Sol Stetin Interview

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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0:00

 GEORGE STONEY: Sol, we want you to tell about the 1934 convention.

SOL STETIN: I'll be glad to. Um, I had been a member of the union for almost a year when I went to my first convention, which was held at the Woodstock Hotel, or right opposite the Woodstock Hotel, um, in August of 1934. Um, I had been an activist in the union, and I was a delegate to that convention. And I was simply amazed when we visited the -- the rooms of some of the uh, people that were delegates, especially from the South. They were very poor, some of them 1:00were involved in a strike in Alabama, which had started before even the general strike. Uh, and you'd walk in, and you'd find uh, five, six people staying in one room, because they had no money in those days. They brought food, they had boxes of food laying all over the place, in order to feed themselves. In fact, sometimes we even made collections for those delegates who had been on strike, especially.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, tell us about uh, how the union felt about the strike, and why they responded to the Southerners.

STETIN: Well, it's interesting to note that originally, um, the strike call was for just the cotton textile workers. Um, there -- there was great sympathy, there was -- at the time, Roosevelt had just been elected, and uh, there was a 2:00feeling that there was a revival taking place, and there was real enthusiasm for support, especially from my own local union, we had just gotten organized the previous year, in a strike in six local unions, which had -- there was no NLRB. We didn't care about the NRA, we just walked out and organized ourselves into a union. Um, and we were impressed with these workers, we were very sympathetic to them. And uh, not only did the workers vote to go on strike in the cotton industry, but the silk workers said, "We're going to strike too." And the woolen workers, and the carpet workers, and the plush and velvet workers. My own local union, and the five other locals that were involved in the '33 strike of the dyers union, we had a contract that was running until October the 24th. 3:00Here is a date set to go on strike on, I think, September the 1st or 2nd. And um, but when I came back after the convention, I would argue that we should go out on strike in sympathy. And um, we kept on this for several meetings, because in those days, we met every Saturday. And uh, but better heads than mine prevailed, because we had a written contract. And of course, I was wrong, but I was very determined that we should support the strikers in the South. We did raise money, but we didn't go out on strike until after the strike ended, then October the 24th of that year, we had our second strike in Paterson. And Passaic, and Lodi, and Union City, and Rutherford, and Brooklyn. We had six local unions.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you tell us about the fix that uh, the union officials were in when they faced this pressure from the South?

4:00

STETIN: Well, financially it's amazing, we had no money. The -- the -- the union was broke. It had no money, we were just getting started. Um, and financially, we were in bad shape, had that strike taken place three years later, under the leadership of John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman, when they formed the textile workers organizing committee, but it was three years too late. Now we -- we -- we didn't have the resources that we had under the CIO, under the leadership of John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman.

GEORGE STONEY: Why do you think that Gorman went along with following the strike? Use Gorman's name when you answer that.

STETIN: Why did we go along in calling the strike? Well, Frank Gorman was the chairman of the committee. A -- a -- directed by President McMahon to conduct the strike. The decision was made by the executive council. And they set the 5:00date, and uh, it wasn't that he made the decision. Well of course, he played a major role in the decision making processes.

GEORGE STONEY: Why did you think they made that decision, when they knew that they were broke?

STETIN: Oh, the -- the -- the means of the workers all over the country, people were flocking into the union. You know, all during the convention, and right after the convention, local unions all over the country were flocking into the union movement. There was a lot of spirit for organization in those days. And they felt that even though they had no money, we could organize the industry, we could win the strike.

GEORGE STONEY: As an experienced union man, looking back on it, what would you say about that?

STETIN: Oh, it was unfortunately a mistake. We just weren't ready for it. There's no question about that. We didn't have the resources. And the two 6:00important divisions of the union, the hosiery division, the American Federation of Hosiery Workers, and the dyers division, the Federation of Dyers, finishes, and printers, and bleachers of America, they had some resources. But most of the other unions didn't have any. And in the treasury of the United Textile Workers, I don't recall how much we had, but we had very little money. It was a poor decision when you look back on it, but the enthusiasm was so great coming from the workers, the workers had nothing. They had no vacation, they had nothing. No -- they had no -- I think we were getting -- well, in my local union, in our dyers division, we were getting 57 and a half cents an hour.

GEORGE STONEY: What were the Southerners getting?

7:00

STETIN: Oh God, they were getting -- I doubt that they were even getting the minimum of 45 cents. I think the minimum in the cotton industry was 32 and a half cents at that time.

GEORGE STONEY: Do you recall what any of this --

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible).

GEORGE STONEY: Ah. At -- when I ask the question, I want you to put your -- my question in your answer. So that it -- you can cut out my questions. Uh, why -- why this differential between the Southern, uh, workers and the Northern workers, in terms of wages?

STETIN: That was a decision that the industry was able to force on the NRA.

GEORGE STONEY: What was it? Start over and say what the -- what that decision was.

STETIN: The -- the decision to have a differential between the North and the South was made by the -- the -- the employers in conjunction with the government. The government didn't consult much with labor in those days. There 8:00was very little involvement by the labor movement, and we were a small organization, we have very little influence.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, when -- so when the strike was called off, uh, Gorman seemed to think that he had some agreement with uh, the New Deal. Could you talk about that?

STETIN: Well, the truth of the matter is that Gorman interpreted the settlement as a victory, when it was a defeat. We were sup-- if there was an understanding with the government, there was no understanding on the part of the employers to live up to any agreement that the -- that the government said we would carry out, we would help you. They didn't help us. In fact, the -- the role of the federal government in the '34 strike was terrible. It was more on the side of the employers than it was on the side of the workers.

9:00

GEORGE STONEY: Why do you think that was true? Uh, Roosevelt was supposed to be a friend of labor.

STETIN: Yeah, but Roosevelt was a human being, and he was influenced by the power structure in the Senate. Especially in the Senate, and in the Congress -- in the House of Representatives. The -- the people that were being sent up from the South were not Democrats, they were Dixiecrats. And uh, even though they were in the Democratic Party, they were more conservative than the people in the Republican Party at that time.

GEORGE STONEY: Why did you think he changed? Roosevelt.

STETIN: I personally believe Roosevelt changed because the labor movement began to grow, it grew, and especially when the CIO was formed in November of 1935, um, when eight industrial unions were brought together by John L. Lewis, and 10:00they formed the CIO. And the workers were flocking into the union. There was a revolution taking place in this country. A peaceful industrial revolution. And that affected Roosevelt. In my opinion. He saw the power of the people.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, when you were -- you were a young man, going to this meeting in New York, and you must have met young men from the South. Can you tell us about any personal remembrances of those meetings?

STETIN: Well --

GEORGE STONEY: What did the strikers look like -- these delegates look like? How did they sound? How did you regard them as a -- as a Yankee.

STETIN: Well, I regarded them as my equals. And I regarded them as being very poor. Because it was obvious, by the clothing they wore. Uh, but when you talked to them, they were just as knowledgeable as I was about the importance of forming a strong trade union movement in this country in the textile industry.

11:00

GEORGE STONEY: Do you happen to know how many, uh, paid organizers there were in the South? Or, talk about that.

STETIN: Well frankly, uh, I don't recall how many paid organizers there were. I think we had very few -- very few paid organizers. We had a lot of volunteer organizers. And, you know, after uh, our strike, we learned uh, after our two strikes, I learned that um, most of the organizers were volunteers, and that they were paid for each person they brought into the union. They would get 50 cents for each member they signed up. The initiation fee was a dollar. So what was happening, they would leave one section and go to the next one, because it meant they collected that much more money. And it was a poor system. It was unfortunately a poor system, and it hurt us by having such a method. But the -- 12:00I -- I can't recall any specific individuals, except the occasions when we would -- would visit the rooms of the strikers in Alabama. That was the main interest we had. And we also visited some of the other people, even though they weren't on strike yet. But they were all anxious to go out on strike. They felt that's the way to build the union.

GEORGE STONEY: How many women were involved? Could you talk about the women, and the unions at that time?

STETIN: Well, I -- I really can't. In those days, I think there were very few women at the convention. But there were a lot of women that were involved in the strikes, especially in the southern part of our country. Of course we also had some of the strikes in New England, we had some of the strikes in Philadelphia, but the dyers and the hosiery workers had written contracts and we didn't strike.

13:00

GEORGE STONEY: Judy?

JUDITH HELFAND: (inaudible). Sol, what did -- based on the -- the differential, and I know that the government (inaudible) helped do that, but what did the Northern labor (inaudible) think of the Southern cotton mill workers?

GEORGE STONEY: You want to talk to me about that.

STETIN: I -- I -- I don't know what you mean by that. Um, what did they think of the cotton textile workers.

GEORGE STONEY: Yeah, let me uh, put it the other way. We know from -- I know from my own uh, being a Southerner, we always had suspicions of the Yankees. There was a strong suspicion in my hometown, for example, that the unions were being sponsored by the Northern people so that we wouldn't have -- we wouldn't have flourishing industries in the South. They -- they -- if they organized the unions in the South, then the -- then the cotton mills wouldn't come down there.

STETIN: What --

GEORGE STONEY: So there was a -- a competitiveness there.

STETIN: What you just said to me --

GEORGE STONEY: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

14:00

STETIN: That -- that you felt that the Southern textile communities, the workers, everyone in the community, thought that we Northerners were down there to bring the work back. That was completely untrue. But that was always the position that the power structure in the South would promote in the factories, in the community. But it wasn't true. The workers didn't believe that. That was the propaganda of -- of the media, that was the propaganda of the authorities, that was the propaganda of the employers. But that was not what the workers believed, except they were hypnotized, some of them, into believing that. That was completely not true. We wanted equal standards all over the country. We weren't interested in bringing the work back here.

GEORGE STONEY: Why do you think there was that difference of an attitude between 15:00the -- the workers up in the North, and the ones in the South, towards unionism?

STETIN: Well, the one big difference is that --

GEORGE STONEY: Uh, sorry, the one big difference you're talking about.

STETIN: Yeah, the -- the -- the difference between the North and the South in that respect is because you had a degree of political democracy in the North. You always had a certain uh, portion of the working class that was unionized, and it affected what took place in the city council, what took place in the legislature, what took place in the Congress. We didn't have that from the South. In the South, there was very little influence from the ranks of the working people into the political decisions of either the Democratic or Republican Party. There was up here, we had some voice. We had no voice down there. And so, the lack of economic and workplace democracy in the South, as 16:00compared to the little bit we had in the North, affected what took place in this part of the country.

GEORGE STONEY: Sol, you're wonderful. That's just exactly the kind of answers we're looking for. That's beautiful. (inaudible).

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible).

GEORGE STONEY: There was a differential.

STETIN: Was it that late?

JAMIE STONEY: Yes, it was.

STETIN: God.

M2: (inaudible) 25 cents went into effect in 1939, when I was in Spartanburg.

STETIN: God.

M2: And TWA (inaudible) you know, the 32 and a half cents about a year --

STETIN: And you know, in Paterson, we were getting 45 when the strike took place in 1933, and uh, in 19, um, 33, when we went on strike, um, uh, we settled for 57 and a half cents an hour. I still remember some of the workers complaining because they were getting 50, we were getting -- most of us were getting 45, they said, "How come they got 12 and a half cents, we only got 7 and a half 17:00cents?" Can you imagine settling for a half a cent? Fifty-seven and a half cents, and in the second strike, we went to 19-- in 1934, when we settled the second, we went to 66. We settled the second strike on October the -- December the 4th.

GEORGE STONEY: OK. Now Judy.

HELFAND: Yeah. As descriptive as you can, because I wasn’t there, um, could you describe the way the Southern -- the delegation of Southern cotton mill workers who wanted to be -- who were -- who wanted to be on strike, um, presented their case to um, the audience?

STETIN: Well --

GEORGE STONEY: Talk to me.

STETIN: -- the -- the delegates, the delegates at that convention, there was a lot of participation by the delegates. And most of the Northern delegates were glad to hear what the strikers had to say, and they brought it out vividly. The 18:00conditions, especially the workers from Alabama, who had already been on strike, but workers in every section of the country, including New England, including Pennsylvania, and would -- would explain to the delegates, and I wish I had with me a copy of the proceedings. Some of which was carried out in those decisions that took place at that particular convention. Yeah, the -- they were vividly describing the conditions. The speed up and the stretch out. You know, the -- the -- they didn't have the same automated equipment that they have today, and they were driven, the conditions were very, very bad in the mills in those days.

HELFAND: Sol, describe to me, like there's this guy, there's a young cotton -- there's a cotton mill worker, was he wearing overalls? Did he have a suit? And he was standing there, and he was asking us to -- to (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

19:00

STETIN: Well I can't -- I can't say that I remember that very well.

HELFAND: OK.

STETIN: But I -- I wouldn't be surprised that some of them did come in overalls. Yes, I do -- I -- I think there were some people at that convention that came in overalls.

GEORGE STONEY: Now what was the name of the fellow (inaudible)?

HELFAND: The name of -- oh, R-- Reuben Sanders.

GEORGE STONEY: Reuben, OK. Now there was a fellow named Reuben Sanders in Columbus, Georgia, who was shot in a strike that happened just before the '30-- the big '34 strike, on September the 2nd. And uh, so a -- a -- at the convention, a letter of protest about his murder was read to the convention. Do you remember anything about that?

STETIN: No, I can't say that I do. I just don’t remember that.

GEORGE STONEY: OK. Right, OK. All right.

STETIN: You see, I'm getting to be old, George, and I don't remember things. I don't remember everything.

GEORGE STONEY: (laughter) OK. Anything else?

20:00

HELFAND: Well, I'm going to push it. Did they make an appeal?

STETIN: Yes, they sure did. They appealed for -- we had --

HELFAND: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

STETIN: The Southern strikers, especially from Alabama, made an appeal for funds, and I'm almost certain that we had a collection for them at that convention. And I'm sure that when my local union had its meeting the following, uh, that uh, convention, we raised money and sent it down to the Alabama strikers. I wish I could look at the minutes. By the way, we are now making a study of my own local, Local 1733, of the dyers, and I'm going to look for that in the '34 -- I should have made a study of those minutes as to what took place after that convention. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea, George, if you could visit Dyers Local 1733, and get a look at those minutes, and see 21:00some of the people that were -- remember that convention.

GEORGE STONEY: Very good idea.

STETIN: Like Mariana Costa, who was, I think, 17 when the union was formed, became the assistant secretary-treasurer of our local union. Her name then was Mariana Fedone. And she got married, it was Mariana Fedone-Costa, and she's a great supporter of this museum, and she's very much involved in the leadership of the retiree club of the dyers union. And with her, we can go and get a look at those minutes of dyers local 1733, that I'm a charter member of.

GEORGE STONEY: Great. Now, could you tell me why it's important to -- for people, working people now, to know their history?

STETIN: Well, you know, I'm going to have to -- I'm going to have to explain the question you just raised with me about why it's important for the workers to know something about their history. We merged our unions, the textile workers 22:00union with the clothing workers, in '76. And that year, at the end of -- the end of that decade, in 1980, I began to have an interest in the home we're meeting in. This is the Botto House, where we formed the American Labor Museum. And I began to teach and lecture at William Paterson College, and at Rutgers. And I began to realize that the students knew nothing about the history of the role that workers have played. They knew nothing about this very significant strike of 1934. Never heard of it. And yet, 400,000 people were on the street, 15 people were killed in that strike, 25,000 people were blacklisted, and here nothing is written about its history. And so, it became obvious to me that we 23:00needed a museum, so that people would be reminded of the history that the working people have gone through. That immigrants have gone through in this country. Because it's -- you've got to understand how important it is for people to know why strikes took place. Why did a strike take place affecting 400,000 people? Why were people so mistreated? Because of the power structure. The workers were dominated by the employers, by the courts, by the judges, by the government. There was no real democracy in the communities, especially in the South, and there was no workplace democracy. And so, it's important for the young people, yes, even children in public school, and children in high school, and the students in college, to know something about the history. We had a 24:00strike right nearby here, in Passaic, that lasted 13 months. And you talk to people, they never heard of it. Fourteen thousand people were on the street. That strike, the power structure there, was not as effective as they were in the South. Because that strike took 13 months. Now, it wasn't a complete victory, but there wasn't the kind of discrimination where 25,000 people lost their jobs in the Southern mills. But it was the employers, with the support of government, with the support of the police, with strike breaking agencies, with detective agencies that were able to destroy the right of the workers to form their own organizations. That's why it's important for labor history to be taught, and I'm very pleased that this museum is playing a major role in that 25:00respect. There is now legislation pending in the state that would provide that there should be curriculum, the curriculums in the schools should include the teaching of the role of immigrants, and the role of labor in the history of the United States of America. Which it isn't today.

GEORGE STONEY: OK. Hold it just a moment. Judy, do you have any other questions here? Because we've got to leave -- we've got to (overlapping dialogue; inaudible). Doing a new setup for [Don?].

HELFAND: Just I'm wondering, um, I mean this is going back to the beginning of our discussion. Did the Northern laborer feel that the Southern worker -- the Southern textile worker, were they a threat to -- to the work here?

STETIN: I don't believe that at all. I don't -- I don't think that the workers ever blamed the other workers. The workers in the North knew that it was the power structure in the South that was keeping wages low, it wasn't that the workers wanted wages to be low, to be lower in order to get work there. No one 26:00thought about that kind of thing.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, you worked in a mill. I want you to identify, I was a hosiery worker. So well, (inaudible). And then tell me what it's like to work in the mill. And when you do not have uh, some control over some -- some say-so about speed ups and the foreman, and uh, promotions and so forth. You've been in the place, and so that the audience can get a feeling for somebody like you, of a different --

STETIN: In the midst of the Depression, I was uh, caddying on the golf links. I was out of work. Uh, there was no one -- no work, it was very difficult, I had been selling newspapers, and so one of the employers who I caddied for owned a factory called the International Dye and Print Works on First Avenue, not 27:00far from where we are here. And um, he gave me a job. I got 32 cents an hour. I got all the hours I wanted, but there was no union in the place. In fact, I just re-- reviewed this the other day, they're having an oral taping of my own history in the dyers union, and um, I -- I called to their attention that I had been in the factory about a year, and a strike broke out. And um, I was in the shipping room, I didn't go out on strike. Because the -- the boss came to me and said, "This has nothing to do with you." They went out at twelve o'clock, but at five o'clock, when I got home in Paterson, we used to hang around the corner, those were the days when Father Coughlin was on the radio, he was a fascist. And um, um, one of the men heard about a strike, he was some -- 28:00somewhat of a radical. I had no conception of unions in those days. And um, he said, "Oh my God, aren't you on strike?" He said, "No, it has nothing to do with me, I'm in the shipping room. These -- these are the other workers in the dye house, in the boiler room, in the print shop." Oh, when he got through with me, he had me convinced that was terrible. I ran across the bridge, the Arch Street Bridge, I got a bus, I went up to 612 River -- River Street, I think it was called the Callan Ballroom, and I ran -- I heard that there was going to be a meeting there that night, I ran into that meeting and practically with tears in my eyes, I apologized. My place is with you guys. In fact, they knew I was a nervy kid, I used to box. Would you believe I had 15 professional fights when I was a kid? I was an amateur fighting professionally to get the -- make a $10 bill. So um, I worked in this factory, and I -- I got along very well with all 29:00the workers. And later on, a few years later, when the union was formed, the -- by the way, we settled -- I helped settle that strike, because I was in the shipping room, I knew who the customer was that was the key man to give us the money, with a higher price to the employer, and the strike was settled. I think we went from 32 to 36 cents an hour. But there -- there was no union involved. Later on, when a union was formed, they elected me shop chairman. Because they knew I had a lot of nerve.