Our history/our future
International Women’s Day, 8 March, is a tribute to our history and a celebration of our future.
On 8 March 1908, in New York, 15,000 women garment workers marched the streets. \they were young, mostly under 21, foreign born and speaking many languages. They were united and militant. Many were revolutionary socialists. And they were women.
For ten or twelve hours a day they worked in tiny, dirty, suffocating factories. The doors and windows were locked from the outside. There were no toilets or teabreaks and talking was forbidden. Many would be blind by the age of 25-sewing tiny beads onto the finery of the wealthy.
But they knew hope as well as drudgery. In their thousands they responded to the Socialist Party call, and marched through New York demanding equal pay, nurseries for working mothers, an end to sweatshop conditions and the right to organise into trade unions.
Their militancy inspired the declaration of ‘Working Women’s Day ‘ on 8 March. Two years later, Clara Zetkin, revolutionary leader of the German women’s movement, called on all socialists to celebrate that day as International Women’s Day.
The New York garment workers went on to lead the ‘Uprising of the 40,000’-a general strike in the clothing industry in 1912. Their action paved the way for the founding of one of the first industrial unions in the United States.
Seventy years on from that first march, women round the world are still fighting for freedom and a decent life. Here is one more chapter in that history.
GEORGIA Ellis lives in Elwood, Indiana, a bleak factory town of about 12,000 people just north of Indianapolis. She has worked at Essex Wire for over 10 years. Last April the 220 workers there, members of the United Automobile Workers Union, (UAW) decided to strike. They wanted more money, better sick pay and a pension. It was a long and bitter strike. In the nine months they were out the strikers, mostly women, were beaten up, shot at, and hosed down in some of the bloodiest battles in recent American labor history. In January, just a few weeks after the settlement, we sat around the wood stove in Georgia’s kitchen and listened to her talk about the strike.
The problem was, we didn’t know how to run a strike. Older people, we’ve led a pretty sheltered life in a small town, most of us. We just went to work and took our pay and came home.
Most of the union branches that supported us heard about it or read about it in the paper and called and volunteered. But the UAW Regional Office asked them not to get involved, not to send men in, that would cause trouble.
‘In Elwood, you got people on both sides. To some people the word strike is dirty. A lot of our shopkeepers were very much behind us. They gave us food, they gave us leftovers at the end of the day.
‘But here was also terrible violence, terrible brutality against us. When the scabs started coming in they would have tyre tools, ball bats and even guns. At first they just hit a lot of us and if we’d get anywhere near they’d go out of their way to bump us with their cars. We had one man hit by a lorry. He was hurt pretty badly.
‘My picket team was four older women and two men. Once there were just we four women sitting around a fire and suddenly-I thought it was fire crackers-and I started to laugh about it and my friend said, ‘That’s not fire crackers, that’s a gun! And shot thudded into the log.
‘The courts and the police were very much biased against us. Very much. Most of our laws, of course, are with the corporations. We didn’t have any idea of that before. We thought the policeman’s your friend. If somebody’s up there roughing up a 60-year-old woman, you call a policeman. But when the policeman does it you don’t know quite what to do.
‘Early in July we decided that was the end of it, we just determined they were not going to have scab labour. So we got about 250 people down there, UAW people, townspeople, our people and when one of the cars came out-it was a foreman’s car-we bombarded it. And then they took all of the scab labour out of the plant and they left 11 people in.
‘One night there were about seven people on the picket line and about 2 o’clock in the morning they heard a disturbance down at the gate. When they went down to see what was going on the guards turned fire hoses on them and knocked them down. Then about 30 guys came out of the plant and they had great huge shields made of plexi-glass and big clubs and they fell on these people and they fell on these people and just beat the livin’ daylights out of them. One man had a heart attack and had to be put in intensive care. One of our women got hit in the face with a rock.
‘So we call all our people out on 8 hour picket, as many as possible out there to protect our people. During the next two days, they shot as us almost constantly. At night they fired rockets up like a battlefield and they would light up the whole area and then shoot at you. Most of us tried to wear dark clothing and stay back in dark corners so they couldn’t see us.
‘That night they shot at us and the next day their supply helicopter came in and we ran down to the corner of the fence to take a picture of it. As I aimed the camera, the plant door opened and a guard fired a shotgun directly at us. We just ran. Three of our girls were on the railroad and the foreman shot directly at them. They had to fall down on the track to keep from getting hit.
The next night was when Carol Fry got shot. She had her back turned toward the factory and they heard two shots in rapid succession. And Carol screamed she’d been shot and there was blood from the back of her hair clear down over her hips. There were bullets hitting the bus and her husband crawled under a hail of bullets to call an ambulance. She was taken to the hospital with a bullet lodged next to her spine, and it’s still there. Of course the union hasn’t done much for her. As it is, she could turn the wrong way and that bullet could sever her spine. She could be paralysed. The rest of us-we’ll manage, but it could have been any one of us. Last Friday night a bunch of our members who are back to work contributed a dollar a piece, those of us that had it, to Carol.
I was pretty vocal during the strike and they sent a man out to my home. He broke in and beat me pretty badly. As it turned out I had a cracked jaw, a cracked jawbone, and a little nerve damage and I was all black and blue, but I come through pretty good. When the policeman came he said I was hysterical and he would come back the next day when I got out of the hospital and talk to me. But he never came back, they never questioned the neighbours and they never took fingerprints. The county police put out a report that their “investigation” showed it couldn’t have been strike related.
The Union kept trying to get us to accept the company’s offer. We had several votes and every time we turned it down. In fact, when the Regional Director came and told us we had to buy it our people just locked arms and sang ‘Solidarity Forever’. He finally shut up and we just booed him clear off the stage. It was the only time we actually met him, he never even came down to see about our strike.
The union finally sent seven people down from the headquarters in Detroit. They simply told us that they had done all they could, they said there was no point wanted to discuss it, and they said there was no point in discussing it. Well, everybody was crying, we didn’t know what to do. We were scared and we knew that if we didn’t go back, they were just going to have enough scabs in there that none of us would have a job. So we went back.
‘The greatest thing we got out of this is being together and helping each other, something we never had in the plant. We had little cliques, little groups that picked at each other.
‘But yet when we were all out there with the same problem, facing the same enemy with the same finances we were ready to help each other. And we worked together and it was a beautiful thing. They brought things from their gardens and shared and they brought clothes for each other’s kids and they were really tremendous, it was great.
The Union’s going to find out it isn’t over, because I don’t intend to let it be over and a number of other people don’t. Nothing was ever given to the labour movement. It all had to be bought and it was paid for damn dearly, and I think it’s going to have to be paid for even more. We’re just going to have to prove we have enough courage to do it.’
by Celia Petty
Womens Voice 10, 15 March 1978
typed by Sarah Piggott