An account of a work stoppage over the issue of gloves being supplied in a factory.
The local union officials told us that the regional director of the International Union had a fit when they told him we had a sit-down strike. He wanted to know all our names when he found out the issue was cotton gloves. The nature of the work in our department required that we wear them. Each of us wore out a pair every two days. Until we quit having to buy them ourselves it was our constant gripe.
After I was elected steward, I went to the foreman and asked him to get gloves for us. I had no official power to bargain with him; that was the committeeman's job. But I argued hard. He didn't take the opportunity that I offered him to do something for the men. "I'll tell you the same thing I told the last steward. The company's protective clothing program does not include gloves."
I knew this was a lie and that there were exceptions. I remembered that gloves were supplied to the utility men in the department I had transferred out of the year before. During my relief break that afternoon I returned there long enough to pocket a new pair of gloves that luckily lay unattended on the utility men's bench. They were worth far more than the cup of coffee I had sacrificed to obtain them. I told the story to my friend who worked next to me and gave him the gloves. He passed them to the next man and repeated the story. Soon the entire group knew about the foreman's lie.
Instructions were sent back to me: I should ask the committeeman and file a grievance; I would be backed all the way. The next time the foreman passed within hailing distance I made the formal request. He took his time, but finally made the necessary phone call to the department where the committeeman worked.
Two hours later the committeeman casually walked into our work area. After a chat with the foreman he got to me: "I hear you guys want gloves. Gloves have never been supplied to anyone who worked in this department." After some discussion he was still hesitant. Finally he agreed to file a grievance, but only if I wrote it up. He handed me his book full of forms, and I complied. While I was doing this the line stopped suddenly.
At the same instant most of the men were gathered around us. The tall skinny kid who had just gotten back from the Army, but was always letting you know he was from Maud, Oklahoma, was the only one who spoke. "We don't intend that this should take long to iron out." The committeeman started to say something, but thought better of it. They had made their point. They dispersed. In a moment the line was moving again. I never learned who had hit the switch.
The next morning a Kentuckian with five years in the department came in with four dozen pairs of new gloves in all sizes which he offered for sale. Several of us gathered around him. There was mention of trouble in the parking lot "come quitting time," but mainly we shamed him into withdrawing his wares.
The Shop Committee met with management every Thursday. On Friday the foreman issued gloves to us while we got into our coveralls. We were jubilant. The old Portuguese who the other old-timers said was one of the best stewards they ever had in the early days of the union came to me and confided, "You're doing all right, Red. It's a job for a young man. I'm going to retire soon. The men are all behind you. Now they're saying it's okay that you got up at the union meeting the other night and spoke in favor of bringing Negroes into the plant. A few even say you were right, there's no other way."
A week later, the company began to renege on the gloves. Word had gotten around. Other departments wanted them. Our foreman was replacing ours every third or fourth day instead of every other day. He said the company was having trouble with the supplier. I called the committeeman again and filed a grievance against the tardiness. This time he did the writing.
A few mornings later several men came to me just as I was returning from my relief. They held out their hands. The gloves on them, like mine, were almost palmless. "We've had enough. We're walking out. We shut off the line." I looked down the aisle in the direction of the time clock. The rest of our group was about to punch out. A runner was dispatched to retrieve them "on the double." Three minutes later we held a meeting. The whole department gang was present. I opened the discussion: "Anyone who clocks out will at a minimum lose wages. Gloves are tools and if..." They were already far ahead of my speech. At least four of them finished it for me, "Can't work without tools."
"That's right, but we're available."
"We'll stay right here."
"When they ask us, we'll all say that we're just waiting for tools."
I was simply the first one in the group who had become objective. It was agreed that we would all gather at the weakest spot in our line of unity—where Kentucky and his two partners worked. I left them there pitching pennies and laughing. The foreman wasn't in his office. He had gone out of the department on an errand when he saw us gathering. The incident was only minutes old.
I picked up the foreman's phone and got our committeeman. I explained our action. He answered that it couldn't be done. I said that it had been done and that he should go direct to the plant manager and demand immediate satisfaction of our grievance. He said he would be right over to see us and hung up.
Our stoppage had to be spread to the other departments. It was our (and my) only protection. We couldn't wait the thirty minutes we had calculated it would take for the shortage on the line that we were creating to shut down the assembly lines in other departments that were fed by ours. It had to be done sooner, before management could organize. If we could just shut down the department that followed ours, the rest would go like dominoes. I told a forklift driver who was going in that direction to tell Luis Guido in the next department that I wanted to see him right away.
I knew this man; among us he was a star. He had led the 1936 "sitin," inviting the man who was plant superintendent in those days inside to negotiate and then holding him as hostage after ordering the plant gate welded shut. He had always refused to be local union president. He didn't like high offices. He had many times been a steward and chairman of the Grievance Committee. But in or out of office he was our top leader.
I watched the forklift move down the aisle and finally turn in at the place where the old-timer worked. His short thick form appeared in the center of the aisle moments later. I made signs to tell him what had happened. From his long experience and my pantomime, he understood. I was sure of this five minutes later when he reappeared, swinging a large sledgehammer to signal me that they were shut down. They had somehow felt the shortage we had created in less than half the figured time.
I was free to return to the safety of the group. The penny pitching had stopped, the jokes were thin. Someone sighted the assistant plant manager with two men that none of us recognized. I walked partway out to meet them and waited. The gambling had started again, immediately behind me. The three visitors in suits nodded to me courteously, but didn't stop. They passed me and the game, walked the full length of our line, and made their exit, chatting.
For the next hour and thirty-nine minutes we were entirely alone. Our isolation ended when the foreman returned for the first time. He carried a carton the size of an apple box, Christmas-wrapped, complete with ribbon and bow. Without looking at us he laid it on the concrete floor in the opening we made for him. He opened it carefully, removed a gross of new gloves bound in bundles of six, placed them in neat rows, and gestured for us to help ourselves.
No one moved. He didn't return our stares. We couldn't hear exactly what he said when he turned to leave, but it was something about our being children and deserving to be treated as such.
Each man took one pair from the pile and then we went together to the coke machine. After we all drank we returned and took our places; someone hit the switch, and the line moved for the first time in two hours and eleven minutes. At lunchtime in the cafeteria we all got kidded about needing so much rest. We told them that they had got the benefit of it too, and that we bet none of them had turned it down.