The Glove Cutters' Strike of 1914An Account by Herbert M. Engel The following account (one chapter) comes from Herbert M. Engel's Shtetl in the Adirondacks: The Story of Gloversville and Its Jews (1991). It is reprinted here (though not in its original appearance) with the permission of the author and publisher. The entire work is available from the Purple Mountain Press, Fleischmanns, NY 12430-0378, phone: 1-800-325-2665. Our thanks to Mr. Engel and Mr. Wray Rominger, owner of Purple Mountain Press.
Text Note: Engel's footnotes have been moved into the main text and are bracketed. They are marked with asterisks and remain in a black font color.
Jacob Adler & Co. Glove Factory in Gloversville
A Bitter Year
THE YEAR 1914 was one of those that millions of humans would have wished, through a miracle, had been skipped over. Certainly, it began as a bad year for Lucius Littauer; it would end as a catastrophe for Gloversville's cutters. For Europeans, 1914 meant the outbreak of a war that, like a celestial black hole, sucked in all the great powers and ultimately much of the world. For Littauer, 1914 commenced disastrously as he stood before the court, a convicted felon, listening to the judge's harsh (and accurate) tongue lashing:
If any distinction [in severity of punishment] is to be made, it appears to me that it should be in favor of an uneducated person. For an ex-Congressman so far to forget his oath taken five times and knowing so well the provisions of the law he helped to frame seems to be incomprehensible.
Back in 1902, Littauer's imaginative mind was drawn to the need for a measure of unity and discipline among his fellow glove industrialists. From Littauer's viewpoint, it became obvious that the cutters possessed too much clout, especially since their successful 1897 strike. The reader is reminded that the large-scale production of fine gloves in Fulton County generally coincided with the enactment of the 1890 McKinley Tariff. Soon thereafter, the manufacturers established piece-work rates for the expensive table-cut varieties. The high tariff served to encourage some European-based manufacturers to transfer parts of their operation to Gloversville, in order to maintain their hold on their American market. One may speculate that initial wage rates for cutting were based on the experience of the "going" European rates, as converted into American dollars.
Three years later, in 1893, during the second Cleveland (Democratic) administration, the glove tariff was reduced by about ten percent. The manufacturers then alleged that European competition could not be excluded from the American market unless the cutters took a comparable wage reduction. They agreed, reluctantly accepting the promise that a Republican victory in the upcoming 1896 presidential election would soon lead to a removal of the ten percent duty cut; then, the cutters' wage rates would also go back to where they had been before 1893. Yet, among the cutters, an erosion of trust was building relative to management's promises of "what was to be." To ensure future fair treatment, the need for a cutter's union seemed obvious. In those turbulent days, with large segments of American labor in revolt, unions and unionism were not universally recognized as dirty words, but rather as sine qua nons, for protection against greedy, unfeeling industrialists.
The years immediately prior to the historic 1896 McKinley-Bryan contest witnessed numerous examples of workingmen - and farmers revolting against the economic and political power of the wealthy. Not infrequently these struggles involved lethal weapons, as in the Homestead, Pennsylvania battles between locked out workers at Andrew Carnegie's steel mill and the plant's "Pinkertons." The economic panic of 1893 had fanned the discontent. Eugene V. Debs, later the perennial Socialist candidate for President, came to prominence when he, as leader of the Chicago Pullman strike, went to prison for failing to obey a judge's injunction.
The political features of the nation's unrest were fought out during the Bryan-McKinley race. The Democratic, populist positions of "free silver," lower tariffs, an income tax and the strong objection to "government by injunction" came up against Republican big business arguments for stability through a gold standard, high tariffs and opposition to any tax on incomes.
The election results were close: a McKinley margin of only 286,251 out of nearly fourteen million popular votes. New York State, in those days strongly Republican controlled, provided the winner with a victory margin of over three hundred thousand votes. As is often the case, the electoral vote was not as tight: 271 to 176, provided primarily by the big Northeastern states.
Fulton County, of course, went heavily Republican. Many cutters sympathized with Bryan's objectives, yet they voted Republican out of fear as to what the Democrats would do to the glove tariff rates. All knew that low tariffs meant a cut in pay and even no work. Newly arriving cutters from Eastern Europe were quickly schooled in the facts of life about citizenship, which provided the right to vote; then, how to vote and why.
As predicted, McKinley's victory soon led to the reimposition of the original import duty rates on gloves. Although the excuse for forcing the cutters to accept the 1893 wage reduction had now disappeared, the factory owners refused to provide the restoration. But unionized and better organized than the bosses, the cutters managed during 1897 to win back their former pay rates. This effort required a tough, eleven-week strike, though in that era of contentious labor-management relations, it was nonetheless seen as a great union victory. Gaining a closed shop became the union's next goal.
For Lucius Littauer, storm signals were snapping. Fulton County labor, perceived as a commodity by Republican stalwarts, no longer seemed to understand its proper, respectful role.
Society's foundations were being undermined, and labor, infected with alien ideas, needed to be taught a lesson.
In 1903, Littauer determined that his newly formed Association must exhibit an active rather than reactive posture. Thus, when the union struck for a closed shop, an Association lockout, lasting from just before Christmas 1903 to the end of the following June, was put in place. It affected all cutters who failed to sign individualized contracts, binding each to accept an open (non-union) shop. Although these "contracts" were but a variation of the infamous "yellow dog" variety, the union members' resistance proved ineffectual against the economic strength of Littauer's Association. [*Not every manufacturer belonged to the Association. However, when a crisis occurred, involving the total industry, the non-Association Shops consulted with one another. Their major decisions do not appear to have deviated from those set by the Association.] It became a matter of not working and starving, or abandoning the union and eating. Bitter in defeat, the men returned to their cutting tables, earning the same rates paid in 1890. Thus for ten years, from July 1904 to August 1914, an uneasy peace reigned. Wage rates held at the 1890 figure, except for "Minor adjustments and equalizations."
By 1914 the number of weeks of available work had increased somewhat, but so had the cost of living.
During the intervening years individual cutters and groups petitioned ("begged" would be a suitable synonym) their bosses for wage increases, to help keep pace with the increasing cost of living. In each case the cutters were told "by officials of the Manufacturers Association ... that the time . . was inopportune." By 1913, this response seemed partially accurate, since once again, the tariff had emerged as a worrisome issue. In 1912, the Bull Moose party, led by Littauer's old friend, Teddy Roosevelt, had splintered the GOP ranks and Woodrow Wilson was now President. Under Wilson, the Democrats produced the Underwood schedule, cutting glove tariff rates. Gloversville was unhappy; the cutters grumbled, yet they realized that for the moment their frustrations could not be acted on.
To back up a bit: We know from State Labor Department records that following the 1903-04 strike-lockout, the typical cutter's daily average pay was thirty-three cents less than that of a male laundry worker, $1.97 against $2.30. Even the lower social status boot and shoe workers were taking home seven cents per day more. Ten years later the cutters' daily average had risen to $2.26 for a full six days of labor, or $2.48 if a man was fast enough to be able to "knock off " at noon on Saturday.
The relatively slight increase proved insufficient to compensate for the commensurate growth in the cost of living. In 1890, chuck roast retailed for slightly less than twelve and a half cents a pound. By 1914 its price had nearly doubled. Butter prices rose ten cents during the same period, and other commodities showed comparable increases, except for sugar, which dipped slightly. The New York Federal Reserve Bank used 1913 as its base year, and assigned the figure of 100 for the overall cost of living. By comparison, 1891 showed as 76.
Cutters with families - Jew and gentile - survived somehow because their wives worked on gloves at home, even as households were managed under conditions which can only be described as primitive in terms of present-day standards. The women's arbeit concentrated on glove assembly: hand or machine sewing, embroidery, trimming and hemming.* No women, as far as I know, ever cut leather.
Cutters, desperate for more income, often sneaked work home. This "on-the-sly" activity appears to have been managed with the foreman's connivance and the tacit support of the shop owners. So that the other men would not know though perhaps they, too, were engaged in the same practice, leather was taken out under a coat or wrapped in an apron. Thus, three or four hours of additional labor became available to men who had pulled and cut leather from eight (or earlier) to six.
The electric light bulbs used seventy-five years ago, while long-lasting, tended to cast a yellowish glow. Therefore, when the seasons failed to offer sufficient natural light, the night work concentrated on either white or black skins. For fine gloves, which might be sold at Saks Fifth Avenue or B. Altman's, the matching of shades of color was impossible under artificial lamps.
For ten years the old union remained moribund. Dead, but never laid to rest. More frequently than ever, the old timers discussed its resurrection. New York City's Yiddish press, read by many cutters, described great events in the city's needle trades. A 1909 general strike brought twenty thousand women out on the picket line. In Gloversville this astonishing news elicited comments such as, "Think of it! Girls on a picket line!" A year later sixty thousand cloak makers went out. Facing them were "Jewish thugs," hired by manufacturers as strike breakers. But the strikers held fast, and then, by a miracle, three of America's most prominent Jews, Louis MarshalL Jacob Schiff, and Louis Brandeis, intervened as mediators to affect an acceptable settlement.
In ours shtetl, wistful dreams continually collapsed in the dismal truth: "How wonderful it would be if what happened in New York could also happen in Gloversville" had to face the realism of apportioning the cutter's meager weekly pay to meet the rent, food, clothing and medical care. One Saturday, [*Jews, of course, worked on Shabbat. Food for family or "davening" at Knesseth Israel were the options.] a cutter named Abramowitz, employed by Dempster and Place (owned by Abe Lehr), looked into his pay envelope and exclaimed:
"By God! I am going to see Mr. Lehr!"
The other cutters, drawn by Abramowitz's proclamation, were surprised. (Perhaps Abramowitz was ordinarily a shy, passive person.) One asked:
"So why do you want to see Lehr? Are you short in your pay?"
"No, I'm not," snapped Abramowitz, "but I want to make him a proposition."
Silence! The other cutters awaited Abramowitz's "proposition."
"I can't get along with these wages [because] just as quick as I go. . and pay everybody, I have nothing left. I . . make him (Lehr) a proposition to work six days in the week if he will pay my grocery bill and meat bill, and I will be perfectly satisfied." Then Abramowitz paused. His proposition had only been his expression of sarcastic anger. Abramowitz's real feelings, stated in the best English he could muster, were as follows: "We are not anymore slaves, but free men, and [are] not entitled to starve to death as free men."
Post World War II studies, by managerial psychologists, show that in our present world, money, per se, fails to rank as the most significant factor in employee motivation. But in the workaday of yesteryear, when one's existence and that of the family hung in the balance, and the next day's bread depended on coins on the table, money automatically ranked higher than those considerations which make many of us tick today. In the end, I suspect that money almost always took higher precedence than "group acceptance" or receiving praise for a job well done.*
[*I also suspect that the cutter might have thought his foremen to be a bit of a peculiar "meshugine," had the latter offered an occasional accolade for how a lot had been completed.]
Money helps one meet physiological and safety "needs," and these outrank the ego-based pleasures of "socialization" and feelings of "belonging." The lack of what seems fair, as proper recompense, fires up the coals of dissatisfaction. A raise in wages does not make one "satisfied," only less dissatisfied. Therefore, had a poll been taken of cutter's needs in early 1914, an almost unanimous response would have been: "We must have adequate money for what we do."
At the Passover Seder, a familiar family recitation lists the many reasons why Jews should be thankful to God for His blessings and help during the Exodus from Egypt. In the cold dampness of early March 1914, the observant cutter, on his way to work, could have contemplated this devotional declaration. Then, as he neared the shop, were he to match the prayer's pleasant form and inspirational structure against his world of work, he would have found himself repelled by the perverse realities of fife. His silent declamation might have been the following:
It's not bad enough that I can't bring home enough gelt to feed and clothe my wife and children, but in addition, dear God, I see nothing in the future that can make life get better. You have inflicted me with the misfortune of working for a foreman who is a ganef, who expects "tips" out of my meager earnings - otherwise, he'll give me dreck. On top of everything else, the big boss - the wealthy Deutcher - has hired a "taxer" who can punish me with a fine, if I can't cut as many pair as he, the taxer, decides. Lord in heaven! This is living? Even in Egypt, you made it possible for the children of Israel to seek a way out!
In truth, a cutting room foreman's one-on-one relationship with his men could, in some shops, be peaceful, polite, and even professional. More often, confrontation and arguments between cutters and foreman became the accepted routine. The foreman held the power especially when work was slow, and could retaliate against "troublemakers" through the selection of inferior skins. Or, cutter might be "shorted," so that valuable working time was wasted looking for matching "scraps" to produce a sufficient number of fittings such as thumbs and fourchettes. After 1890, as the foreman's job gradually developed, his major responsibilities consisted of selecting the skins to be cut, ticketing and handing out the work, checking the complete job, and sending the records down to the bookkeeper who prepare the pay envelopes. Following the 1903-04 strike-lockout, the manufacturers decided that the foreman take on an important added function. Claiming that excess amounts of leather were being wasted by incompetent cutters, the foreman was charged with "estimating" how many pair a cutter should be able to "get," or produce, from an assigned lot of skins. Cutters whose completed work failed to measure up to the foreman's estimate became subject to discipline, usually a warning followed by a monetary fine, subtracted from the pay envelope for repeat offenses.
In terms of today's English, an odd term became attached to the complex process of foreman-estimating tied to cutter penalization whenever the latter could not meet the estimate. "To tax" became the verb; "taxing" or "taxation," the noun. [*One source suggests that the practice developed among the European glove manufacturers in order to meet the impediments of the American tariff.] Either by owner intent or probably through insensitivity, the language conveyed a pejorative deprecatory, connotation. Leather "taxation" attempted to solve the owners' problems in leather control through the imposition of a heavy handed treatment on all cutters. The careful conscientious craftsman was equated with the "butcher." [*When they assembled cut leather into gloves, the women sewing machine operators readily identified the workmanship of the effective cutter. The butcher’s work could be recognized without looking at the job ticket listing his name.]
Management's delegation of authority to foremen, as leather estimators, ultimately led to serious abuses and profound worker discontent. Because management's prime concern centered on production results plus timely and profitable sales, the foreman tended to function fairly free of hands-on supervision. His powers expanded as management's interests were directed away from the cutting room floor. For instance, at the "Bacmo" plant, [*The Bachner, Moses, Louis Company (later changed to Bacmo, Louis, Postman).] management conceded its ignorance about its foreman accepting graft from cutters in the form of cash and gifts. The average graft-giving cutter, who could ill-afford to part with any money or gratuity, probably felt pressured by a psychological shakedown: "It's better to give a little, and then receive a liberal taxing estimate than to be straight-laced and get into an argument, ending up with tsoriis." In the case of the Bacmo plant, management "stopped the system" by designating a separate taxer, who did not directly distribute the leather to the cutters. Records do not show whether the offending foreman was ever punished.
Another abrasive point concerned procedures used in the tax "collection." Cutters related that in some shops [*One report cited the Louis Meyers factory.] money was removed from the offending cutter's pay envelope after signing off for his payment. These monies "[did] not show on the books." Just how these "off-the books" funds were later disposed of remains unclear, though one can infer that the taxes may have ended up in the foreman's pocket. In summary, we see cutters putting in long work days for low wages, faced with what they felt were unfair penalties, compounded by the foreman's power and arrogance, and an owner who appeared indifferent to what was happening in his own factory. All in all, a bitter tasting brew was fermenting which could only lead to trouble.
After a radical Bosnian's assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a series of maddening miscalculations followed, all at the highest European governmental levels. The consequences resulted in war between Austria and Serbia (July 29), Germany and Russia (August 1), Germany and France (August 3), England and Germany (August 4), and Austria and Russia (August 6). World War I was off and running; its legacies still haunt our present world.
Gloversville's cutters, boasting a string of grievances that seemed, in their way, as infinite as those of the pistol-packing Bosnian, were swept along by the excitement of the European events. The vast majority of Jewish cutters had direct ties to the warring powers; not a few had ended up in Gloversville to escape Czarist military service. As the dizzying events spun along during that remarkable August many Eastern European Jews were rooting - some secretly, others openly - for the Kaiser's regime. It treated its Jews like menschen compared to the cruel behavior of the ruler of the Russian Empire. Overall, nationalistic loyalties dominated, particularly among the non-Jews who learned their glove cutting trades in England, France, Germany or parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Relationships must have been difficult, though Wilson's stern messages helped to lower tensions: "It's not our war." "Let's mind our own affairs." "Neutrality in thought as well as in [our overt] behavior." "We're Americans!"
Nonetheless, in Gloversville, the great war could not be put out of mind. Gloversville's dailies, the Democratic Morning Herald and the afternoon Leader-Republican, featured banner headlines, describing German advances through Belgium and Russian pressure against East Prussia. People speculated about the war's probable duration, most guessing (erroneously) that it would be over by year's end. All table cutters thought they knew how the war affected the glove trade: the warring powers needed gloves for their own military forces, the younger cutters would be called up for military service, shipping would be in short supply, and thus exports to America would drop, and so on, and so forth. A special report, prepared by the New York State Labor Department, covering the events, noted that "[... in Gloversville] the outbreak of the European war and the concurrent circulation of rumors that. . . glove factories of the warring nations had ceased operations" made the time propitious for worker action.
On August 15, as the Kaiser's troops were smashing ahead towards the Channel ports, the old cutter's union, long thought dead after the disastrous events of 1903-04, suddenly rose from its grave. Its new name, the "International Glove Worker's Union," had an impressive ring as the appeal was sounded for "a mass meeting of all cutters willing to make a demand for a wage increase..." [*Why it was called "International" remains unclear. One Jewish name (Louis Wallich) appears on the leadership roster.] Four days earlier, the Herald reported that Gloversville would anticipate a big demand for its glove products; that "boom" times lay ahead because of the war. But a day before that, on the 10th, it also noted that imported leather was becoming scarce. How such a scarcity could develop after only a few days of conflict, in an era of shipping by sea, was unclear. Customarily, the local shops needed 1,500 dozen skins daily in their production efforts.
One thing was clear, the cutters thought they had the manufacturers over a barrel.
"Strike!" was in the air as those meeting at the Concordia Hall on the corner of West Street and West Fulton, shouted unanimous support for action. A Leader story stated that to ensure worker victory, in the event of a strike, stay-at-home-scabbing be outlawed. Ten years earlier, during the 1903-04 strike-lockout, scab cutting was done at home with leather sneaked in from the supposedly shut factories. The scab cutter thus avoided the picket lines, while bringing in some earnings to feed his family. No explanation was given as to how the novel "injunction" against at-home scabbing would be enforced.
The date was now August 17, and troops of the initial British Expeditionary Force sent to aid the French were debarking at LeHavre. At a "cutters only" meeting at the Family Theatre, nearly a thousand men, showing "high worker enthusiasm," responded to the call of their newly reborn union. [*The Johnstown cutters held their meetings at Socialist Headquarters.] The report, prepared by the Labor Department's bureaucrats, stated that "a demand for an increase of $.25 per dozen for cutting men's and boys' gloves, and $.20 per dozen for cutting women's gloves was formulated and presented to the officials of the Glove Manufacturer's Association with a threat that if such demand was not granted within forty-eight hours, a general strike of all cutters would be called." Less than a month earlier the Viennese ultimatum to Belgrade had unleashed the demons of war. That method, including the two-day time limit for acting correctly "or else," had now become the style for the cutter's uninhibited negotiators. The "Hon. Lucius N. Littauer," as the local papers still called him, was at the receiving end of the ultimatum. [*The honorific remained attached, despite the smuggling conviction and loss of public position. In those days, once a Congressman, always a Congressman.] Despite his standing as head of the Association, he stayed in the background. Others talked for him, at least for now.
Union-Association talks took place on August 20, and although no observable progress took place, the union "extended" its ultimatum a few more hours. But nothing further happened, other than a restatement of the Association's traditional position: "As soon as business conditions warrant an increase, such increase would be considered...etc." To the psyched up workers, these were worn out lyrics. Already seven hundred cutters were absent from their tables. An "official" strike call took place on the 25th with the Herald reporting some 1,600 cutters [in Fulton County] out, affecting twelve thousand workers in other parts of the industry. A few days later the relatively few cutters working in New York City joined the strike. On August 26, another gigantic cutter morale-building gathering took place with the president of the State Federation of Labor as principal speaker. These dramatic actions certainly grabbed the manufacturer's attention. Most had been looking ahead to Sunday at Sacandaga Park, where they might enjoy an opportunity to relax, to shmooz, and to listen to words of political wisdom. 1914 was an election year, and by queer coincidence, a county-wide Republican barbecue had been scheduled. For seventy-five cents one received round-trip rail transportation, an "all-you-can-eat" barbecued ox, plus the opportunity to hear the handsome candidate for the U.S. Senate seat from Ohio, Warren G. Harding. The Hon Lucius N. Littauer would no doubt be doing the introductory honors. The events that followed reinforced intuitive feelings that suddenly, without apparent logic, our quiet, orderly shtetl was being transformed. Superficially, the summer, with its warm balmy winds, seemed like any other. Free band concerts, sponsored by the city, could still be heard up in Myers Park. Between musical numbers, one could gossip about Fannie Goldbaum, the maidl who just ran off with a carnival worker employed at Sacandaga Park. On the weekend, the FJ&G ran six train daily to the Park. For a fare of fifty cents, a day of outdoor pleasure and fun, including entertainment and dancing to the music of "Zita's Fu Orchestra." Back home, at the Darling Theatre, "thirty-seven alluring girls" were featured as part of a musical comedy, "The Prince of Pilsen." Tickets ranged from fifty cents to $2.00. The strikers, whose pre-walkout wages averaged $2.26 per day, pondered over the issue of who could afford a two-dollar seat, even to ogle some "alluring girls." For working people, the strike placed all tickets out of reach; everyone, Jew and gentile, knew that their world was no longer the same.
When an aggrieved worker intends to walk off the job, wisdom dictates that a reasonable reserve be available, to be drawn on during the struggle. Employers always retain greater economic power than do the workers, many of whom live from one payday to the next. During the final talks between the strike committee and the Association, Littauer is reported to have been present. His advice, though clearly patronizing, proved accurate: "Boys, you have no money! You can't go on a strike!" In the heat of the discussion, the strike committee' response seemed, to them at least, equally correct: "We have no money [and that] is the very reason we feel we ought to strike." Such logic proved fallacious. During an extended walkout, the financial reserve of a frugal worker, set aside for his "rainy day," could be quickly erased. Strike funds, which unions now maintain, were unheard of in the case of the cutter's union. Beyond its moral backing, the State Federation of Labor could only produce token contributions from a few sympathetic unions. Individual cutters, therefore, were "on their own," to make do as best as each might manage. Credit was always extended during certain periods, when work was slow. The first line of creditors were the small groceries and meat markets, and other provisioners of vital services. Some, like Sam Madora's on Market Street, carried many a deadbeat family, even when work was plentiful, when only the traditional kvetchers were kvetching.
The present strike made for a vastly different situation. The old line, "I'll pay you as soon as I get paid," offered little solace when large numbers of customers were emoting from the same script. Furthermore, most merchants knew that the warm days of August, when huckleberries could be picked out beyond the Jewish cemetery, would soon be replaced by the blustery winds of November. Heating bills, added to the debts being accumulated by the cutters might drive the small businessman to the wall. During the past ten years, Gloversville's growing population had made some local merchants reasonably comfortable. All that was about to fade. Frightening rumors were current about foreign-owned shops (such as Fownes Brothers) closing, "rather than pay the wages [being] demanded."
Although the nasty rumors proved false, the strike went on, and now the downtown merchants were getting nervous. [*In fact, Fownes was one of the very few shops that continued to operate. It had decided to increase its cutters’ pay, and was not affiliated with either the Association or the non-Association" groups.] All this coincided with the blazing headlines, describing the fateful battle of the Maine, fought at the gates of Paris, where the German advance was finally halted. In Albany, the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration decided to enter Gloversville's struggle, to attempt a settlement. The Board chairman knew that many shop owners were not affiliated with Littauer's Association. He also knew that a few shop owners were willing to work towards a compromise with the cutters. But he was also aware that the major non-Association members (such as Meyers) had met and promised to adhere to the Association’s position with respect to any wage increase. In its September edition the semi-official Glovers Review reflected the attitude of all major manufacturers:
...while the [cutter's] demand was officially based on the high cost of living. . ., its real base [exists] in the expectation of more business and larger profits to come to manufacturers because of conditions resulting from the war. The employers' [opposition], no doubt, is based on an indisposition..... to pay the workers [any] dividends before they are earned.
After meetings with both the Association and key non-Association members, the State Board Chairman submitted proposals to the cutters, summarized as follows:
1. Go back to work, and there'll be "no discrimination" for having struck.
2.Scabs are not to be molested by returning strikers.
3. If the European War continues, and "fair" financial conditions continue, manufacturers "will take up the question of changes in the wage rate[s]." the
4. I, as State Board chairman, "am confident that wage changes... will [be] substantial." I am "assured... that the increase would be at least ten cents a dozen on table cutting. ."
"Because of the indefiniteness" of the Board chairman's proposal the cutters voted their rejection.
We were now into October, Canadian winds were tearing the leaves off the trees, and the merchants, dreading the likelihood of a dismal holiday season, were having shpilkes. Acting through their "Business and Credit Men's Association of Gloversville," they attempted to move the Glove Manufacturer's Association towards a more flexible posture. But again, under Littauer's leadership, the manufacturers simply restated their original position: "That present business condition precluded any wage increase at this time." This reply must have disappointed the "Business and Credit Men." Their ideas, while self-serving, sought to curry favor with the shop owners by weakening and even destroying the cutter's union:
Any proposition we... offer is predicated with the understanding that the question of unionism will never come up in discussion of a plan for the settlement of this strike [and] arrive at a basis, we. . . suggest..., to meet an extraordinary a temporary condition, an increase... of ten percent be granted . . with the understanding that such increase is subject to readjustment upon the return of normal conditions.
On October 6, the State Mediation and Arbitration Board once again entered the controversy, this time when the cutters asked for a "public investigation" as to the causes of the strike. This was a last resort action. The Board was powerless to act on unfair labor practices. A generation later, when the "Little Wagner Act" came into being, Board was given teeth. But in 1914, it was a toothless instrument of State government, empowered only to take sworn testimony, publicize (and hence influence public opinion), and to issue recommendations for settlement. Beyond that, it could do nothing. Hearings conducted in the City Hall, on North Main Street, produced many pages of testimony. The story, often pitiful and even disgraceful of the cutters, "aristocrats" of the glove trade, managed machen a leben, is laid out in the testimony. Sworn witnesses represented many nationalities, including a number of Jewish cutters who learned trade in Warsaw. Each recited the drab details of his daily mode living: struggling with difficult foremen, coping with the system of taxation, and making do with an exceptionally low take-home pay.
Although invited, Littauer failed to testify. Claiming illness, he remained in his New York headquarters, opting to have Alfred Saunders, his plant superintendent, explain why a pay raise remained out of the question. Despite his statements, Saunders held the respect of the union members; he began his glove career as a cutter. Littauer's behavior was another matter. Jewish cutters in particular perceived him as cold and unfeeling, and in later years, when his philanthropies became an accepted feature of Gloversville's life, Jews who once experienced his management style would say: "Ken zein oz zein geoisin plakt eni. Noooh ales hut ergenoomen genugjun do shwitz jun de playtsez fun handschumacher!" [*Roughly translated meaning: "Perhaps his conscience bothers him. After all, he took enough off the backs of the poor sweating cutters!"]
Factory owners, Jew and gentile, who adhered to Littauer's tutelage, saw the employee strife through a different prism. To them, the concept of unionism reflected European-based values. This was America, where opportunities remained wide open to those who worked hard, displayed initiative and were willing to sacrifice, to achieve personal wealth. Unions stood for radical ideas, which pitted class against class. The Jewish factory owner's response to the disaffected Jewish table cutter, who years back had emigrated from Warsaw or Vienna, might have been the following: "O.K. So you're not happy with your wages. Go and start your own business! You be the boss; experience what's involved in running an enterprise and meeting a payroll; and, put up with plenty of kopveytigs! Don't blame me for your problems. Be thankful that you're here, in America, and not back in Poland, Lithuania, or Galicia. There, you'd be in the Russian army, getting shot at! "
The Glovers Review, whose pages often reflected the Association's views, put forth an alternative explanation as to why cutters' wages were so low. To employ our present-day jargon, workers had been "goofing off." According to the Review's editor, cutters failed to work long and hard enough.
They indulged in "frequent interruptions," and some cutters were even "indolent!" Of course, the editor had no first-hand experience as a table cutter; words were easier to come by than facts and logic. Meanwhile, the three-person Mediation and Arbitration Board assembled a record of nearly seven hundred pages of testimony from both cutters and shop owners. Its recommendations were unequivocal, and one hundred and eighty degrees opposite of the views expressed by the Glovers Review. On October 21, two months after the strike began, the Board's proposals became public:
We do not believe the cutters should be required to wait longer for a substantial increase in their wages, and therefore recommend that a flat advance of not less than fifteen cents a dozen be made in the schedule prices for all kinds of glove cutting, effective as soon as work is resumed, such advance to continue for at least one year.
We recommend also that suitable attention be given by the manufacturers to the correction of any abuses which our investigation shows to have existed in the matter of estimating or taxing the skins, and irregularity of hours of the cutters.
The recommendations were quickly accepted by the cutters. The Association "rejected them as contrary to a just balancing of all the evidence and facts presented, and as a biased and unfair statement." Thus, the struggle continued in Gloversville, as did the bloody war in Europe, especially on the Eastern Front. After a smashing German victory at Tannenberg, in East Prussia, the Russian forces were driven back into Poland. The Kaiser's forces stood at the outskirts of Warsaw.
Now Jewish cutters faced a double dose of worry: The continued strike, with no end in sight, plus a deep disquiet about the well-being of mishpoche in Warsaw* and the other regions where Russo-German battles raged. Food and other necessities were in short supply where the fighting was going on. [*The author's grandfather, who once lived in Gloversville, and operated a shoe repair shop on East Fulton Street, had been unhappy in his new surroundings. He returned to Warsaw a few years before the outbreak of the Great War, and starved to death during the hostilities.] In Gloversville evidence was building that the cutter's battle, like the Russians, was going poorly. Financial and moral support from workers in other industries had been insufficient to tilt the balance against the shop owners. As the outside temperatures dropped, the internal heating of tempers began to build. Until now, violence had been avoided. Cutters were aristocrats, and aristocrats acted like gentlemen, not hoodlums. But hunger wedded to a bitter anger modifies the most submissive of behaviors. Conservatives transform into radicals, radicals veer toward the meshuggeneh.
As the offspring of German Jews who settled in Boston around 1850, the Moses brothers were entrepreneurs who relocated to Gloversville when our city established its prominence as the nation's glove center. Ralph and Isaac (Ike) operated the Elite Glove Company, then on South School Street. Joseph (Joe) was an officer in the Bacmo plant, on Third Avenue in which Littauer held a major interest.
All lived close to one another: Ralph and Joe on lower First Avenue, and Ike on lower Second Avenue. Both the Elite and Bacmo plants belonged to the Association, and hence their cutters were on the picket line. Operating a struck factory is a formidable task. Elite employed about forty cutters, many of whom were Jews. A few years earlier, one of their cutters, Sam Goldfish (later, Goldwyn) opted to become a glove salesman (see Chapter X). But that seemed like ancient history as Ike and Ralph shlepped along the dimly lighted streets after another frustrating day. The date was November 12, and they were concerned about their Christmas orders, most still unfilled. A few scabs provided limited production; the local family-type sub-contractors could deliver but a pittance of what might be sold.
They walked up North Main, in front of the High School, arguing about which priorities needed attention the following day, Friday. A church tower rang the quarter hour chimes in imitation of London's Big Ben. It was 6:15.
Ralph, the taller and sterner of the two gave evidence of his Germanic roots. Perhaps it was his clipped, under-the-nose moustache plus his thick spectacles that provided him with an aloof, Prussian-like appearance. Besides his shorter stature, Ike had lost his hair at an early age. Strangers perceived him as friendlier and more open than Ralph, and when he smiled, Ike might have passed himself off as a twin brother of Herbert H. Lehman, who, two decades later, was to become New York's Jewish Governor.
They reached the corner of Prospect and North Main Streets, a few feet from where the present bronze statue of Lucius Littauer now stands. They paused momentarily before crossing Prospect, unmindful of the few pedestrians going by, or to their rear. The attacker was there, and then in an instant, gone. Neither had paid him heed. Ralph gasped as he turned to Ike. Blood gushed from Ike's neck, from his left car down to his throat - a six-inch-long gash, made by the blade of a straight razor. Murder was the obvious intent. It failed because of Dr. H. C. Denham's office across the street, and by chance or destiny, Denham was in. Ike did not die; emergency sutures saved his life, and he lived twenty-four years beyond this incident.
Although the assailant was never caught, or even identified, the act's violence served to help break the strike. As the public saw it, an attempted murder of a shop owner had now tainted the entire union. The extreme nature of the deed also frightened its more conservative members. Walking out and withholding services was one thing; cutting the throat of a boss who failed to provide a raise was another matter. And although some Jewish cutters may not have been fond of the Moses clan, Ike was a Jew. For nervously inclined immigrant Jews, the event could readily be interpreted as a blow against all Jews. Here was a scandal, plus a defeat -a shande -proving, as my father might have put it, that "you can't win if you're a common working man. Even God won't help!"
Amateur sleuths put forth theories about the crime. Hatred seemed the most obvious motivator, but why pick on the Elite if the hatred sprang out of the frustrations caused by the strike? And if an angry striker was to select a particular target, then why go after Ike? Even when working conditions at the Elite were relatively good, Ralph's personality was such that he attracted few admirers among the workers. Ike, on the other hand, was friendly and outgoing, in many ways the antithesis of his brother, who never failed to appreciate the value of maintaining social distance between himself and his economic inferiors.
To Ike's family the attack developed into a complex, troubling mystery. From the rear, the culprit could not have failed to distinguish the two brothers. One might have said that the mean one was the tall one, while the short fellow was the kind and gentle. Strikers and non-strikers asked themselves, "Why Ike?" Jews were especially intrigued, and also concerned. Jewish Sherlock Holmeses pondered the puzzle. Could a Jew have been the slasher? Unthinkable! Yet venom and animus might infect anyone, even a Jew. Thus, for weeks, the debate went on:
"So why do you say it could have been a Jew?"
"I just said, 'it could have been.' I didn't say it was, for sure."
"Do you agree it was a striker?"
"They'll blame it on the union, that's for certain."
"So what else is new? A working man never gets a show,* and maybe that's why he did it."
"Whoever did it. If I knew, I'd quit glove cutting and become a police detective. But how would that look? Can you imagine a Jew on the Gloversville police?"
Cynical laughter, mixed with continued puzzlement, ended the dialogue. [*"Show," meaning fair deal.]
During November and December, counterattacks by the French and British stabilized the lines along the Western Front; in the east, heavy fighting continued around Lodz, in Poland. In Gloversville, the single sneak attack on North Main Street created employment opportunities for security guards at Meyers', an action reflecting the city's turbulent atmosphere. Meanwhile, the cutters were displaying an amalgam of emotions -impatience (because everything remained at a standstill), obstinacy (because they deeply believed their cause to be just), discontent (because they now questioned the wisdom of the strike action), and despair (because the strike was doomed, and so much was wasted during the shutdown).
For Gloversvillians who held a few spare silver coins, the Darling Theatre provided five vaudeville acts. Admission, ten cents for matinee; ten and fifteen cents (depending on seat location) at night. "The Great Kubanoff -the Russian Eccentric Violinist" led the bill. Surely his fiddling would have appealed to the Jewish strikers, were they frivolous enough to spare a dime at the matinee instead of walking the picket line. For ticket buyers who avoided the fight amusement of vaudeville, the Glove Theatre was offering an appropriately somber title: "The Threads of Destiny," featuring Evelyn Nesbit Thaw,* and her son Russel. Evelyn was reduced to playing the small hick towns of upstate New York, as she continued to capitalize on her notoriety as the femme fatale in the case that resulted in her husband’s dispatching of famed architect, Stanford White. [*Harry Thaw’s 1907 trial captured the nation's headlines. His famous defense ("He (White) deserved it-he ruined my wife.") succeeded in securing Thaw a jury verdict of sane and not guilty.]
Under normal conditions, Gloversville's aristocrats would have packed the "Glove" to see the once infamous and beautiful Evelyn. Detailed news accounts of scandal and crime always magnetized the imagination of the new Americans. (Today's TV soaps and dramas leave little to the imagination). But much as they wished they could, few cutters had the wherewithal.
It had been finstereyahr- a miserable, rotten year, and the sooner it ended, the better. Gloversville now sat deep in its cottony-white blanket, which flurried down off the mountains. Endless schools of gloomy grey scuds swam across the skies. The perpetual darkness seemed to intensify the cutters' despondencies. Both Chanukah and Christmas were laced with doleful spirits. All but the willfully intransigent knew that the manufacturers had won. Defeated cutters, desperate for food and heat, were now returning to the shops, accepting the best conditions obtainable.
On December 17, in a lead news story, the Leader printed a long letter from Littauer. He claimed to be responding to what he said were "utterly wrong" statements printed in the Morning Herald about his Association and the strike. Littauer's message was remarkable in that it blended candor with obvious misstatements of fact. Also revealed was his attitude about working men and women, clearly perceived as an inanimate connnodity. Whenever a surplus existed, its price (i.e., wages) deserved to be reduced.
After professing a "[great] sympathy because of the bitter hardships this strike makes men, women and children endure...," he went on to explain the "plain ... uncolored [facts] connected with the deplorable strike." His views were stated clearly: "I personally am convinced that there are a greater number of cutters than can, under normal conditions, find employment in the glove trade in the future." This warning was then underscored with an implied threat to all cutters now contemplating going back to work: "The number of cutters is greater than the demand for the product of their work in the United States, and leaving out war conditions, this.. is going to be the serious problem of the future, [because] two men [are] competent to do the work where only one ... will be needed." Therefore, according to Littauer, "instead of wages increasing .... will be a tendency, which I trust may be averted, for wages to decrease."
January 19 marked the strike's official collapse. As the anonymous author of the State Labor Department report noted..... the strikers were unwilling to permit their wives and children to suffer (any) longer for lack of the necessities of life." Thus, they "returned to work on any terms they could secure." Under Littauer's unbending leadership the manufacturers were victorious. The temporary decline in business, which by coincidence occurred at the war's onset, was a powerful factor working against the cutters. Erroneously, they assumed that a general European war translated into instant American prosperity, not appreciating that many months needed to pass to check out the accuracy of such optimistic economic predictions. And, as the State Labor Department report put it, the glove shop owners won because they "were bound together ... to secure high tariff rates on the [finished] products and low rates on ...raw materials... and to prevent the restriction of immigration." [*Emphasis added.] Thus, we see the contradiction of Littauer explaining low wages as being caused by too many cutters (i.e., insufficient work for too many hands), while simultaneously remaining committed to bringing more workers into the country to maintain a sufficiently large surplus of cheap labor.
For Littauer the strikers' defeat provided a major personal victory. His community status now seemed secure, at least among the shop owners, proving that money and power when properly applied can provide starch to one's personality. Of course, the smuggling conviction had been a damaging blow, but with time people would forget. More importantly to Littauer, a lesson had been taught to the ungrateful Eastern European Jewish cutters who once may have gloated and guffawed about the daitcher’s illicit behavior. Ridicule became replaced by respect, though for the old-timers the grudging respect would always be blended with a strong dose of hatred.
Events in the North Atlantic, less than a hundred days after the strike's collapse, altered Littauer's intended scenario, as outlined in his letter to the Leader. With the sinking of the Lusitania by one of the Kaiser's U-boats, America found itself headed towards war. Two years of "peace and prosperity" intervened, but the direction remained unmistakable. During that time the glove business prospered, immigration declined due to the dangerous shipping conditions, and the cutters’ wages rose. After the declaration of war in 1917, Gloversville’s Jewish community provided six men for the armed forces, one of whom died in combat.
Immediately after war's end, Harding's administration instituted rigid restrictions on immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. Quotas effectively closed off the once cheap Jewish skilled labor from Poland and Lithuania. [*See Chapter VIII.] Thus, for about a decade or more, well beyond the market crash in 1929, wages continued to rise, and living conditions and work standards gradually improved for Gloversville’s table cutters.
But despite the passage of time, life-long enmities festered among the cutters who had lost the 1914 strike. Littauer, who then typified the entrepreneur of the unregulated marketplace, gained the eventual forgiveness of most workers, especially in light of his generous philanthropies in later life.
However, cutters who, early on during the struggle between capital and labor, had scabbed were forever marked as traitors. Even among Republican-voting cutters, the scabs were seen as rats who betrayed their own class.
Friendships dissolved during that bitter year, where one party had broken the union code of solidarity. Reconciliations rarely occurred in later life, even when imminent death might lead one "to say one good word" about a former chevreaman.