Jewish Garment Workers
Into the sweatshops.
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.
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 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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