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Susan Green

Leviton Workers Say They’ve Had Enough

Go Out in Solid Strike Against Inhuman Plant Conditions

(23 September 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 24, 23 September 1940, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

BROOKLYN. Sept. 16 – Except for the forelorn tapping of a typewriter in the office, no sound issued from the buildings of the Leviton Manufacturing Co. on Greenpoint Avenue this afternoon. Production of electrical appliances, which is its business, has been completely stopped by the strike of its 1,700,workers, They have been out for three weeks. Local 3, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, is organizing them and conducting the strike.

It’s hardly believable that human beings have endured the conditions existing at Leviton’s, and not gone out on strike before. Weekly wages of $8, $9, and $10 are common. The aristocrats of labor earn $17, $20 and $22 at Leviton’s. The great majority make $13 or $14.

Accidents Common

Industrial accidents are an every day occurrence. The machines have guards, but the guards are down only when the inspectors come around. Otherwise the workers operate the machines without any protection because the guards slow up the work. Women have suffered the loss of finger tips, half fingers, whole fingers. I was informed that at times there are as many as ten accidents in one day.

Often a machine operates imperfectly and endangers the operator still more, but a foreman will seldom call a mechanic until it is too late to save a finger. The workers them selves hesitate to report defective machines because while a machine is being repaired they lose that much time, and the pay envelope is that much lighter.

The last time Leviton workers struck was seven years ago. They say the strike was something of a fizzle. They were not organized; had no union backing; and only one department went out, Nevertheless they won a slight rise in wages and a nurse, Before then, I was informed by a woman who worked in the plant for fourteen years, a piece worker had also served as nurse.

Now the workers feel strong. The plant is completely shut down. They seem to have faith in Local 3 and in their strike committee. Those entitled to strike benefit have been receiving $7 a week. They run a 24-hour service cafeteria where coffee and sandwiches are obtainable. This is quite different from seven years ago,

In the evenings, the picket line is swelled by union electrical workers from all over the city. I understand that at night the strikers carry an illuminated sign reading: “Lincoln Freed the Slaves. Leviton Never Heard of Lincoln.”

This afternoon, lines of pickets patrolled the buildings covering almost two square blocks. There was a liberal sprinkling of cops around the plant, and I counted two police inspectors.

Across the street from the plant a group of women, bright strike but tons on their coats, scanned the windows to’ see if there was any activity within. They had been told that one of the bosses brought in a few scabs in a tax this morning.

No Scabs Allowed!

A thin little elderly woman who has been slaving at Leviton machines for twelve years, pointed to the windows and said: “See these windows. There won’t be a one left if they bring in scabs.”

Another woman explained that they didn’t want trouble, they want harmony, but they wouldn’t stand for scabs.

The women complain bitterly about the unsanitary conditions in the plant. There aren’t enough toilets and these that are there, are out of order half of the time. On a floor where 200 to 220 girls are at work there are six toilets. And on the average only four of them are useable at one time. This means long waiting.

It is nothing at all, I was told, for the superintendent to go right into the women’s toilet room to get the girls back to their machines when they are gone any length of time. Foremen, Who are more decent, send another girl to call those who are necessarily detained.

“We are faithful workers”, declared a woman who had been on the job for thirteen years. “Those factories we really built. At least they can give us decent toilets.”

It was explained to me that there is a maximum daily wage above which no one can go. This is the munificent sum of $3.80. After they had earned their maximum, they would continue to work for nothing, so that the boss could fulfill his rush orders.

Very few workers earn the maxi mum. Those who get up to the top try to stay around $3.00 a day, because once they make the $3.80, they can expect that the rate will be cut again.

Where Charity Begins

The Leviton Manufacturing Co. is one of those family corporations. Isidor Leviton is the president and treasurer, his son Bernard is vice president, and Jack Amsterdam, his son-in-law, is secretary. It is a $2,000,000 concern and one of the largest in the field, selling to Woolworth, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck sockets, switches, wiring, etc. Some workers told me that the company has bought up more property recently and plans to expand.

Mr. Leviton Sr. is supposed to be quite a philanthropist, handing out big donations to charity with smug self-admiration. The workers don’t admire him. I was told that he has given jobs to some two hundred refugees, but at the expense of two hundred other workers. They don’t consider that charity either.

A group of automatic pressmen, semi-skilled workers as they call themselves, said. it is impossible to get along on what they were making. They were convinced that they needed to be organized, that in no other way could they get a decent living.

Protected by Law

They told me that fifteen trucks of finished material had been moved out of the plant during the three weeks of strike. Normally at least fifteen truckloads leave the plant each day. They said that when a truck is moved out since the strike began, it is protected by a line of motorcycle cops, and the streets and nearby roofs are thick with blue-coats. They said there were more cops than strikers.

One of them declared: “Mr. Leviton breaks all the laws and he gets the protection of the law.” He assured me that if it were not for this overpowering police force, no trucks would move out of the plant.

Women in the cafeteria, anxious to present their reasons for striking, told me that many are the times when workers go back to work on the same machine that caught them, immediately after being bandaged up in the hospital, with a finger pierced or the tip of a finger gone. They can’t afford losing time being sick.

Once a girl got caught and it took a whole hour to extract her hand from the machine. The girl lost a finger. She was supposed to get her job back. But a year has passed and every time she comes to the employment office she is told there is nothing for her, although new workers are being taken on all the time.

Very Efficient

The efficiency experts at the plant follow a crude and cruel system. A new worker is put on piece work at a lower rate. She has to speed like all hell to make a wage worth carrying home. This reflects upon the older workers who are paid more. Sooner or later they are tired. Several women kept repeating: “We are striking because we want security.”

A big blonde woman explained how she works a dangerous machine all by herself putting material into the pockets of a revolving die turning at the rate of 85 to 90 revolutions a minute. She said even the most experienced sooner or later gets caught. As little as one cent is paid tor filling 100 pockets.

Eight weeks ago this woman injured her leg by slipping on the oil drenched floor. The company took five weeks before it put in her claim for compensation, and to date she said she has not received a penny.

About two years ago some of the women staged a sitdown strike when one of the more human foremen was laid off. He got his job back. But two of the women, avowedly leaders of the affair, lost theirs, These women, though technically not employees of Leviton, have joined the strikers. They told me that this same foreman is now scabbing inside of the plant.

Mr. Leviton refuses to have any thing to do with the union. He tries to make it appear that he doesn’t know whether to deal with the CIO or the AFL. From what I could learn today, this is transparent hocus pocus. Only Local 3 of the Electrical Workers, AFL, as involved. The matter is now before the Labor Relations Board.

The strikers are very positive about what they will not put up with any longer.

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Last updated: 16 July 2014