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Greek Immigrants at Work (Excerpts)
6 – UNIONS
Despite the fact that Greek immigrants who were to work in the textile mills and shoe factories of Lowell did not begin to arrive in America until the early 1890s, starting in 1900 they became a significant ethnic force in labor disputes and strikes. At first, being new arrivals who urgently needed and wanted to work, they avoided labor disputes that would idle them, and remained at their jobs. Mill managers, as they had done with other ethnic immigrant groups, used the Greeks as strikebreakers, knowing their reluctance to participate in labor turmoil and thus jeopardize the jobs that they so desperately needed. Naturally, they aroused anger, resentment, and hostility in the workers whom they had displaced. But the displaced workers, the union people, the mill managers, all misjudged the Greek immigrants. Because they needed jobs, the mill overseers assumed that they would meekly comply with company edicts on workloads and pay indefinitely. The overseers saw unskilled workers willing to work at menial jobs at low pay and therefore puppets to be manipulated for profit. What a gross miscalculation – brought on by ignorance of the character of these new immigrants. They accepted their lot philosophically, but most importantly, only temporarily.
First and foremost, from the highest to the lowest person, each believed that they bore a proud cultural heritage: Greece, the Cradle of Western Civilization. They bore first names that reminded them of that heritage – Demosthenes, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato. They recited tales: of the poet Homer who wrote of mighty Achilles, beautiful Helen, tragic King Priam of Troy; of Alexander the Great who conquered the ancient world; of Emperor Constantine who ruled the great Byzantine Empire from Constantinople. They would not demean that proud legacy by acting meanly.
Toil to extract a living from the rocky, arid, unyielding soil of Greece had bred independence and self-sufficiency in them because of their individual ability to survive. They knew the worth of their labor and resented when someone tried to cheat them or use them for less. Respecting themselves, they also respected fellow workers and supported any just grievances. Four hundred years of Turkish occupation had left many lessons to be passed from generation to generation; lessons of injustice by powerful men, of greed by rich men, of duplicity by political men, of hypocrisy by learned men. The Greeks learned, even as they listened to words, to judge the motives, as they did when they listened to the words of the overseers. Once they obtained a foothold in the mills, they not only refused to let the mill overseers use them to browbeat fellow workers, whether Greek or non-Greek, but they also placed themselves in the front ranks of protesting workers. What gnashed teeth and muttered oaths from those who had hired the “docile” Greeks.
On March 2, 1903, the Lowell Textile Council, a skilled textile workers’ union, asked the major mills of Lowell to give the approximately 17,000 to 20,000 mill operatives a ten-percent raise, as the Council had asked the year before. Since the average pay was about eight dollars a week, a raise meant eighty cents. The mills again refused and the Council voted to strike on March 30,1903. The morning newspaper, the Lowell Morning Citizen (price one cent), headlined, “MILL WHEELS ARE SILENT,” and subheadlined, “Greatest Labor Struggle in City’s History Begins.”
In the days before the actual strike, as the mill representatives threatened to fire strikers and replace them with unskilled workers, the mostly unskilled Greek mill workers emerged as a significant ethnic force because it appeared that they would act united, whatever side they chose. However, their exact number was unknown. Newspaper accounts differed from official census reports. The Lowell Morning Citizen (March 21, 1903) stated that 3,500 Greeks worked in the cotton mills. Yet the Massachusetts State Census of 1905 listed a total of 2,093 Greeks in Lowell (1,738 male, 355 female) in a Population of 100,000 people. Whatever the total and the number of cotton mill workers, they figured prominently in the newspapers before and during the strike. That same article stated that practically none of the Greeks belonged to unions and that most opposed a strike because they had not worked long enough to save any of their earnings to use as emergency income.
Two days later (Monday, March 23), the weavers met at Loomfixer’s Hall (Merrimack and Kirk Streets), and a Jules Duchesne spoke in English and French. Then a Greek who had given his card to a secretary so that his name could be pronounced spoke in his tongue. He said he was president of the Greek Social Club and that he could call the Greeks out on strike. On Friday, in the same hall, over three hundred Greeks listened to speeches by members of their social club who urged them to strike with the unions. All day Saturday and Sunday they gathered in the coffeehouses and on the sidewalks of Dummer and Market Streets to discuss the strike, heatedly and excitedly.
The Lowell Morning Citizen reported the events. One outside observer said, “They (the Greeks) favor high wages, but won’t commit themselves to an outsider on whether they’ll stay out Monday morning.” A prominent community figure, Michael Iatron, advised, “If you belong to a union, stick with it and go out. If independent, wait until another nationality takes the initiative.” He added, “Greeks can stand a long strike. They’ve saved their money. I judge they have seventy-five thousand dollars in the banks.” Most wanted the higher wages, and so sympathized with the union, but a sizable number still hesitated, fearing to lose their pay, perhaps even their jobs. When a bachelor Greek berated one of his patrioti – for only a close fellow villager could accuse another of timidity without a fight – the married man replied scornfully, “Neh, Neh, my friend, for you it’s the ninth of the month (only carefree days). Today Ioannis and his bouzouki, and Sophia and her sly eyes welcome you and your dollars at the beeraria (beer parlor). But wait,” the man shook his head knowingly, “wait until tomorrow, until you have a wife and children. Then you’ll sing like a crow and dance like a jackass to the cacophony of the weaving room.”
The bachelor laughed and slapped his thigh with his palm as he would slap his heel if he were dancing. “Can I help myself! The music frees me and lifts me, and I rise into the air and land softly back.”
“Like a mountain goat which does it better,” said the married man dryly.
“Your menagerie grows. I’ll let you tend them and the weaving looms. I’ll not become a hamali (lowly laborer).” As most prophecies about life extracted from experience, their words came partly true for each of them and for each other.
At the Sunday meeting (the day before the strike) of the Textile Council, for the first time Greek delegates represented the Greek colony (as the papers called the Greek community). Monday the unions struck; all the major mills shut their doors, except the Lawrence. An assembly of seven hundred Greeks at the Loomfixer’s Hall voted to cooperate in the strike and not to ask for any financial assistance from the unions. The unions were surprised and elated. To paraphrase a union official quoted in the Citizen, “The Greek lives a life of economy; he saves. He’s not shy about running to the overseer to demand what’s due him. It may seem cheaper to get the Greeks over here, but the bargain will prove costly for the mill agents.”
For the Greeks, cooperation in the strike meant involvement. On Wednesday, April 8, 1903, the main headline of the Morning Citizen read, “RIOTOUS SCENE OF THE STRIKE CAUSED BY GREEKS AT LAWRENCE GATE.” A number of Greeks had gone to work in the Lawrence Hosiery, as well as some ring spinners of other nationalities, which infuriated those who were staying out of the mills. Five hundred of them waited at the gates at 6:00 P.M., and when the mill operatives appeared, they began to jeer and jostle the workers. Crowds of people rapidly gathered by the hundreds. Special police, reinforced by regular police, pushed the crowd, grown to ten thousand, to the intersection of Merrimack and Cabot Streets. Four Greeks (Louis Condos, Louis Pappas, Peter Sarris, Costas Markopoulos) were arrested and booked on the charge of obstructing the streets. About a week later, hundreds joined Constantine Anton, a parade marshal, and thousands of other workers in a march to support the strike. To what purpose? The State Board of Arbitration ruled that the mills, except for the Lawrence, could not afford to give a wage increase. The ruling hit the strikers a body blow; many shouted, “a low blow!” The mills stiffened their stance, and economic hardships increased for the workers. Slowly, both union and nonunion workers returned to their jobs. The strike of 1903 collapsed. Just cause, enthusiasm, and large numbers could not overcome the lack of industrywide organization and unified strike actions. Lessons were learned, but at a cost, especially to a dedicated few. As a warning to future potential strikers, selected strikers were not rehired; or if rehired, they were fired abruptly at some later time at the mills’ convenience and probably satisfaction.
During the next few years, sporadic strikes occurred with increasing frequency as workers struggled, not only to survive, but to live with dignity. In early April 1907, two hundred and twenty-five Greeks went on strike at the Bigelow Carpet Company on Dutton Street. Strikebreakers were brought from Nashua, but they left the building without taking their coats off. The Greeks retained Constantine Anton to represent them. He said to the Lowell Morning Citizen, “They didn’t want to strike, but the men make only six dollars and eighty cents a week for dangerous work in the dye house. The clouds of vapor are so dense that they can't see four feet in front of them.”
The Bigelow Carpet Company discharged the strikers and declared that “NO MORE GREEKS” would be hired. Also, the company would pay other nationalities eight dollars a week for the same work. A company spokesman complained that the Greeks were not a “find,” as previously thought, and that they stood together when wages were an issue.
A few days later, the strikers followed home six Lithuanians who had been hired to replace them. The Lithuanians did not appear for work the next day. In May, Bigelow Carpet Company declared a five-percent wage increase for one thousand workers, and also stated publicly that none of the Greek strikers had been rehired. Once again, a demand for fair wages had cost the Greeks jobs and money.
Other immigrant groups also suffered the loss of jobs and money in labor disputes and strikes. Lawrence (Massachusetts) was a sister mill city of Lowell downriver on the Merrimack River. There, as in other textile cities, the poverty from low wages and the indignity of long hours and miserable working conditions had left a powder trail of worker resentment and anger. In January of 1912, the mill owners provided the spark that exploded into the Bread and Roses Strike by cutting workers’ pay because the Massachusetts State Legislature reduced the mill working hours from fifty-six to fifty-four. A Lawrence newspaper solicited pay envelopes to determine the average mill wages. As reported in the Lowell Courier-Citizen (January 19, 1912, page one), the largest wage was $7.06 and the lowest was $3.06 for fifty-six hours. The bitter and violent struggle lasted for two months. During that time, a series of violent events occurred. A woman was shot – the first fatality. Troops charged a group of strikers with bayonets drawn. A Syrian was bayoneted by a soldier and died of his wounds. Armed men attacked police. Cavalry patrolled the streets and harassed strikers. Thousands of strikers and sympathizers staged marches and demonstrations leading to confrontation with the police and the militia.
John Spanos: “A friend of mine and I went to Lawrence one day to see the big parade by the workers who were on strike. The workers were marching to the cemetery; I guess some had gotten killed. When the workers reached the cemetery, the cops didn’t try to stop them. There was no trouble that day.”
All during the strike, two unions fought each other for the right to lead and speak for the strikers: The Central Labor Union, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.). The AFL was formed in 1886 based on the principle of organizing workers in craft unions. During the ensuing years, critics criticized it for being too conservative and for failing to give unskilled workers a voice by organizing them in industrywide unions, and indeed, many times opposing any such attempts. The I.W.W. (Wobblies), founded in 1905, consisted mainly of unskilled laborers and strongly advocated the use of the general strike, and if necessary, sabotage. Its leaders were seen by businessmen as dangerous radicals and accused them and those affiliated with them as subversive and un-American. Its president, William D. (Big Bill) Haywood, had formerly led the Western Federation of Miners. His violent and bloody experiences fighting against the mining companies, which were many times supported by police and militia, had convinced him that only by strikes and battles could the workers gain and keep their rights. On February 28, 1912, the Courier-Citizen headlined, “LOWELL WILL BE NEXT SAYS LEADER HAYWOOD.” The I.W.W. began to recruit in Lowell; twenty-five cents to become a member, ten cents a week dues. It claimed that it had over one thousand Portuguese as members, but the Poles stayed with the AFL. The Greeks remained unaffiliated.
On March 25, the Lowell cotton mills, seeking to head off a strike, revealed a purported six to eight percent wage increase. The I.W.W., demanding fifteen percent, denounced the offer as spurious, and its members in the Appleton Mills, mostly Portuguese and Lithuanians, struck. The next day, the Lowell mills locked out all the workers and the general strike began in Lowell. Throughout the four full weeks of the strike, two unions vied for the allegiance of the workers, the I.W.W. and the UTW (United Textile Workers, affiliated with the AFL). The leaders denounced each other almost daily. Haywood blasted UTW President John Golden as an ineffectual do-nothing; Golden attacked Haywood as a ruthless violent radical. The Greeks, though they welcomed a wage increase, were suspicious of the I.W.W. and its methods, but also shied away from the UTW. They never formally joined either union, though they were wooed by both and fully supported the strike.
Showing a solidarity that in the 1920s would be shattered by endemic religious and political quarrels, the Greeks coalesced around one spokesman, Dr. George A. Demopoulos, and obeyed his edicts throughout the strike. His words were reported in the local papers. “You stay together in the Greek section of the city and stay away from meeting where there are members of the I.W.W. I will say to them, the Greeks will cooperate with them insofar as striking is concerned, but will have nothing to do with them.” He accepted the leadership on the condition that “you promise to hurt not even a fly.” As the strike continued, he exhorted the Greeks, “Stand firm and do not break the strike so that other nationalities will not think us dishonorable people.” He repeated his pleas for nonviolence, “Be peaceful and avoid the least disturbances; and victory, respect, and estimation of the public will be ours.” He took action to help the Greek strikers. He wrote to Greek newspapers in New York City to solicit funds; sent advance notices of his intent to solicit funds to other Greek communities; established a headquarters in his building where striking Greeks could go for help; and visited Greek grocers to arrange for credit, up to three months if necessary, and at lower prices for food.
William Hayward and the I.W.W. leadership believed that the strike’s ultimate success depended upon Greek support, and they constantly kept this belief in mind. When the I.W.W. moved from their original headquarters at Market and Central Streets, they relocated in the heart of the Greek colony in a building at the comer of Market and Hanover Streets. Their leaders continually sought Greek help. One of the most effective organizers for the I.W.W. was a young Irish woman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
John Spanos: “The organizer was an Irish woman, Elizabeth Flynn. She was a beautiful woman, about twenty-five years old, and very smart. She had a room at the Waverly Hotel. She used to hold meetings there and I’d go sometimes, with others, of course, to listen to her talk. When she talked to us, we kept quiet; you could hear a whisper.”
After Dr. Demopoulos permitted the I.W.W. to address the Greek strikers, the union leadership chose her, a woman, to speak to what would be a predominantly male audience. This choice certainly showed their tremendous confidence in her oratory. Did the choice also spring from someone’s knowledge, or intuition, of a personal volatility that might ignite between her, an alofili (a non-Greek), an Americanitha (an American), and the Greek male in the audience? The Greeks would listen to her courteously. She was a guest in a Greek home, the Holy Trinity Church, but could she influence them? The likeliest first choice should have been President William Hayward or organizer William Trautmen, both effective and experienced crowd exhorters. They would have at least raised the pride of the strikers at being addressed and wooed by the top leaders. The Greek immigrants had been born and raised in a patriarchy, and living in America had not significantly lessened the primary role of the Greek male in Greek male-female relationships, especially in matters outside the family home. A large number of the audience were from Peloponnesus in southern Greece who had constituted the first large influx of Greek immigrants in the early 1900s. In southern Greece, patriarchy was rooted as tenaciously as the native olive trees that grew out of the rocky soil for thousands of years. Yet even their patriarchal belief sometimes wavered, sometimes collapsed temporarily, when confronted by competent and confident American females such as Elizabeth Flynn or other I.W.W. organizers such as Pearl McGill and Elodre Coppens. During one noon hour, twenty-five young men, led by Miss Pearl McGill and Mrs. Coppens, marched up and down Market Street four abreast shouting and singing the I.W.W. songs. Then there was the attraction of the “Americanitha,” excluding the physical, though sometimes skirting or touching it, that emanated from her seeming freedom to act as she wanted, coupled with a seeming inaccessibility to the male Greek immigrant because of language and economic class barriers.
In the crowded church basement, Dr. Demopoulos first elicited a resounding voice-vote in support for the fifteen-percent wage-increase demand. Then he introduced Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to a thunderous ovation, and he stood by her side during her speech and translated her words. Irish mellifluousness surged into Greek impassion. She reminded them of the blue skies and warm climate they had left to come and live in the Acre in old disease-infected tenements, of how they had to starve themselves because of low wages in order to save money to bring their families to America. She appealed to their ethnic pride, “Are you, the descendants of the original democracy of the world, going to bring your vigor and manhood into this country to be worn out by a few years of work in the mills... ?” The crowd shook the church building with their cheers, and she left followed by the emotional shouts of “ZITO!” (Long live!) Still, the Greeks later listened to Dr. Demopoulos and followed his advice throughout the strike.
Though women such as Elizabeth Flynn organized and led both male and female strikers, the ethnic female mill workers in the early 1900s, except for a few, played a subdued role and participated unenthusiastically in labor turmoil, not that they didn’t resent the long hours, deplorable working conditions, and meager pay. However, they placed their anger second to their immediate concern for the income that would pay the bills and thereby protect the integrity of the family. Many times external forces and pressures, pride, self-respect drove males to strike at the cost of desperately needed income, and even with knowing that pay losses could not be recouped for years, if at all.
As reported in the newspapers, at the beginning of the strike the men walked out of the Appleton Mills enthusiastically, but the women reluctantly. Many women declared that they would not have left the mill but for fear of some who threatened them. During the strike, at a meeting, one hardy Greek woman who claimed to represent many fellow workers offered a resolution approving a return to work. It failed miserably.
In later years, women took a more active strike role, especially in the garment shops, but the pressure to go out remained on those women who were reluctant to strike and came from both males and females.
Mary Koutsonikolas: “The boss asked me if I were going out (1940). I said, ‘I can’t stay on the job while others strike. Do you want the women to kill me?’ If I had stayed I would have been against the people I worked with every day.”
Vasiliki Karas: “I don’t know how many (in 1947) of the workers wanted the union (at the Boott Mill), but the men pushed it and they shouted to go on strike ... Most of the women wanted to work, but what could we do. We didn’t dare go into the mill past the picket lines.”
The strike ended and the mills opened their gates on Monday, April 22, 1912, four weeks after the strike had begun. The workers got a ten-percent wage increase (instead of the fifteen percent which they had sought), time and a quarter (instead of double pay as the I.W.W. demanded), and the right of weavers to measure and weigh their cloth. The strikers lost approximately seven dollars per week per worker. This loss caused many to leave the city seeking other jobs, forced others without savings into debt, and dropped some deeper into poverty. Most accepted the strike results as a victory.
The previous Monday, April 15, Greek operatives met in the Holy Trinity Church hall and voted to accept the ten-percent wage increase offered by the mills. Their acceptance settled the strike. That same day, the Courier-Citizen headlined the sinking of the Titanic steamship in the North Atlantic and all week stories of that tragedy filled the newspapers. The business of settling the loose ends of the strike continued with subdued newspaper coverage. The I.W.W. declared the coming Saturday as “Jubilation Day” and planned a massive parade. A meeting was called for Friday on the South Common.
Dr. Demopoulos declared that he would join the mass meeting Friday afternoon and gave his permission for other Greeks to attend if they wanted to be there. He said he would terminate his official connection as strike leader, having kept his agreement with the I.W.W. and the promises he had made to the Greek strikers. However, he forbade the Greeks to march in the “Jubilation” parade. In early May, a group of Greeks asked the doctor to be a candidate for president of the Greek community. At a meeting at the church hall he imposed three conditions in order for him to run: He would make no campaign promises; each follower would have to enroll as community member at a cost of two dollars; and he required five hundred signatures in elections held at the end of May. The Noukas party defeated the Couzoules-Houpis party for control of the Holy Trinity Church, which elevated them into a strong and commanding position to speak for the Greek community.
Meanwhile, organizers, William Trautman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and others prepared to leave Lowell and continue the I.W.W. work in other cities. However, labor trouble surfaced again. It began on May 8, 1912, when the Merrimack Mill locked out forty Greek operatives who had left their jobs to protest the mill’s refusal to pay time and a quarter for overtime, as per the strike agreement. The incident pushed many Greeks to formally join the I.W.W. and they voted for a general strike. The I.W.W. considered a general strike, and Portuguese and Lithuanian members voted in favor of the strike if the lockout continued. In late May, the I.W.W. and Agent Wadleigh of the Merrimack Mill compromised.
Dr. Demopoulos, from a window at I.W.W. headquarters, with Trautman and Flynn by his side, addressed over three thousand Greeks crowded below on Market Street and on Hanover Street. He advised them to return to work and that not all strikers would be rehired, but other mills promised to give them jobs. “Some hotheads jeered,” and he said later, “Some of my countrymen have become my enemies today.”
Once more the siren call of labor strife in another city summoned Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. As she had left Lawrence for Lowell, she left Lowell for New Bedford in mid-July to assist the I.W.W. in organizing a strike involving more than thirteen thousand mill workers. Once more, summoned by the bells, the Lowell mill workers harnessed themselves to the daily routine and trudged through the open gates into mills and factories. Where now the excitement of rallies and parades, the defiance and strength on the picket line, the heated debates, the urgent conferences, the loud arguments, the quiet discussions, the camaraderie and oneness with strangers united in a common purpose, the feeling of being vital as an individual in a just cause? The influence of the united “Greek Colony” and its front-page exposure crested in the strikes of 1912. After this period, the other ethnic groups also lost their power to influence union policy when acting parochially. Their influence waned as the power of the I.W.W. waned.
The strength of the I.W.W. in Lowell weakened as its leaders became embroiled in labor wars in other cities. As Europe drifted into World War I and America edged closer to entering, the I.W.W. was the lone labor organization to oppose entry. The stigma of radicalism, which in earlier years remained dormant as workers rallied to the I.W.W. call for decisive action, now aroused public condemnation and official harassment. Its leaders, including Bill Hayward, were prosecuted and sentenced to prison under a World War I sedition act. Meanwhile, the AFL became the leader of the labor movement in Lowell, and its formal hierarchical structure precluded its leadership sharing power with coalitions of ethnic groups which maintained their independence. Henceforth, union officers spoke for the workers in labor matters, not local ethnic leaders. Individual and ethnic group heroics gave way, like ancient knights, to organized battles directed by career union officials.
On July 1, 1918, the Lowell Textile Council (affiliated with the United Textile Workers of America, AFL) voted to strike. Not without some satisfaction and glee did President Golden, once characterized by Bill Hayward as ineffectual, state that “... there will be no disorder. We do not believe in winning strikes by I.W.W. methods.” The newspapers reported that there was no I.W.W. organization in Lowell and very few workers to be heard speaking its sentiments. The Lowell Textile Council declared that it would not include the I.W.W. at any stage. No Greek names appeared on the strike committee, but unlike the deliberate exclusion of the I.W.W., this omission occurred because of natural circumstances.
The AFL was organized in 1886 when there were very few Greeks living in America, and even those few were not involved in the labor movements. When many more began to arrive in the early 1900s – strangers with little knowledge of English and only themselves as a resource – they cautiously refrained from joining unions, not wanting to cause labor trouble, wanting only a job and wages. Thus, they did not enter union ranks and therefore could not rise to positions of leadership in established unions like the AFL. Even the unity, which served them well in the 1912 strike and might have given them a strong voice in the AFL, shattered. The Merrimack Mill strike and the role of the I.W.W. and Dr. Demopoulos in its settlement caused serious disagreements among the Greek operatives. Then, in years following their pivotal role in the 1912 strikes, the Greek immigrants became firmly established in America and grew more confident in their ability to act independently as individuals, a characteristic Greek trait that frequently assumed an argumentative mien. More fragmentation occurred as endemic personal, political, and religious differences emerged, rock-hard and intractable, to divide the Greek community. These differences would continue to plague them in the 1920s and 1930s.
Thus, in the 1918 strike, after five days the Lowell Textile Council agreed to end the strike and also agreed that there would not be any further work stoppages while World War I lasted.
The struggle between the workers in different industries nationwide and management flared periodically during the 1920s. In 1921, Samuel Gompers, first president of the AFL, attacked attempts by the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers to promote nationwide open shops. An open shop meant that workers did not have to join the union even if a majority voted to unionize. Management maintained that no worker should be forced to join the union. The union stated that it was unfair for workers to share in the benefits obtained by the union without contributing to the cost of obtaining these benefits, whether it be by loss of pay while on strike, or union dues. In addition, workers who stayed on the job during a strike would be acting as strikebreakers. The union workers called them, “scabs.” The closed-shop controversy continued for decades until partly outlawed by the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Act of 1947, an act passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto.
After the economic boom created by WWI, and beginning in the 1920s, the textile mills of the Northeast slowly continued their relocation to southern states where nonunion labor and tax incentives and breaks promised larger profits. This movement, coupled with worsening textile economic conditions in the late 1920s, brought hardships and struggles to the Greek immigrants, as to other textile workers, as jobs disappeared. There was no network of social safety nets to help them; they had to depend upon themselves. People worked a partial week, if at all, and hiring became sporadic so that they didn’t know from one day to the next whether they’d have work. Every day they walked to the mills and factories and waited for the overseer to hire them or send them home. They didn’t dare miss a day, for perhaps that’s when they’d be needed. The mill offered this advance information: “If you want work tomorrow, come to the mill and find out if we need you.” The hard times of the mid and late 1920s slid into the black days of the Great Depression which began with the stock market crash in October of 1929 and stayed through the decade of the 1930s.
For many of the Greek immigrants hardship changed to grinding poverty, struggle to interminable writhing as they battled to feed and clothe their family and save the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and the Hellenic American Parochial School from foreclosure by the banks. Still they survived, and however difficult the times, however high the unemployment, they struck when work conditions and wages became intolerable. One angry Greek worker cried, “Work like a hamal (a loutish Turkish porter) for poor wages – and dance for the boss also? Better to perform like Karagiozi (a puppet character) and beg for pennies.”
However, Lowell in the early 1920s still had a substantial manufacturing base. In April of 1923, the Newmarket Manufacturing Company purchased the number two mill of the former Bigelow-Hartford Carpet Company and converted it into a silk mill employing three hundred people. The Merrimack, Appleton, Boott, and International Mills announced a 12.5 percent wage increase affecting eighteen thousand workers. That same month, Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph Valentino came to the Lowell Stadium to pick the prettiest girl in the city. Two years later, in April 1925, President Coolidge saw increased business prosperity in an address to the National Cotton Manufacturers Association, yet he chose not to run again for president, and Herbert Hoover became president. Instead of continued prosperity, the Great Depression came. In March of 1930, the Massachusetts Industrial Commission held public hearings to determine ways to help the textile industry and decrease the mushrooming unemployment. The commission made no progress.
Greek immigrant workers of the 1930s participated in unions and strikes mostly as rank and file, and not as individual leaders or as a cohesive Greek bloc. Some Greeks became union organizers or business agents, and a few Greek-Americans rose in the union hierarchy during the later years. James (Boutselis) Ellis organized and led strikes at the Merrimack Mill; Nicholas Georgoulis also organized at the Merrimack; Louis Vergados directed drives to unionize the Boott and other mills.
The Greek immigrants generally supported unions and union efforts to improve wages and working conditions. The unions brought many benefits that workers expect today but didn’t exist then: no child labor, living wages, reasonable work hours, paid vacations and holidays, seniority rights, pensions, medical benefits, tolerable working conditions, grievance committees. The unions provided the workers with power, a most effective persuader to cause the min owners to agree to worker demands.
Yet, the Greek immigrants also viewed unions cautiously and rejected them at times. At Laganas Shoe Company, with a large number of Greeks, union recognition came “in the morning” and “left at night.” Merrimack Mill workers, many Greek, voted for a company union – that is a union composed of only Merrimack Mill workers – instead of a national union like the CIO or AFL. The Boott Mill, with a large number of Greek operatives, voted for CIO representatives; later many refused to pay union dues because of its unsatisfactory performance in settling workers grievances, especially the increased workloads. Workers rejected unions mostly because of meager, if any, gains after costly strikes, and ineffectual or unsatisfactory results in dealing with mill agents.
In March of 1933, banks which had been closed by President Roosevelt to prevent the collapse of the banking system opened to restricted business. Commercial banks paid out thousands of dollars so that industries could meet expenses on a fifty-percent basis. Locally, union electricians balked at contractor attempts to cut their hourly pay to $0.75. In Lynn (Mass.), 4,000 shoe workers continued their strike for a wage increase. Up to the 1970s, Lynn would be the shoe capital of the world, boasting of having, at one time, 150 plants. In 1985, only one company remained making baby shoes.
As the textile industry in Lowell declined, people turned to shoe shops for jobs, even at low wages and poor working conditions. Labor trouble was inevitable among the 4,000 shoe-shop workers. In April of 1933, workers struck four shops, among them the Laganas Shoe Company owned and operated by Greek immigrant brothers.
Apostolos Eleftheriou: “I wasn’t a strong union man at Laganas because I had relatives who were bosses. Many of the workers were Greek; Laganas was a Greek and we knew each other. We were, as the saying goes, of the same family."
Strikers claimed that 90 percent of Laganas workers were out; Mr. Laganas claimed that only 200 of the 500 workers had left their jobs. Forty police officers with motorcycles patrolled Jackson Street, and they questioned pickets to seek out possible radicals and communists.
The principal leaders of all factions maneuvered to gain advantage or advance their interest or cause as the strike continued and violence began. The Shoe Workers’ Protective Union (SWPU) fought with the Boot & Shoe Workers’ Union (AFL) for the strikers’ allegiance. Mayor Slowey, worried about increased welfare recipients and lost tax dollars, appointed a committee of two prominent Lowellians and a committee composed of clergymen and businessmen. Mayor Slowey dismissed the citizens’ committee, and a member, Reverend Appleton Grannis, protested in vain. Later, both the reverend and the committee of two recommended that the SWPU be rejected. The SWPU asked Mayor Slowey to invite the State Board of Arbitration to mediate, a request he delayed, to the union’s frustration. City councilors questioned the use of police escorts for the cars of strikebreakers, but the mayor and police superintendent declared that it was necessary to ensure public safety. President Nolan of the SWPU denied in court that the union was demanding a closed shop; only better working conditions. Governor Ely met with all parties to attempt a settlement.
Apostolos Eleftheriou: “Of course, Laganas didn’t want the union. What factory boss wants to bring in another boss? Anyway, we got the union and it lasted for a few years; then we dropped it. It came in again later; lasted awhile; left again.”
At one meeting of the SWPU, the local president, Victor Picard (French), spoke, as did James Kourkoulakos (Greek), the treasurer of the local relief committee. The union fed the families of needy strikers and provided any necessities and services that it could elicit from the community. However, the union could not make up the loss of pay, and as the strike continued week after week, violence broke out again and again between the strikers, those who had stayed on the job, strikebreakers brought into the shops by the owners, and the police.
On April 26, for the first time, strikers and mill representatives met in the mayor’s office. Their only agreement was that there should be no violence. At seven o’clock that same morning, a striker had been struck on the head with a piece of lead pipe by strikebreakers as the striker and two companions took down the registration numbers of passing cars on Boston Road in Billerica. At two thirty in the morning, police picked up five young Greek men in the vicinity of Concord Street on suspicion of breaking house windows. The union disclaimed responsibility for their actions, but declared that they would be defended by union lawyers. The next day, about one in the morning, unknown perpetrators hurled bricks into four houses near Chapel Street. Officer William Brennan heard the crack of glass and rushed to the scene in time to see an auto leaving. He fired a shot in an attempt to halt the car, but missed.
The shop owners declared adamantly that they would close their shops and relocate before they would recognize the SWPU because of unsatisfactory previous experience or knowledge of the organization. More than 1,500 strikers marched to City Hall to request protection of Mayor Slowey from strikebreakers. Chief of Police, Hugh Downey, said police are taking no sides, but that strikers must understand that people have a right to work just as people have a right to strike; the police would continue to escort out-of-town workmen (strikebreakers).
Police charged one group of men with throwing bricks through the windows of a house occupied by a worker at the Alden Wood Heel Company. On May 4, forty police officers quelled a disturbance outside of the Becker Brothers’ shop on Bridge Street. The owners had invited the bitter anger of the strikers by obtaining a court order which limited picketing and patrolling, and then also brought in out-of-town workers. Strikers hurled stones at the cars of the strikebreakers, and police arrested three men, two French and one Greek. This violence escalated into a pitched battle the next day at the Becker plant. An estimated 2,000 strikers and sympathizers hurled bricks, stones, metal, and other objects at the cars waiting to transport the workers in the Becker Shop. Police battled the strikers and arrested seventeen men. Many in the aroused crowd remained in Kearney Square until evening to confront any strikebreakers who had not dared to leave the shop during the day.
Copyright © by Nicholas Karas