Men Called Samuel, Jesse and Sidney (More Thoughts on Labor Relations from the 1920’s)
From THE WITNESS, May 19, 1955
The shop chairman of the plant where I was labor manager was Samuel Smith. He started as an inexperienced worker but soon became a skilled pocket-maker, and it wass not long before he was singled out by the workers for the chairmanship. He had come to America from Russia, hounded across Siberia by the Czar’s police because of his revolutionary acitivity. He had a brother who was a merchant in Toronto so he went there to discover that the family had been converted from Judaism to Christianity. Sam therefore, a very inquiring man and a great reader, sat down to find out what Christianity was all about by reading through the Bible. The Prophets fed his revolutionary spirit but the Gospels converted him. ‘There I found Truth walking on this earth as a Man,’ is the way he described it to me. He was a whole-hogger about it, with the Sermon on the Mount something not only to believe but to live. If a man asked you to walk a mile, walk two. If he asked for your coat, give him your cloak also. If one smite you on the cheek, turn the other.
Came W.W. 1 and Smith, a religious pacifist, was soon disillusioned. These good Christian people, who had persudaded him to accept Christianity, were telling him, ‘But Sam, it isn’t necessary to carry your Christianity to such extremes. After all we are not expected to take the Sermon on the Mount literallyj.”
So he packed up and got out of there, entering Valpariso University in Indiana. He soon got into trouble there because of his views on war. One night a group of students threw him into a pond so he packed off to Chicago. There he got mixed up in a strike at the Florsheim Shoe plant so that the police were after him. Someone told him he ought to see the Amalgamated crowd. They sent him, as a green worker, to the Kuppenheimer plant, thus hiding him from the police.
We soon discovered out mutual interests and concerns; loaned each other books which we frequently discussed as we lunched together in the shop restaurant or in my office. On occasions other workers would join us and, less frequently, the manager of the plant or some of his assistants. Jesse Nitka, at that time on the staff of the labor department, and later an executive of the production department who is today the general manager of the company, was a real participant in these discussions. Even the general manager of those days, if he happened to come to the shop at the lunch hour, often sat in and I recall vividly the day he burst out: ‘I wish I knew what you men were talking about. Why don’t one of you give me a book to readl.” Smith, therefore, loaned him a copy of one of the books of Bertrand Russell. He brought it back in a few days: ‘I tried. I read the first few pages over and over, but I can’t understand a damned word of it.” But he continued top sit in on the discussions whenever he was not too busy whipping up production.
He had risen to the top the hard way from office boy and had a simple way of increasing production. He’d buttonhole the top foreman and bawl him out. Never any managing technique a bout it– why not do this –why not do that? Just a tongue lashing. And he was always careful, I observed, to soften the blow at the end by asking the foreman how the fish were biting; what movies he has seen lately; or have you heard this one which one of the salesmen just brought back. The dressing down nevertheless had registered, so the foreman passed it on to the sub-fareman as ruthless as he had got it, but without any soft touches at the end. It was strictly Simon Legree stuff and the results were about nil since the workers were now protected in their ;piece work rices, hours, and working conditions by a strong union which was, at least in those days, militant.
The philosophy of the union was illustrated one evening at Hull House by Sam Levine, Chicago head of the Amalgamated, who told this story as we sat around the dinner table in the august presence of Jane Addams. “A southern plantation owner was walaking around his estate with one of his workers, a Negro, who was very clever with a whip. He could swing it a few times over his head and then cut off the flower of a daisy yards away. He demonstrated his skill a few times when the owner spotted a bee. Sam, let me see if you can hit the bee. So Sam swung his whip and was about to strike when he suddently stopped. ‘What’s the matter, Sam?’ ‘Well, boss, I’ll tell you – I reckon I better leave those bees alone – they’re too well organized!’
The story would be appreciated more if you could hear Sam Levine tell it, for his natural speech was decidedly Jewish and he told the story, or tried to, as a southern Nego. The result, to put it mildly, was unique.
Smith and I pretty thoroughly understood each other before long. We accepted each other as honest men who would state the truth as we saw it in any situation. He never put up a fight for a worker, or a group, if he thought they were wrong. He’d tell them when he thought they were wrong. They could go over his head if they wanted to by going to the union business agen who was a frequent visitor to the shop. But the fact is I do not recall any of them ever doing it. For they learned that Smith would battle just as hard for them if he thought they were right.
We had our battles naturally — after all we were in a class conflict situation where Smith’s job was to fight for the workers and i was paid to see that the company got its rights. And ‘rights’ on either side, are sometimes hard to define. But thisI can say: before I was through with Smith I had such confidence in him that on those frequent occasions when i had to be awaya from the shop I’d say: ‘If anything comes up while I am away, settle it your way and it will be o.k. with me.” I can even add that we understood each other so well that there were occasions when we staged mock fights, either to strengthen my position with management, or his with his workers.
It was inevitable that Smith soon was elected a business agent and rose to a position of importance in the Amalgamated, not only locally but nationally; just as I think it was inevitable that a man of Jesse Nitka’s intelligence and ability was soon the general manager of the company, and that the shop manager in those days, a man of fine personal qualities but who could not accept the new order of things, ended up as the doorman, checking to see whether people had the necessary credentials to enter the shop.
Sidney Hillman, Amalgamated president, left the day-by-day operations to his able lieutentants. His genius came to the fore during the negotiations with management over new contracts.
One year the firms insisted that they were losing money and asked for a decrease in wages. Hillman said that the union knew that firms had to make a profit, otherwise there would be no jobs so the union would agree to a decrease if necessary, but let’s see if there are not other ways to handle the matter.
The industry in those days was very seasonal. Salesmen took orders from merchants and sent them in. When there were enough orders, the garments were cut and trucked to the shops where they were piled on tables. Then the workers were called, section by section, until after a few days the shop was in production. But they worked from the top of the pile, with the result that the merchant who had his order in first was at the bottom of the pile. So, in order to have clothes to sell, he ordered from several firms. When one order was received he cancelled the others by wire. And I can testify to having seen many thousands of dollars worth of suits and overcoats, representing cancelled orders, which had to be dumped on the market at a loss. This mis-management was not corrected by engineers for the company –it was corrected by experts for the union, hired by Hillman, who pointed out to management that a system of production control might so reduce dosts that wage cuts would not be necessary. The system was installed, to the advantage of both the firm and the workers.
The firm that employed me made nearly a hundred different styles of men’s suits to satisfy the fastidiousness of merchants and the handful of customers who wanted the fancy affairs. It was on Hillman’s skuggestion that a study was made of the kind of suits men had bought over a period of years. A tremendously high percentage were from three conservative models. These, Hillman pointed out, could be made, without any great risk, in advance of sales. The suggestion was accepted, with a tremendous saving resulting and practically the elimination of the seasonal asspects of the industry. All of which, naturally, added u;p to no wage decrease for the workers.
There is as lot more I could tell about those years I earned my living as a labor manager, while running St. George’s and THE WITNESS as an avocation. But the story can be summed up this way: the brains in the business, at least in those days, was supplied more by the union than by the management. Dr. Todd, my superior, was sent on a round-the-world tour by the company as a sort of super-salesman. While he was gone I was called before the president of the company, informed that Dr. Todd was not to return as labor manager, and I was offered the job. I told him that it meant that I had to decide whether I was to be a labor manager or a clergyman…so I declined the offer with thanks.
But I have always kept up with developments by having a meal, whenever I go to Chicago, with my old buddies, Sam Smith and Jesse who are also the closest of friends even though one today is a top official of the Amalgamated and the other is the general manager of the company.
Years later, when Dad built his own plant in Tunkhannock, he put in a clause that, when his employee role reached a certain level, it would be a ‘union plant’. Of course, he never had more than four or five persons working at the shop and, thus, it never reached that mandatory level. He was rather ‘patriarchal’ as a friendly boss and, despite verbal affirmations and heart-felt convictions about justice in the work-place, he was, deep-down, a New Hampshire Yankee. He kept books and profits-and-losses as secret as possible. When he became a capitalist, he was very successful at it and, I’m sure, learned much from the Smith’s and Nitka’s and Hillman’s and Todd’s of his Chicago days.
Trying to be of help, on occasion I would ask him what the financial resources of the Episcopal Church Publishing Co. were and his reply was, invariably, “Oh, noone has to worry…we have thousands and thousands of dollars”….end of conversation. Democracy in the work place, yes…in the company president’s office, not likely!