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One Strike Against Her: A Store Clerk Dares to Join the Union

Around 1903, employers began to mount organized campaigns to break the power of labor unions. Employers had a broad array of tactics at their disposal, including blacklists, strikebreakers, and court injunctions against strikers’ use of boycotts and sympathy strikes. Although employers had reliable allies in state and local police forces, they continued to hire their own private police—detective agencies that used secret operatives to disrupt unions and supplied thugs to protect strikebreakers during strikes. Most employers did not, however, need to resort to either spies or state police to break unions. The simplest expedient was to simply fire employees who were perceived as potential troublemakers. Former department store worker Sylvia Schulman testified in 1914 before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations about her experience being fired from her job at A. I. Mann & Sons in Brooklyn merely for joining the retail clerks’ union.

Miss SCHULMAN:My name is Sylvia Schulman. I live at 540 Henry Street, Brooklyn; present occupation, clerical work.

Mr. THOMPSON: For whom, do you wish to state?

Miss SCHULMAN: No, sir; I would not like to state.

Chairman WALSH: Your present occupation is what?

Mr. THOMPSON: Clerical work; but she is afraid to state for whom. Would you mind stating the reasons why you would rather not state where you work?

Miss SCHULMAN: Because I would lose my position if it was known.

Mr. THOMPSON: Because you would lose your position?


Mr. THOMPSON: From February, 1910, until this year, were you employed in a department store in this city?

Miss SCHULMAN: Yes, sir.

Mr. THOMPSON: In whose store were you employed?

Miss SCHULMAN: A. I. Namm & Sons, Brooklyn.

Commissioner LENNON: I did not get the name.

Mr. THOMPSON: A. I. Namm & Sons, Brooklyn.

Miss SCHULMAN: A. I. Namm & Sons, Brooklyn.

Mr. THOMPSON: What wages did you receive when you began?

Miss SCHULMAN: In that store, $7.

Mr. THOMPSON: What work did you do then?

Miss SCHULMAN: Well, I started as an ordinary sales clerk, but I ended up as an assistant head of stock.

Mr. THOMPSON: What wages were you receiving when you left?

Miss SCHULMAN: $10.

Commissioner O’CONNELL: How much did you get when you went there?

Miss SCHULMAN: $7.

Mr. THOMPSON: $7. How old were you when you began to work at that store?

Miss SCHULMAN: Eighteen.

Mr. THOMPSON: Eighteen years old?


Mr. THOMPSON: Could you read and write English?

Miss SCHULMAN. Perfectly.

Mr. THOMPSON: And do ordinary arithmetic?

Miss SCHULMAN. Very well.

Mr. THOMPSON: Was that work required of you in your position?

Miss SCHULMAN: It certainly was, because if I would make a mistake I had to stand the consequences.

Mr. THOMPSON: What do you mean by having to stand the consequences?

Miss SCHULMAN. I mean if I made a mistake in adding up the accounts at the end of the day I would be charged with the difference in my salary.

Commissioner O’CONNELL: Suppose you made a mistake the other way and collected too much, what would happen?

Miss SCHULMAN: I would be fined for that.

Commissioner O’CONNELL: Fined just the same?

Miss SCHULMAN: Just the same. It was a mistake.

Mr. THOMPSON: What was the reason that you left I. A. Namm & Sons' store?

Miss SCHULMAN: I was dismissed—laid off.

Mr. THOMPSON: What for?

Miss SCHULMAN: Because I dared to belong to the union, the retail clerks' union.

Mr. THOMPSON: Who discharged you at that time?

Miss SCHULMAN. Well, I was simply sent to the office and the superintendent told me I was not wanted any longer.

Mr. THOMPSON: Who sent you to the office?

Miss SCHULMAN: The assistant superintendent told me I was wanted there.

Mr. THOMPSON: What is that?

Miss SCHULMAN: The assistant superintendent.

Mr. THOMPSON: Whom did you see at the office?

Miss SCHULMAN: I saw the superintendent.

Mr. THOMPSON: What did he say to you?

Miss SCHULMAN: That my services were no longer required there. I thought it was rather strange after working four years. “Well,” I said, “I worked so many years and have proved very satisfactory.” "Well,“ he said, ”you have acted strange, and therefore we are making quite a change in the store, and we think you are not wanted any longer."

Mr. THOMPSON: Then you were laid off?

Miss SCHULMAN: Yes sir.

Mr. THOMPSON: Were you seeking for employment after that?

Miss SCHULMAN: I certainly was.

Mr. THOMPSON: Did you go to many places?

Miss SCHULMAN: I went to a few; I went to Sak’s; I went to McCreery’s; I went to Wanamaker’s; and Oppenheim & Collins Co.; I was pretty well recommended from the last few buyers I worked for, still I couldn’t secure a position in all those stores.

Mr. THOMPSON: What time of the year was this, January?

Miss SCHULMAN: Well I was sick the first month, so I couldn’t look very well in January. But in February and March.

Mr. THOMPSON: Were you looking for a place?

Miss SCHULMAN: I certainly was.

Mr. THOMPSON: Is that the time they are taking on help in the usual dry goods store—are they employing help in that time of year?

Miss SCHULMAN: Well, they are always ready to take an experienced worker on.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, did you have any difficulty in getting employment?

Miss SCHULMAN: Well, nobody would take me in the stores.

Mr. THOMPSON: Have you any opinion as to the reason they did not take you in?

Miss SCHULMAN: I certainly have; because of my belonging to the union.

Mr. THOMPSON: Was that pretty well known, that you belonged to the union?

Miss SCHULMAN: Well, you know when you get a position in a department store, and you are experienced, why they generally find out the previous store you worked for and ask for information in regard to your experience, and other things, and general character and conduct, and so forth, and it is only natural that it must be because I belong to the union and they let the other stores know that very quickly—

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes; but you don’t understand me exactly. What I want to get at is, what do you know of your own knowledge now. You have already stated why you think you were dismissed; that it was because of your belonging to the union. You stated that they said your actions were queer, they laid you off. Now, why do you think you were refused employment at the other stores, because you belonged to the union—just simply the fact that you could not get employment?

Miss SCHULMAN: Because, you see, a few of the detectives from the store I worked for knew the others in the other store and they recognized me quickly.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, during this time did you use Mandel’s store as a reference?

Miss SCHULMAN: Oh, certainly I did.

Mr. THOMPSON: Did you ever stop referring to them in making your application for positions?

Miss SCHULMAN: This last position.

Mr. THOMPSON: And then you got a position?

Miss SCHULMAN: Immediately.

Mr. THOMPSON: Have you had any other friend that has had the same experience?

Miss SCHULMAN: Yes; and they weren’t even connected with the union—just because they were friends the superintendent thought they must sympathize with the actions of the union, therefore laid them off, and they did the same thing—went to A. I. Namm’s store and tried to get a place to work and could not get a position. And as soon as they stopped giving that store as a recommendation they secured positions also in a store.

Source: United States Commission on Industrial Relations 1914, Final Report and Testimony, III (Washington, 1916), 2285–2292.

See Also:Plugging the Leaks: A Specialist Spies on Union Activities
Thugs for Hire: Ads for Security Guards
Pride and Joy: Specialists in Breaking Strikes