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A Curriculum for Middle and High School Students

Goldman's Factory­working Experience

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Clothing­works factory,
New York Weekly
May 23, 1871
CONTEXT: Many women immigrants like Goldman found poorly paid work in unsafe and unhealthy sweatshops and textile factories in northeastern cities. Goldman's first experience working in Rochester, New York, led her to believe that conditions in America were little better than in Russia.

Excerpt from Living My Life

Conditions in a "model" factory

Now I was in America, in the Flower City of the State of New York, in a model factory, as I was told. Certainly, Garson's clothing­works were a vast improvement on the glove factory on the Vassilevsky Ostrov. The rooms were large, bright, and airy. One had elbow space. There were none of those ill­smelling odours that used to nauseate me in our cousin's shop. Yet the work here was harder, and the day, with only half an hour for lunch, seemed endless. The iron discipline forbade free movement (one could not even go to the toilet without permission), and the constant surveillance of the foreman weighed like stone on my heart. The end of each day found me sapped, with just enough energy to drag myself to my sister's home and crawl into bed. This continued with deadly monotony week after week.

The amazing thing to me was that no one else in the factory seemed to be so affected as I, no one but my neighbour, frail little Tanya. She was delicate and pale, frequently complained of headaches, and often broke into tears when the task of handling heavy ulsters proved too much for her. One morning, as I looked up from my work, I discovered her all huddled in a heap. She had fallen in a faint. I called to the foreman to help me carry her to the dressing­room, but the deafening noise of the machines drowned my voice. Several girls near by heard me and began to shout. They ceased working and rushed over to Tanya. The sudden stopping of the machines attracted the foreman's attention and he came over to us. Without even asking the reason for the commotion, he shouted, "Back to your machines! What do you mean stopping work now? Do you want to be fired? Get back at once!" When he spied the crumpled body of Tanya, he yelled: "What the hell is the matter with her?" "She has fainted," I replied, trying hard to control my voice. "Fainted, nothing," he sneered, "she's only shamming."

"You are a liar and a brute!" I cried, no longer able to keep back my indignation.

I bent over Tanya, loosened her waist, and squeezed the juice of an orange I had in my lunch basket into her half­opened mouth. Her face was white, a cold sweat on her forehead. She looked so ill that even the foreman realized she had not been shamming. He excused her for the day. "I will go with Tanya," I said; "you can deduct from my pay for the time." "You can go to hell, you wildcat!" he flung after me.

We went to a coffee place. I myself felt empty and faint, but all we had between us was seventy­five cents. We decided to spend forty on food, and use the rest for a street­car ride to the park. There, in the fresh air, amid the flowers and trees, we forgot our dreaded tasks. The day that had begun in trouble ended restfully and in peace.

The next morning the enervating routine started all over again, continuing for weeks and months, broken only by the new arrival in our family, a baby girl. The child became the one interest in my dull existence. Often, when the atmosphere in Garson's factory threatened to overcome me, the thought of the lovely mite at home revived my spirit. The evenings were no longer dreary and meaningless. But, while little Stella brought joy into our household, she added to the material anxiety of my sister and my brother­in­law.

i Apply for a Rise in Salary

Lena never by word or deed made me feel that the dollar and fifty cents I was giving her for my board (the car fare amounted to sixty cents a week, the remaining forty cents being my pin­money) did not cover my keep. But I had overheard my brother­in­law grumbling over the growing expenses of the house. I felt he was right. I did not want my sister worried, she was nursing her child. I decided to apply for a rise. I knew it was no use talking to the foreman and therefore I asked to see Mr. Garson.

I was ushered into a luxurious office. American Beauties were on the table. Often I had admired them in the flower shops, and once, unable to withstand the temptation, I had gone in to ask the price. They were one dollar and a half apiece--more than half of my week's earnings. The lovely vase in Mr. Garson's office held a great many of them.

I was not asked to sit down. For a moment I forgot my mission. The beautiful room, the roses, the aroma of the bluish smoke from Mr. Garson's cigar, fascinated me. I was recalled to reality by my employer's question: "Well, what can I do for you?"

I had come to ask for a rise, I told him. The two dollars and a half I was getting did not pay my board, let alone anything else, such as an occasional book or a theatre ticket for twenty­five cents. Mr. Garson replied that for a factory girl I had rather extravagant tastes, that all his "hands" were well satisfied, that they seemed to be getting along all right--that I, too, would have to manage or find work elsewhere. "If I raise your wages, I'll have to raise the others' as well and I can't afford that," he said. I decided to leave Garson's employ.

Questions on Goldman's Factory-working Experience:
  1. Describe the working conditions to which Goldman objected.

  2. If you had been an immigrant at the time, would you have spoken out against such conditions? What might the consequences of such action have been?

  3. What was Mr. Garson's response to Goldman's request for a raise? How does Goldman's description of Garson's office and her confrontation with him dramatize the disparity between workers and owners in industrial America?

  4. What specific aspects of factory labor restricted Goldman's sense of freedom?

  5. What does this account reveal about Goldman's personality? What type of person do you think she was?

General Questions on this Exhibit:
  1. What type of jobs are available today for immigrants in your area? Why?

  2. What tensions in society have arisen over the issue of hiring immigrants instead of American citizens?

  3. What are examples of the positive influences of immigrants on the economy, politics, and culture of American society?

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