Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Harry Targ

Six hundred and fifty Hart, Schaffner, and Marx clothing workers rallied at noon, on Monday, May 11, 2009, in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. They demanded that Wells Fargo, which received a $25 billion bank bailout from the federal government, provide loans to investors who would purchase their bankrupt company and keep it open. Workers at the Des Plaines, Illinois plant were speaking for 3,600 workers around the country who could lose their jobs if the company was sold to an investor committed to closing the company.

Stephen Greenhouse in a New York Times article quoted Illinois Congressman Phil Hare who asserted that Wells Fargo needed “to stand up for the American worker, like Congress stood up for the banks when times were tough.”

A spokesperson for the workers proclaimed that the union local was going to do whatever was necessary to keep Hart Schaffner and Marx plants open. The workers, Greenhouse wrote, were “coming from Chicago’s south side as well as China, Greece, Mexico, Poland and a dozen other countries, many earn around $12 an hour.”

Worker’s struggles for jobs and living wages at Hart Schaffner and Marx have a long history. Ninety nine years earlier, on a bright and sunny morning, 17-year-old Russian immigrant, Hannah Shapiro ran to work at the old Hart Schaffner and Marx factory in downtown Chicago. She rushed to her wooden chair and began sewing the pockets that would be attached to men’s pants. Shortly after the workers assembled at their work stations the foreman came on the floor and curtly announced that from now on they would earn 3 ¾ cents per pocket instead of 4 cents.

Hannah, called Annie by friends, was so outraged by this cruel cut in piece work pay that she got up from her chair and stormed off the shop floor. To her surprise 15 co-workers, also young women, followed her. Thus was launched the great Hart Shaffner and Marx strike that would lead to 40,000 workers in Chicago factories walking off their jobs in support. Annie Shapiro, the Russian girl who spoke English haltingly, mobilized support from Hull House activists, the Women’s Trade Union League, and she marched with famed lawyer Clarence Darrow and 20,000 workers in a solidarity parade on December 4, 1910.

While the workers did not earn union recognition immediately, Hart Schaffner and Marx offered an agreement to Hannah Shapiro and her co-workers to establish a joint worker/management committee to address grievances. Workers voted to accept the agreement. Within three months workers gained pay raises and improved working conditions. In addition, the walkout, led by a humble young Russian woman, not only brought modest gains to workers in the men’s clothing factory but planted the seeds for worker solidarity, militancy, and trade unionism in Chicago.

In retrospect, the seeds for worker justice today were planted long ago in hundreds of thousands of invisible local struggles, like that waged by Hannah Shapiro and her co-workers. Until jobs, living wages, healthy working conditions, and rights to a union are guaranteed, these struggles will continue.

A forthcoming children’s rendition of the story of Hannah Shapiro and the Hart, Schaffner and Marx strike by Marlene Targ Brill is in production. For further information see http://www.marlenetargbrill.com/