My grandmother’s quilt, circa 1920. Each circle is identical to the tip of an umbrella. My grandmother worked in a sweatshop from the ages of 9-13 making unbrellas. Photo by Emma Rosenthal.
On the crest of the impending wave about to strike every city and town this Monday, I offer the following musings: The first is a letter to the editor, I sent to the L.A. Times, Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the Pasadena Star News. The second; My Grandmother’s Knitting Needles, was first published in LoudMouth Magazine, Cal State L.A.’s Feminist Newspaper in Issue 4: Winter 2004. It is the story of my own grandmother and a reminder that if we did deep enough, most of us will find that at least one member of our family is an immigrant with dubious entry documents, or no documents at all. While current immigrants hail mostly from Mexico, Central America and Asia, immigration discrimination has been a national plague dating back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and since then, reflected in one piece of repressive legislation after another; directed mostly against peoples of Asia, the global South and Eastern and Southern Europe. Poor working conditions, exploited labor, insufficient educational programs have long plagued wave after wave of immigrants. The exploitation of undocumented workers has been a keystone of U.S. capital. The pejorative anti- Italian term WOP, simply means, “without papers”, used to refer to undocumented immigrants, by greedy employers. The term was used universally, it simply stuck on the Italians.
So, I hope to make my way down to the demonstrations on Monday, but should my health limit my participation, I offer these quiet insurrections.
Peace with justice, from occupied Atzlan,
Only workers in the United States and Great Britain have to declare a boycott on May first, not to go to work on that day. In all the other countries in the world, May Day is a holiday: International Workers’ Day, which grew out of the Haymarket Riots in Chicago, Ill. in 1886 when eleven people were killed during a demonstration, when a bomb went off in the crowd, and police fired on strikers fighting for the eight hour work day. Five activists, four (German) immigrants -anarchists, were accused of throwing the bomb, and despite witness testimony to the contrary, were hung, executed by the state. May Day grew into an international holiday, but in the U.S. due to red baiting and reactionary labor and governmental policies, an alternate Labor Day became the official holiday. Cleverly timed for the first Monday in September, before the school year begins, working class contributions and consciousness are little recognized even for one day, in our nation’s schools.
Few workers in the U.S. know the words to Solidarity Forever, leave alone the words to the Internationale, few know about the Haymarket strike or the Uprising of the twenty thousand. Few know who Samuel Gompers or Eugene Debs are. We are a people from many lands, torn up by the roots, wandering aimlessly, unaware of our own past as immigrants or as workers.
But this Monday brings a new breeze to the U.S. and labor landscape, because we are about to witness, and many of us are about to participate in the largest strike, perhaps the largest mass mobilization, in U.S. history. It is no accident that we are brought back to our own history, our own May Day by immigrant workers, reminding us of the international holiday that actually began on U.S. soil. Oh the many contributions of immigrants to our wide, deep and varied cultural mosaic.
These are exciting times indeed.
My Grandmother’s Knitting Needles
By Emma Rosenthal
“What the woman who labors wants is to live, not simply exist–the right to life as the rich woman has it, the right to life, and the sun, and music, and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” -Garment worker Rose Schneiderman, August 1912
Her hands moved like mercury. The click clack of the needles, back and forth, the yarn spinning from the ball on the floor into the moving swarm of hands and needles, emerging as form, as hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters. “Watch and learn,” she would tell me, and I tried but all I saw was the miraculous transformation of a ball of yarn into cloth. She had grandmother hands, bumpy where the veins stood out, loose soft skin.
“Before a girl could get married in my village she had to prove that she was patient enough for the task,” she told me. “They would give her a bundle of tangled yarn,” she would say, as we would struggle to untangle wool, or rope or extension cords. She told the story as she wound yarn into balls for knitting. “If she could not untangle the yarn, she could not get married.” I remember that story every time I have something to untangle. I would never settle for a village marriage, but patience is a skill applied to any task worthy of completion.
By the time she was five she had lost her entire immediate family. It is not clear if they died of illness and starvation, or were killed in pogroms, massacres committed by Polish or Russian authorities against the Jewish peasants throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Either way, it was governmental policies towards the Jews that killed them, living in the region that was Poland one day, Russia the next, bombarded by Cossacks, government sanctioned thugs that rode in on horseback killing and destroying everything in their sight, slashing open the bellies of pregnant women, raping children, killing the livestock, burning homes. She remembered being thrown into a root cellar by her aunt when she was only six to hide from the Cossacks, hidden among the carrots and parsnips, potatoes and rutabagas while death, destruction, ravaged in the streets above her. At six, she landed on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, with her aunt and nephews, on the false passport of her dead cousin. They came to join her uncle in New York, in America, where there is such abundance that they shovel gold in the streets. What she found was the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Delancy Street, Hester Street. A three room, cold water walk up flat on the fourth floor. There was no bath, the toilet was in the hallway, shared by all the families on the floor. She slept in the kitchen.
She decided to go to work. At age nine she went to the factory by day and school at night. Now she had three different identities, as common to the immigrant experience as cheap labor and cloth dust. She was of course, herself – Anna Kaufman – daughter of Aaron Moses Kaufman and Choma Reingold. Her passport gave her the identity of her dead cousin. And now she had a third set of documents, for work, identifying her as a thirteen year old. She found employment in an umbrella factory, making the tips of umbrellas.
She worked there for three years. By the time she was 12, she was able to make every part of the umbrella and was now a shop forelady. It was that year, 1909 that a strike broke out in the garment industry. The strike, led mostly by Jewish and Italian immigrant teenagers, was named the Uprising of the 20,000. Not a machine whirred, not a wheel turned. The strike that began on November 22, 1909, lasted almost four months, through the winter and ended on March 8, 1910. She wasn’t a leader in the strike, but she left her lofted position of middle management and walked out with the other workers in one of American history’s biggest strikes. “I didn’t want to be a scab,” she told me.
Such a different world, where a 12 year old girl knows the sanctity of a picket line and the importance of righteous bread.
“Watch and learn,” she would tell me, her hands moving like silver as yarn became cloth. “Watch and learn.” She would tell me.
I still can’t knit. I never have crossed a picket line.