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  • The Autobiography of Ann Washington CratonAuthor(s): Alice Kessler-Harris and Ann Washington CratonSource: Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 1019-1037Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 22:40

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    The Autobiography of Ann Washington Craton'

    Edited and with an Introduction by Alice Kessler-Harris

    Ann Washington Craton worked as an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union in the early 1920s. She was one of a still com- paratively small number of female college graduates for whom educa- tion and the changing times opened up possibilities beyond traditional marriage. In college she had been an eager student of the social philan- thropy of Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. Partly through them, she had developed a critical vision of America and an urgent, idealistic de- sire for change.

    After she graduated from George Washington University in 1915, Craton went to work in the social service agencies of wartime America. Between 1916 and 1918, she worked successively for the Board of Children's Guardians in Washington, D.C., as an adoption supervisor in rural Virginia, and as a girls' vocational guidance counselor under the auspices of the New York Child Labor Committee. In 1918 she was gathering statistics on the cost of living for the U.S. Department of Labor. By now she was convinced that she was, as she put it, "a born

    1. The unpublished manuscript is in the Ann Craton Blankenhorn collection at the Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. Excerpts are re- printed here by the kind permission of Philip Mason, director of the Archives. Additional letters and records may be found in the research division of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in New York City. Articles written by Ann Craton include: "Rats: an Organizers Story," Nation 115 (August 30, 1922): 204-5; "Bertha, The Sewing Machine Girl," Nation 123 (December 29, 1926): 689-90; "Facing the Famine Line," Nation 126 (April 4, 1928): 373-74; and "Working the Women Workers," Nation 124 (March 23, 1927): 311-13.

    [Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1976, vol. 1, no. 4] ? 1976 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


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  • 1020 Kessler-Harris Ann Washington Craton

    reformer and crusader." Her work exposed her to striking steel workers, to Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile workers who were secretly organiz- ing a union, and to the fear of the Red Scare. It introduced her to the ideas of such socialist and anarchist agitators as Kate Richards O'Hare and Emma Goldman. Confused and distressed about her own role in this difficult period, Craton floundered. Then, Julia O'Connor, leader of the Boston Telephone Workers Union, led her members off their jobs in support of striking Boston police. Craton recalls that she knew im- mediately what she wanted to do. She wanted, she said, "to organize working girls."

    When her sympathy with unions got her fired, Craton went to Sid- ney Hillman's Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America to look for work. The Amalgamated in 1919 was one of the so-called new unions-a maverick organization that chose to remain outside the cautious confines of the American Federation of Labor. Its leadership had rebelled against the job-consciousness, hierarchical structure, and craft organization of the older, much larger, and far more influential Federation. Instead, the Amalgamated, dominated by socialist influence, offered a vision of in- dustrial democracy, a world in which workers would divide the profits of capital and exercise control over the work process as well. The union could, its leaders thought, achieve this vision by uniting all garment workers, by encouraging industry-wide cooperation to end strikes and lockouts, and by instituting such specific, and for 1919 startling, pro- grams as union banks and unemployment benefits. The Amalgamated shared with the remnants of the Industrial Workers of the World both a commitment to organize the unskilled and energy for the women and immigrants who fell within its province.

    In the six years between its birth in 1914 and the end of 1919, when Sidney Hillman hired Ann Craton as an organizer, the Amalgamated had become an amazing success. By 1920, its organizers, focusing on big cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Rochester, had enrolled about 175,000 skilled and unskilled operators in the men's clothing in- dustry. Their efforts helped to produce one of the most highly or- ganized industries in the United States. From 75 to 80 percent of the workers in the trade were union members. This was an achievement in a highly competitive industry, still subdivided into small shops, in which 60-70 percent of the workers were unskilled women. From the begin- ning, Hillman had tried to select organizers who spoke the language of potential members. Nevertheless, though many of the industry's work- ers were Italian, union leadership remained predominantly Yiddish speaking.

    Rapid success had not been accomplished without pain. Employers, seeking to escape the influence of the Amalgamated and of other unions in the clothing trade, moved their factories away from urban centers and into rural areas where they hoped to find cheaper and less militant labor sources. These "run-away" shops found homes in places like the beauti- ful Schuylkill valley of central Pennsylvania's Appalachian mountain re- gion. In the small anthracite coal mining towns that dotted this area, miners' wives and daughters seemed an ideal labor supply. Unskilled,

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  • Summer 1976 1021

    they were often Polish, Lithuanian, and Slavic immigrants whose men- folk earned wages low enough to make an extra income a welcome and necessary supplement. Miners' high rates of injury and death forced many women into the labor market. And, except for occasional domestic work, there was no other employment available.

    Even before World War I, New York and Philadelphia manufactur- ers of men's clothing used skilled cutters to lay out patterns and cut garments and then shipped the cut goods to factories scattered in West Virginia and the Appalachians. They had not been the first to see the advantages of the available labor supply. Manufacturers of cotton and woolen textiles, men's underwear, and women's housedresses and kimonos had been setting up mills in the coal towns since the turn of the century. Militant trade union tactics in the big cities accelerated the process after the war. Soon every mine had its mill. Unskilled women and young girls sewed and finished clothing.

    Though women at first welcomed the income generated by available jobs, they soon found themselves caught in a collective nightmare. Wages, initially high enough to attract workers, were continually reduced as families became dependent on the extra income. Employers, who paid by the piece, rotated their workers so that a person who acquired skill at one job and could earn reasonable pay was transferred to another where she had to learn a new process before her pay once again increased. To earn even a pittance required cruelly long hours of labor, and to support a family on mill wages meant sending every child to work. Occasionally a paternalistic manager released his married female workers an hour early so that they could prepare the evening meal. But wages, of course, dropped in proportion to the reduced hours of work. Most mill owners lived in faraway Philadelphia or New York and never saw their factories in operation.

    Craton began organizing in the area in the winter of 1919-20. She had several advantages: women who were distressed and disgruntled by their working conditions; communities where a generation of miners' unions had made organization familiar; family and social pressure on the side of unionization; and the support and encouragement of a na- tional organization convinced that low wages in the Schuylkill undercut the earning power and ultimately threatened the jobs of city workers. Her campaign also benefited from a year of harsh labor struggles that had encouraged the notion of striking to remedy grievances.

    Craton took advantage of these conditions to conduct a successful organizing drive. Records of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in this period often refer to her as "one of our best organizers." The union responded to her success by granting her repeated pay raises within a few months after