Category Archives: Student League for Industrial Democracy

H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N* Returns to New York

 

DSC_3426_2For the past sixty years the garment industry, which was a major provider of jobs in New York, has withered away to a minor economic actor.  Over that time the jobs that provided a good income to many immigrant people just beginning life in New York have moved overseas. The stories we have seen in these last months of the death of 1,100 garment workers in the illegally built factory in Bangladesh are representative of the result of the global relocation of the garment industry.  It is a story of the inexpensive clothes we buy in our malls mixed with the travails of the poorly protected workers who produce them overseas.

I took part in a version of this story over sixty years ago when I spent three summers during my college days working for the Dress Joint Board of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City.  The Dress Joint Board, for which I worked during the summers of 1947 through 1949, was composed of Locals 22 and  89.  I was assigned to interview workers who were applying for union benefits, and, if time would permit, to do research on the background of the union membership. The Local 22  workers I came into contact with were of Puerto Rican, African-American, and European Jewish background.   The workers of Local 89 were largely of Italian descent.

My daily work was to interview workers who were seeking unemployment benefits during lay-offs and others who were applying for specific health care benefits.  This required checking against the manufacturer’s payroll to determine how long the worker was employed and whether the manufacturer had been paying the special assessment.  The stream of people I interviewed was like a cast of characters out of Leo Rosten’s “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N    K*A*P*L*A*N.”   Hyman Kaplan was a garment worker who was learning to speak English in a night school. He spoke his own version with amazing and unbelievable creativity.  Kaplan’s fellow immigrant classmates added their own peculiar interpretations and flavor to the beginner’s English language class.

Those summers I spent working at the Dress Joint Board were a continual replay of the book. I heard more variations of accents and more unique spoken English than I had heard in my lifetime, and I had grown up in an immigrant neighborhood.  The working people I encountered were just getting a start in the economy, and with the protection of the union, were representative of the vitality of the garment industry and of the economic health of  New York in the 1940s.

There was also another side to the story.  Garment workers were also subject to the conditions of a highly competitive industry.  Dress manufacturing is made of numerous small shops, and very mobile.  The small “fly-by-night” operations are difficult to track and are prone to “sweat shop” conditions.  This is where the trade union stepped in – to assure just wages and safe work conditions.  Many garment manufacturers operated a step ahead of union organizers. 

I became aware of this when less than a decade after I had worked in the garment district, I moved with my wife and children to Asia.  On a trip to Hong Kong in the 1950s a Chinese friend took me on a visit to small dress-making operation in a high-rise building, which produced clothes for the U.S. Market.  It was a shop similar to the ones I had known in New York, but  the jobs which had employed the immigrants in New York, were being moved to Hong Kong.  For the last sixty years this has been the nature of the garment industry.

Can this story be turned around?  In an article in the February 17th issue of  The Nation, the author Elizabeth Cline sees hope for a rebirth of the New York garment industry.   She sets the stage by citing the colorful designer coat worn by the wife and daughter of Mayor Bill de Blasio at his recent inauguration.  Cline sees in “The Economics of A Raspberry Coat” a story of the new mayor’s opportunity to restore the garment industry to New York.

Efforts are already underway, says Cline, with the move by Manufacturers New York to support fashion designers in finding the work space and the work force to produce their new clothing lines.  Some of the areas for development are already in place with the creation of the sixteen industrial business zones (IBZs) set aside by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Even though Mayor Bloomberg’s plan called for the rezoning older manufacturing areas for the rebuilding of high-rise condos, the sixteen IBZs are prospective spaces for new industrial businesses with incentives in the form of technical assistance and employee training.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio attention is being given to those areas in the metropolitan region, ie. Sunset Park in Brooklyn, where older industrial buildings can be rehabilitated and where a local work force is already existent. Alongside the beginning of an upstart new clothing industry measures are in place to modernize the industry by encouraging “the most innovative and sustainable design entrepreneurs.” In areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant plans are underway to train local people in the technology and methods now being used to modernize the garment industry.

Attention must be paid to the Hyman Kaplan’s of  our day, and to assuring them a just wage and safe conditions in the their work space.  And always support  for the right of  workers to organize, on their own behalf, and for the well-being of the industry and the economy. 

(see also Chapter 14 ” A Union Summer ” in www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com)

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Chapter 19 – Saying Good-bye

Wooster’s Kauke Arch in 1947

Richard gets together with old New York friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) convention. His recent co-op farm experience in Saskatchewan wins him connections among the CCUF delegates. He turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster with the recognition of the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development.

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Chapter 18 – The Election of 1948

Richard’s Saskatchewan experience opens him to join the Young People’s Socialist League on his return to New York. He spends the 1948 Fall election season organizing student chapters of the League for Industrial Democracy on college campuses. The presidential election campaign brings on the prominence of the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace’s candidacy. Richard is impressed with the Madison Square Garden gala and presentation of Henry Wallace as Progressive Party nominee and is moved by the performance of Paul Robeson. His loyalty to the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, is not swayed. He poll watches in his Bronx district and waits for the results at the Socialist post-election gathering at the Claremont Hotel. There he meets Vincent Sheehan, who has just published his best seller on Gandhi.

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Chapter 17 – Up on the Co-op Farm

Chow line on the co-op farm

After the CCF convention in Moosejaw, the students move on to the provincial government in Regina, where they visit offices responsible for universal health insurance, universal auto insurance, and new industrial ventures. The study tour officially ends, but the “Model T Four” sign up to work on the newly organized Carrot River Co-Op Farm in the sparsely settled, harsh northern terrain. The six-day workweek was long and hard, broken up three times a day by a bell calling the workers to the dining hall for meals. The co-op members cleared deeply rooted trees and sawed and planed the trees in a lumber mill for materials to be used in building the settlers’ homes and community facilities. Leaving the farm after a week of heavy rains, the Model T gets stuck in the mud. The farmer who pulls it out gives the four travelers a piece of Saskatchewan advice: “Choose your ruts carefully and stay in them till you get to Prince Albert.” Richard hitchhikes from Winnipeg to West Virginia, arriving just in time for the wedding of his college roommate.

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Chapter 16 – The Shaping of a Socialist

In June 1948, Richard prepares for his upcoming study trip to Canada to see “democratic socialism” in action. The governing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Saskatchewan was holding its convention in Moosejaw. Before he leaves on his journey, Richard accepts an offer from the League for Industrial Democracy to serve as Student Secretary in the fall. Richard hitchhikes 1,000 miles from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the Madison, Wisconsin, farm of Walter Uphoff, the Socialist candidate for governor. In Madison he meets up with a group of eighteen students. Richard decides to throw in his lot with three other men and travel the remainder of the way in E. Scott Maynes’s  Model T Ford half truck. At the CCF convention, Richard is moved by the down-to-earth nature of the delegates and their pragmatic concern about how the government programs were serving the people. In meeting one of the CCF’s founders, Richard receives validation of his conviction that there is a place for religion in social and economic justice.

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Chapter 15 – A Turning Point

podcast artworkRichard’s leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy on the Wooster campus has not gone unnoticed. Dr. Ver Steeg of the Geology Department, one of the faculty’s conservative members, confronts Richard about information he has received from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Congress about the Student League in the 1930s. Richard deflects Dr. Ver Steeg’s finding, pointing to the collapse of the Student League at that time and its rebirth in the post-War period. Leading up to the 1948 Presidential election, the Student League leverages the mock Republican Convention on campus to promote its agenda by nominating a liberal Republican, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, as a candidate. Although derided as a non-candidate by the conservative Republican student participants, Morse becomes a contender in the mock convention and runs second to Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. On a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the peace time draft, Richard meets with Senator Morse, who commends the Wooster students’ efforts.

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Chapter 13 – Reclaiming A Heritage

Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of  a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of  “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

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