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Sweated Work, Weak Bodies

Sweated Work, Weak Bodies: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor

Daniel E. Bender
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Sweated Work, Weak Bodies
    Book Description:

    In the early 1900s, thousands of immigrants labored in New Yorks Lower East Side sweatshops, enduring work environments that came to be seen as among the worst examples of Progressive-Era American industrialization. Although reformers agreed that these unsafe workplaces must be abolished, their reasons have seldom been fully examined.Sweated Work, Weak Bodies is the first book on the origins of sweatshops, exploring how they came to represent the dangers of industrialization and the perils of immigration. It is an innovative study of the language used to define the sweatshop, how these definitions shaped the first anti-sweatshop campaign, and how they continue to influence our current understanding of the sweatshop.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4255-3
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: The Language and the Limits of Anti-Sweatshop Organizing
    (pp. 1-18)

    George Price left his home in the Ukraine in May 1882 for New York. He was part of a first wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were filling the tenements and workplaces of New York’s Lower East Side, the immigrant residential and industrial district in southeast Manhattan. As a new arrival, he felt out of place even in the immigrant Lower East Side. He remembered that “street urchins” ran after him, taunting him for his beard and old country clothing that marked him as an Orthodox Jew. He subsequently cut his hair, shaved his beard, and exchanged his European...

  5. Part I Race, Class, Gender, and Defining the Sweatshop and Modern Shop in Progressive America

    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 19-22)

      Scholars, policymakers, unionists, and workers today describe the sweatshop as a garment workshop characterized by low wages and poor working conditions, the inevitable result of an economic “race to the bottom,” unfettered competition fostered by an abundance of cheap labor. When the word “sweatshop” was first used at the turn of the twentieth century, it also described low wages and unclean workplaces. However, the factory inspectors who first coined the word and the Jewish immigrant workers who adopted it did not turn to an economic logic of competition alone to explain the rise of the sweatshop. Initially, at least, inspectors...

    • One Eastern European Jews and the Rise of a Transnational Garment Economy
      (pp. 23-41)

      Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in New York in great numbers starting around 1880. Especially in the early years of their migration, many found work in the city’s changing garment industry. Paul Novick, a garment worker who later became the editor of the Communist Yiddish dailyFreiheit, described the neighborhood where fellow Jewish immigrants concentrated as a neighborhood of workers. The immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side, the crowded region in the southeast part of Manhattan, were “80 to 90 percent proletarian.” He noted as well that many immigrants worked in the neighborhood’s small garment workshops.¹

      Novick and his...

    • Two “The Great Jewish Métier”: Factory Inspectors, Jewish Workers, and Defining the Sweatshop, 1880–1910
      (pp. 42-60)

      The spread of contractor shops in New York, insisted the United States Industrial Commission on Immigration, was intimately connected to the arrival of Jewish immigrants. “The position of the contractor,” the economist John R. Commons testified to the Commission, “is peculiarly that of an organizer and employer of immigrants.”¹ Because of the association of garment work with immigrants, especially Eastern European Jews, criticism of changes and conditions in the New York garment industry ran parallel to and often merged with concerns about Jewish poverty on the Lower East Side.

      Many of the same journalists, politicians, and inspectors who had explored...

    • Three “A Race Ignorant, Miserable, and Immoral”: Sweatshop Danger and Labor in the Home, 1890–1910
      (pp. 61-76)

      As outside critics questioned workers’ racial status and as Eastern European Jewish immigrants lamented their declining health, both groups came to see the sweatshop as a family problem. They worried that falling wages, debilitating disease, and, most important, the blurred boundaries between the workplace and the home forced married women into the workforce. For social reformers, factory inspectors, and public health officials, levels of women’s wage work attested to the immorality of the sweatshop system and contributed to the debased condition of immigrants. Meanwhile, male Eastern European Jewish immigrants, with the tacit and sometimes vocal acceptance of women, declared the...

    • Four Workers Made Well: Home, Work, Homework, and the Model Shop, 1910–1930
      (pp. 77-100)

      In the years after 1910, an alliance between factory inspectors, policymakers, and male Jewish immigrants began to take shape around the issue of women’s sweated homework. In 1910, a massive strike of male cloakmakers, organized in the ILGWU, forced employers and policymakers to recognize the strength and vitality of immigrant unions. Factory inspectors, social reformers, and policymakers facilitated the creation of a cross-class anti-sweatshop coalition by encouraging employers to settle with striking workers. At the center of the agreement signed by Jewish garment union leaders and employers was a body empowered to regulate working conditions in the garment industry: the...

  6. Part II Women and Gender in the Sweatshop and in the Anti-Sweatshop Campaign

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 101-104)

      The anti-sweatshop coalition that took shape after the 1910 strike originally united male Jewish cloakmakers with public health advocates and factory inspectors. They constructed a program of sanitary reform and control that helped remake the landscape of the New York garment industry. In those trades where Jews worked in large numbers, factories, located in loft buildings, generally replaced small shops and homework. Behind this vision of a “sanitary millennium” was a desire to protect the health and position of the family breadwinner.

      In a series of strikes in 1909 and 1913, female Jewish workers pushed their way into the cross-class...

    • Five Gaunt Men, Gaunt Wives: Femininity, Masculinity, and the Worker Question, 1880–1909
      (pp. 105-131)

      In 1910, at the same moment that the Joint Board of Sanitary Control (JBSC) was being organized, the poet and immigrant worker Morris Rosenfeld sought to describe the garment workplace in his poem “The Sweatshop.” It was, he wrote, a room in a tenement building on the “corner of pain and anguish.” Even in choosing as a title a word first used by inspectors, Rosenfeld takes on the viewpoints of both workers and inspectors. The poem leads the visitor/reader into the tenement, past a tavern and upstairs to a small “Bible room” where immigrants lament their “exile.” Finally, the visitor/reader...

    • Six Inspecting Bodies: Sexual Difference and Strategies of Organizing, 1910–1930
      (pp. 132-154)

      As the 1909 waistmakers’ strike edged toward its conclusion, the male leadership of the ILGWU appealed to the union’s male membership to recognize female waistmakers as employees who faced many of the same challenges and indignities suffered by male workers, namely poor wages and declining health. “Remember the shirt-waist girl,” they implored. They cited the success and bravery of female strikers on the picket lines. Their appeal seemed to afford women strikers a place in the union and a legitimacy on the shop floor by promising them the benefits of union organizing, particularly in the area of “health and welfare.”¹...

    • Seven “Swallowed Up in a Sea of Masculinity”: Factionalism and Gender Struggles in the ILGWU, 1909–1934
      (pp. 155-180)

      On July 10, 1925, male and female predominantly Jewish garment workers filled Yankee Stadium. They had not come to watch a cloakmaker turned catcher or an operator turned outfielder. Rather, their mass attendance at a rally in the stadium was a powerful public cry for union democracy and rank-and-file participation in the ILGWU. The Communist-led opposition within the union organized the gathering and argued that the 40,000 garment workers at the Yankee Stadium rally proved the extent of rank-and-file ire toward the ILGWU’s anti-Communist leadership and their practice of centralized control and decision making.¹ One garment worker iterated the concerns...

  7. Conclusion: “Our Marching Orders … Advance toward the Goal of Industrial Decency”: Measuring the Burden of Language
    (pp. 181-187)

    By 1927, as the ILGWU split into two warring camps, the Eastern European Jewish labor movement tottered on the brink of failure and extinction. In an era when gangsters often carried out the work of organizing, union density among Eastern European Jewish garment workers declined precipitously. Factionalism had taken its toll not only in membership totals of the ILGWU, but also in the organizing zeal of the workers that remained. As three local officers reported to the union’s 1928 convention: “The factional struggle with the Communists has sapped the vitality of our leadership, has divided our membership into hostile groups,...

  8. Epilogue: Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns in a New Century
    (pp. 188-196)

    Sweatshopremains a powerful word. It still evokes images of cramped, dirty, and dangerous workplaces. While the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) defines the sweatshop unemotionally as a workplace “that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework, occupational safety and health, workers compensation, or industry regulation,” the popular American image of the sweatshop is more lurid.¹ Even the most ardent defenders of capitalism and globalization will not defend the sweatshop. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, for example, celebrants of the global economy, could only muster “two cheers for...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 197-252)
  10. Index
    (pp. 253-272)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 273-274)