Jewish Garment Workers

Into the sweatshops.

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Contracting utilized section work, which was designed to exploit the economies of a minute division of labor. The contractor, usually an immi­grant who had been in America somewhat longer than the newest arrivals (greenhorns) picked up precut, unsown garments from the manufacturer. He then supervised in his own home, or in a loft or tenement room converted to a shop, a collection of operators: basters, pressers, finishers, zip­per installers, buttonhole makers, and pocket makers. Some section and finishing work was given to a subcontractor, who found people willing to take that work into their own apartments.

Exploitative Conditions

Exploitation--including exploita­tion of the self (as the contractors and subcontractors and their family members often worked alongside the employees)--was more intense than in factories and inside shops. The contractor's profit margin was low and so, therefore, was pay. The sweatshop, in addition, demanded extremely long hours in terribly close quarters.

Abe Cahan [an immigrant author], in his short story "Sweat-Shop Romance," described the kitchen in a small Essex Street apartment, filled to overflowing with bun­dles of cloth, shears, cotton spools, finished garments, people, pots, and pans. Also present was a "red-hot kitchen stove," which made the work space a sweatshop in the literal sense.

The worst conditions of the factory and the tenement had come to­gether in one place. Yet to the newly arrived immigrants there were advan­tages to the sweatshop system. Workers could communicate in their own language. The work, however arduous, did not prevent the performance of religious duties, the observance of the Sabbath, or the celebration of religious festivals. Moreover, working together in small units, immigrants thought they could preserve the integrity of their families. The "homes of the Hebrew quarters are its workshop also," reported journalist Jacob Riis:

"You are made fully aware of it before you have traveled the length of a single block in any of these East Side streets, by the whir of a thousand sewing machines, worked at high pressure from earliest dawn till mind and muscle give out together. Every member of the family from the youngest to the oldest bears a hand, shut in the qualmy rooms, where meals are cooked and clothing washed and dried besides, the livelong day. It is not unusual to find a dozen persons--men, women and children--at work in a single room."

Skilled Labor

Skilled and semiskilled Jewish workers, from increasingly industri­alized homelands, continued to arrive in the United States at the turn of the century. Nearly 67 percent of gainfully employed Jewish immigrants who arrived between 1899 and 1914 possessed industrial skills--a much higher proportion than any other incoming national group.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.