Friday, February 1, 2013 Rochester, NY - Eighteen-year-old Rochester garment worker Ida Breiman was shot dead by a sweatshop owner on 322 Clifford Street in the early evening of February 5th, 1913. She was part of the garment workers' strike that began twenty-one days earlier, and was among a group that was, in the age before texting, faxing and other forms of mobile electronic communications, physically going from shop to shop calling workers away from their machines to join the strike. The shop owner, Valentine Sauter, responded with his twelve-gauge shotgun, wounding three strikers and killing Breiman. A Grand Jury did not indict him. Rochester historian Blake McKelvey described the event in a 1960 article:
It was shortly before five on a dreary afternoon in February when two straggling bands of strikers were converging on Clifford Street that somebody saw the lights of a subcontractor blazing through the dusk and hurled a stone through the window. One strike leader soon began to pound at the front door, another at the back door, calling out the workers. In his excitement the proprietor snatched a rifle and shot into the crowd, wounding several and killing 18-year-old Ida Breiman. The violence came so unexpectedly that the police, who had accompanied the marchers, were able to arrest the proprietor and hustle him off before any further violence occurred. All workers and most other citizens were stunned by the tragedy. Several thousand turned out to march in the funeral procession two days later. In a surge of sympathy for strikers, charitable leaders opened soup kitchens and held benefits to collect strike relief; the Clothiers’ Exchange at last agreed to a conference.
That funeral procession of over 5,000 workers laid Ida to her final rest at the Stonewood Cemetery, off Lake Avenue near Charlotte.
Next Friday, February 8th at 3:30 p.m. at Stonewood cemetery in Greece, please come to a free public event to commemorate Ida Breiman. Members of Workers United, the Pettengill Labor Education Fund and Ida's descendants still living in Rochester will host the ceremony. We will gather at her monument erected by the Brotherhood of Tailors, which has the inscription, "She lost her life during the struggle of 1913."
Who was Ida Breiman, for whose murder over 10,000 Rochester garment workers marched and struck? Ida Breiman immigrated to the U.S. to escape a Russian pogrom in her town of Zhitomir. Her family was among the few to escape detection and slaughter by Russian soldiers. She came to Rochester through the sponsorship of her uncle. Like many other immigrant women in the earlier years of industrialization, she joined the labor force as a garment worker, and was employed by the Adler Clothing Company on St. Paul Street. She was killed just a few months after her arrival in Rochester. Adding to the tragedy, she was to attend her wedding engagement party the very night of her killing. She and her fiancé, Jacob Salzitsky planned to move to Winnipeg, Canada after the wedding.
At the turn of the century, Rochester was third in the nation for clothing production, following only New York City and Chicago. Over 20,000 workers, half of the city's workforce, were employed in these two industries. The men's clothing industry alone employed over 5,000 workers in Rochester factories, including the world renowned Hickey Freeman, and another 15,000 did homework or piecework in small shops. But, low wages and long hours prevailed, and workers were denied hire or fired when they attempted unionization. In response to these conditions, and refusing to do the work of striking New York City garment workers, on January 23rd about 200 workers walked off the job, including Ida and her father, Jacob Breiman, an active member in The United Garment Workers Union. They demanded union recognition, a pay increase, extra pay for overtime and holidays, and the eight-hour day. Over 10,000 Rochester garment workers joined in the strike and marched daily as a consequence of Ida's killing. The strike ended in April when garment factory owners agreed to stop discriminating against workers for joining a union. But, it would take another six years before Rochester area clothing workers joined newly-formed Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and won a collective bargaining agreement.
Immigrating to America to escape persecution only to be gunned down while exercising freedom of association that our country offered is one reminder that business identifies the class nature of threats to its privileged social conditions. It was not the religion, ethnicity or sex of workers that mattered to the factory owners; it was instead the fact that regardless of their origins and identities, the strikers were organized to challenge their authority.
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What would Ida and the 1913 garment strikers say today? In 1935, the Wagner Act gave most workers in private business the right to form a union of their own choosing, and in 1937 the forty-hour work week was established. Gradually, however, these provisions for workers have been scaled back. A major blow to labor was the 1947 Taft-Hartley amendment to the Wagner Act, which among many other things, made the sympathy strike illegal; so, today, just as in 1913, Rochester workers could be required to do the work shipped in from other workplaces on strike. By the 1970s, U.S.-based garment work approached extinction due to such trends as offshoring and corporate restructuring, and sweatshop conditions began to return in the remaining shops. With no requirements of early warning, it was common that small-shop employers packed up and left without notice, leaving workers, like my mother, without their last few weeks of pay. Our own Hickey Freeman, one of the few remaining local clothing firms, continues to battle for its future.
As for the children and grandchildren of the factory workers, for whom the parents held high hopes for advancement, they now commonly face a work week in excess of fifty hours if they enter professional or technical fields. If not so fortunate to be in such fields, they might be challenged to find full-time work beyond thirty hours. These two extremes of over work and under work now account for just over half of the U.S. workforce; the forty-hour work week is fading.
Let Rochesterians come to know that, Ida Breiman, like Susan B. Anthony, was as an agent of progressive social change. Let the Rochester garment workers' strike of 1913 remind today's workers of the work still to be done to stop the erosion of workers' rights and to achieve secure and humane conditions of work.
-Vincent Serravallo is Associate Professor of Sociology at RIT, and studies work and community, and the consequences of work on familial relations. He helped narrate Struggle in Smugtown, a Rochester labor history documentary.
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