manage in this house with the size of your family?" I was surprised when she answered "We took in a boarder who rented our living room."
This was a practice that many families had to resort to to survive. Many of the boarders were immigrants who had also come to the United States to get jobs with G.E.
When I met Camille, her father had also died. So she was really the head of the family. She was also one of the most supportive, vocal backers for fighting for the rights of workers. She was a steadying influence because I depended on her wisdom and advice as I carried out my duties as shop steward. Sometimes an issue would become very emotional and people didn't even want to wait until a grievance was filed to go through the system. They wanted to refuse to work or they wanted to walk out. Camille would advise me as the shop steward to, "Keep talking and see if you can't resolve this issue by mediation. You are smart; see if you can try one more time."
But if the time came and we could not resolve a hot issue or any other time when we voted to take some action, Camille was the first to lead the group in their protest.
There was one foreman who made our lives miserable, and I had filed many grievances against him to no avail. When I complained to the business agent about my problems with this foreman, I was told there is only one action that the company will recognize. He advised me to bring my whole group into Building 41 when the grievances against this foreman came up for discussion.
When I asked my shop mates to accompany me to Building 41 and back me, Camille was one of the first to lend her support. The others soon followed; the entire group agreed to go when the case came up. It was an unusual action, and the first time in all my time as shop steward that I had to resort to this strategy.
There were 13 women involved and when the time came for us to leave, two chickened out and said that they wouldn't come. Of course, I was very disappointed and the group was angry because the company would say that it was only some of us who were having trouble with this foreman. There was a lot of angry name-calling, the most polite being "brown-nosers," "scabs," and "sell-outs," aimed at the two people.
As we were being seated around the table and introduced to the company men, all of a sudden the door opened and there were the two women who had not joined us in the first place. I welcomed them and immediately asked if they had notified the foreman that they were leaving. On receiving their negative answer I told them to go to the telephone and call him and let him know where they were, otherwise he could give them a warning notice for leaving work.
I was taken aback when during the discussion, the company asked, "If this man is so bad, why did your group give him a Christmas present?" I had to think fast, because when the women talked about collecting for the Christmas present, I had argued against it. But they said other foremen were getting presents and it wouldn't look right if we bypassed him.
I said to the Company men, "Give these good people credit that they could forgive this man's actions at this most Holy of Holidays. Maybe deep in their hearts they were hopeful that he would see the error of his ways and change".
We won the case and the foreman was later moved out of the department. This was very unusual. I knew that my grievances were right to have the company take such actions.
Camille's advice became easy to understand when she would reminisce about the Company during the Depression. At one time, the company gave each family a ham or a turkey for Christmas.. And when there were deep layoffs, she and her brother were called in and told that only one in a family could be kept on the payroll. They decided that her brother would be the one and she took a layoff notice.
She was a faithful unionist and picketed whenever she was scheduled. Many strikers even spent more time at the union hall helping out. She was one of them. She was always around when needed and was a hard worker for the cause. Camille was one of the activists who fought for the end of sex discrimination. She attended the seminars, meetings, and rallies that were held to keep this cause alive. She also joined me when I started the YWCA Industrial Girl's Club and other groups of working women. We became an integral part of the YWCA in Schenectady.
There was a love and camaraderie that developed among us women. Many of us considered our co-workers as our extended family. I made many good friends of the people I worked with. Camille was one of them. We went out in the evening to movies, crazy auctions, parties, celebrations and other activities. We visited each other in our homes and camps. We got to know each other's families. We shared our joys, our sorrows, our successes, our failures, hopes and disappointments. We use to joke about the times we would hold a party just to arrange another party.
One day as I was working on my bench, Camille came over to me and standing next to me but with her back to the bench, she said, "Please keep working and don't look at me or I won't be able to talk to you without crying." She lit a cigarette and continued.
She told me that one of her sister's sons who was two years old had just been diagnosed as retarded. They thought this had happened because a doctor who had come to her home to give his older brother a shot said in passing, "As long as I am here, why not give his brother a shot too?' She shared with me the agony the family was going through and how her sister was searching for help in her dilemma but that there did not seem to be much help in the community. She than walked away leaving me teary-eyed as I thought of this tragedy that had befallen her family.
Camille was owner of a camp at Old Orchard Beach in Maine and looked forward each year to relaxing at this popular resort. She would invite some of us to her camp. We enjoyed each other's company as we basked in the sun, swam in the ocean, ate sea-food, walked around town, and went to carnival-like events around town. We really enjoyed ourselves as we shared our love with each other.
One of the many qualities I liked about Camille was her attitude about discrimination. As our circle of friends enlarged and we met other people, we made friends with Edna Miller who was a Negro. Camille included Edna in invitations to her camp and her home. She told us that some of her neighbors at both places didn't like the idea that she had invited Edna to be included with the rest of us. She told them it was none of their business and that she would invite anyone she wanted regardless of their disapproval.
One weekend, I had driven Edna and a couple of her "fresh air kids" to Camille's camp. One evening after supper, we sat on the long screened in porch that covered the length of the camp. The kids and Edna started singing hymns, gospel songs, and spirituals. As they picked up the beat and rocked these beautiful songs, neighbors came out of their camps and asked if they could come in to hear the concert. It was a great never-to-be-forgotten evening. The people forgot about their reservations and soon were joining in singing.
During one of the meetings at the YWCA, the subject of discrimination came up. We had been friends for a while so we felt secure about really sharing our feelings. Some of us were very frank and told Edna that they had been afraid of Negroes because of all the newspaper articles and media coverage. Edna lamented that the media was responsible for helping to create this false impression. She said that this attitude also was responsible for Negroes not being able to get jobs, to live where they wanted to, and other expressions of discrimination.
The women said that they wouldn't mind if a Negro doctor or lawyer or teacher wanted to move into their neighborhood. Edna asked, "What about me, just a factory worker?" The usual answer when Edna asked was "Oh, Edna, you are different. Of course, we wouldn't mind your living in our neighborhood." Edna countered with, "I am not different from others. You just say this because you got to know me." We all were educated that day.
Camille said she was afraid of Chinese people. When asked why, her answer was: she went to the FuManChu movies that were the rage at this time; that she listened to radio programs that portrayed Chinese people as gangsters, with knives between their teeth; that they had dope dens, and secret passages under their houses, and sold girls into slavery.
The real shocker was when one of the women said, "I am afraid of Italians." Camille was shocked and said, "For goodness' sake, what makes you afraid of us?" The woman replied, "Oh, I didn't mean you, Camille, I mean other Italians." Camille asked, "What other Italians?" The answer was, "You know, I am afraid of Italians because of the Mafia and how they are gangsters and always killing people." Camille asked, "What about all of us ordinary salt-of-the-earth people who happen to be Italian?"
It was an evening we would never forget. It really made us stop to think about how stupid discrimination is and how the media's portraying of people really influenced and perpetuated discrimination and that when we get to really know people of different races and nationalities, we will accept people based on who they are not what race or nationality they are. We were all a lot more tolerant after this frank interchange.
Judy was a very shy person. She never offered an opinion unless asked to do so. If you stepped on her toe she probably wouldn't even say "ouch". She would usually follow the rest of the crowd. She was not a fast worker so she made less money than the rest of us. When others talked about their families, she was always quiet. Since she was so quiet and introverted, the rest of the people left her alone. She didn't have many different clothes but the ones she had were clean. She joined some of the women as we formed a club at the YWCA called the Vigorettes. We met every other week and exercised, swam, and than shared refreshments and speakers.
Being a smaller group, we paid a little more attention to her. We knew that her father had passed on recently and that she was the main support of her mother. The group decided to do something for Judy. Her hair was too long and she really needed a hair cut and a permanent. We chipped in and collected enough money and gave it to her with the expressed suggestion that she get a permanent.
Judy was a little embarrassed when we gave her the money but she graciously accepted it. One day as I was sitting next to her, she again expressed her gratitude to me for the gift. Our discussion continued and centered on her financial status. We discussed our incomes and expenses, and I was shocked when she told me that she had a brother who was in a mental institution in Poughkeepsie and she was sending in a weekly amount to help pay for his expenses. I asked her why she had to contribute. She told me that her father had started a while ago to pay toward her brother's keep and she just kept it up. I explained that when her father was alive, there were two incomes coming into the house -- hers and his, and now there is only one. She said she was afraid not to send the money because she was concerned that her brother would not be treated right.
I suggested to her that she write to the place where she is sending the money and explain that she is the only support for her mother and that it is a hardship for her to continue to send the money. I was elated when a week later she came in and with tears in her eyes, thanked me for suggesting to her that she send the letter. The authorities wrote and told her that she didn't have to send money and assured her that her brother's treatment would not suffer because of her not sending money.
After a few weeks, Judy still did not get her permanent so one day as we were walking out together, I asked her why she still did not get the permanent. She said that she was seriously considering giving the money to the nuns. I told her angrily that the money was for a permanent and the nuns would be disappointed if she didn't spend the money for that purpose. I softened my anger by stating that besides the Nuns probably would not take the money anyway. I was happy when she finally got her permanent. She really was a pretty woman and the permanent enhanced her looks.
Sometimes I would entertain the members of the YW club at my home. I had a player-piano and we enjoyed sharing a meal and then singing good old player piano tunes. One day Judy and I were put on the same job again and she hesitantly, very emotionally asked me if I ever wondered why she never asked the women to come to her house. She said that most of the other women had at one time or another entertained the group in their homes. I stated that I never thought about it and since I had the room and I was the landlady and we could make as much noise as we wanted, I was happy to hold the meetings at my home.
She asked me to agree to keep the secret that she was going to share with me. She said she had wanted to share it with me for a long time but she didn't know what my reaction was going to be.
My reply was, "Try me." She said she was embarrassed by what she was going to tell me. I waited until she composed herself and then she told me that besides her mother she also had two retarded brothers living in the upper flat of her home. They never left the house. She had to support them, including buying them cigarettes. She and her parents were ashamed that not only one brother was in a mental institution but also there were two retarded other brothers. They had been the recipients of ignorant neighbor's remarks about their mentally ill brother and so didn't acknowledge the two retarded brothers.
She waited for my reaction. I told her that it wasn't her fault or her parent's fault that the brothers were retarded, that it was too bad that these men had to be kept in the house and never had the opportunity to meet with others or go into the outside world. I reminded her about Camille's retarded nephew and how her entire family were involved in trying to get help for that young child. Now the boy's mother is part of a group of people advocating for a facility for retarded children.
Judy said that was great and she wished Camille and her family a lot of luck, but there was no hope for her brothers who were in their thirties. Her father insisted that they be kept upstairs and now that he was gone, her mother still wanted to keep the status quo and she probably wouldn't even like it that she had told me. I told her that her secret was safe with me and if there was anything I could do to let me know.
Judy came into work one day and she looked very happy. Her priest had introduced her to a middle-aged parishioner. He also was taking care of his sick mother. Judy's mother developed sugar diabetes and had to have parts of her leg amputated at various stages. Even though Judy had another brother who was not retarded and also worked in GE, the main part of caring for her mother fell on Judy.
As her mother became progressively sicker, Judy ran into trouble because she was always late. We had a good boss but he had to explain tardiness and his bosses wanted to know what he was going to do about this tardiness. As Judy's shop steward, I urged him to hold off temporarily giving her a warning notice. He agreed and in a short time, Judy's mother passed on.
Several weeks after her mother's funeral, Judy came in and was very distraught. I asked why she was so troubled. She started to cry and I told the boss I was going to take her into the ladies room because all the other workers had stopped working and were watching her. The boss told all the other workers to get back to work and told me to let him know if he could be any help.
Between deep sobs, Judy told me that her gentleman friend had asked her to marry him with the provision that she did something about her brothers. She said she had promised her mother on her death bed that she would always take care of her brothers. I told her that she had been a good daughter all her life, sacrificing for her family and that she deserved some happiness now; though she had agreed to take care of her brothers, maybe there was a better way to handle the situation than keeping her brothers as prisoners in the house. I suggested that we talk to our boss. Since we both had a great deal of confidence in him, she agreed.
I told her to wash her face and dry her eyes, and I would arrange for the boss and her and me to meet in a small conference room.
We met in the small conference room with the foreman. I told Judy to tell her foreman why she was crying. She started, and then the tears began again; I had to continue her tale. After the story was ended, the foreman also told her that she had been a good daughter, that it was unfair of her mother to expect that she would spend the rest of her life sacrificing her own happiness to take care of her brothers.
We finally came up with the suggestion that she talk to counselors from one of the United Way agencies. We told her to dry her eyes and finish the day's work. The foreman said he would call up one of the agencies and see if he could make an appointment for her. We went back to work and the foreman was able to make the appointment for her to meet right after work.
I wondered what the solution could be. Did we dare to come out and tell her that she should not pay attention to that death bed promise? I anxiously awaited the next morning to find out what she would do about her dilemma. I searched her face as she went up to punch her card and was encouraged to see she was a little more relaxed than she had been the day before.
I again asked the foreman to meet with us in the small room. She seemed relieved when she told us what the counselor had advised. Her promise to her mother was to take care of her brothers. There were several ways to do that. One was to continue the status quo. Another was to have her brothers taken away and put in an institution where they would be evaluated to determine what their full potential might be. Were they totally dependent or could they function in some way in society? It was cruel to keep them as prisoners.
She had to give her permission to allow this to happen. She told us that she had discussed the last solution with her gentleman friend and her brother who also worked in GE. After hours of exploring the possibilities, it was decided that her brother and she would sign the papers to have their other brothers removed from their upstairs flat – their home for so many years. She said that she would be told when the removal would happen and she told the boss that she expected to have to lose a day's work when this took place. Several days later she told us that the event was scheduled to take place the next day.
She was very nervous about her decision, hoping that it was the right one and that her mother would understand that it was the right one for her sons. She said that she wouldn't be in the next day. We wished her well.
We were surprised the next day to see her come into work. I rushed up to her and asked, "What happened? Why wasn't she home? Had they postponed the removal of her brothers?"
She said that they came yesterday and when she got home the brothers were gone. She didn't elaborate any further but one of the women who lived on the same street told us that her brothers had cried and fought while being taken out of the house. They had to be subdued and put in straight jackets before they could be put into a special van. It took several men to handle them.
We told her to keep us informed. She said she wasn't making any plans for getting married until she found out the status of her brothers. About a week later, she came in and told us that her brothers were taken to an institution in our state and she and her brother had gone to visit them. They seemed to be all right. They were not accustomed to meeting with other men but were slowly opening up and becoming part of the group. They were having regular sessions with the social workers and had been evaluated. One of the brothers was less retarded then the other and he was being taught how to wash dishes with the hopes that he could eventually get a job on the outside and live independently.
About a month later, she came in and said that her brothers were now much happier in their new surroundings with others to talk to and that they had a whole new world that opened up for them. They were no longer mad at her.
She proceeded to make arrangements for her wedding. One brother did improve to the degree that he was now working in an restaurant as a dish washer and was living in a controlled housing unit on the outside.
When someone was to be married, most of their co-workers would arrange to go to the wedding. In this case a special effort was made by the workers and she had a big crowd to share in her wedding celebration and wish her years of happiness. She deserved it after all the years of sacrifice and being a good daughter. After her father's death, she had continued to care for her mother not only financially but caring for her physical and mental needs as she suffered from sugar diabetes, and last but certainly not least, supporting her two retarded brothers.
Ms. Quirini's full memoirs are available directly from her. Her address is: Helen Quirini, 2917 Hamburg St., Schenectady, New York, 12303 USA.
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