Rose Pesotta (1896-1965) was one of only a few women labor activists who fought diligently to improve the standards of American sweat shops, especially for women, by organizing unions.
The Great Depression had a tremendous impact on workers in the United States. While all suffered from the devastating loss of jobs and economic deterioration, women especially were adversely affected. By 1933 almost two million women were unemployed. Married women were discriminated against more than married or single men and single women. Wages for women plummeted, and some women did not even make five dollars for a week's work. Workplace conditions worsened as the Depression increased. In the garment industry, where many women were employed, work standards deteriorated and the sweatshops were revived.
Franklin D. Roosevelt took immediate steps to rectify the economic problems facing the country after he was elected president. The pro-labor stance taken by the administration helped unions gain tremendous power in the 1930s. One of the most powerful was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), led by David Dubinsky, aided by a young anarchist named Rose Pesotta who was often sent to the fiercest antiunion factories to organize workers. As the only paid woman organizer in a male-dominated union, Pesotta had to fight to get her voice heard within the union. Her anarchism and commitment to women made her an outsider and were issues that she had to deal with throughout her career.
Pesotta was one of the militant female labor organizers working for the ILGWU, a group that included Fannia Cohn, Pauline Newman, and Rose Schneiderman. Each of these early female leaders faced difficult decisions regarding working within the union because of the discrimination they saw in the union hierarchy and in the shops. These women, however, realized that without a union the conditions would be much worse. Pesotta chose to work within the ILGWU and challenged the positions taken by the male leaders. Questioning the authority of the men in the union led Pesotta to be labeled as a troublemaker. Although the women mentioned were able to achieve positions of power, women were still largely absent from union leadership. It was socially unacceptable for women to aspire to these positions.
Pesotta used early successes in unionizing on the West Coast, particularly in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as a catapult into the upper echelons of ILGWU leadership. Pesotta was nominated and elected a vice president of the union in 1934, even though she did not agree to be a candidate. She could not logically justify a position on the executive board with her anarchist background. Pesotta seemed to enjoy the honor for her accomplishments and remained a vice president for the next ten years. Dubinsky, like Pesotta, was fiercely anticommunist and an advocate of social reform; thus, he took her under his wing.
Pesotta found success almost everywhere she went, and after the ILGWU pledged itself to the fledgling Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO) the union began to lend her out to other organizing drives. Pesotta was the only "woman organizer" helping at the United Auto Workers strike in Flint, Michigan, and at the Akron rubber workers strike in the late 1930s. It was Pesotta's job to raise the morale of the strikers by working with the wives, daughters, and sisters. She often spoke at meetings of the strikers and led them in union songs. She also filmed the strikes with her movie camera, and the workers were eager to pose for her, thus increasing her familiarity with the strikers. Pesotta played an important role in the Flint sit-down strike. She was involved in the negotiations and diligently supported the strikers. During this strike thugs attacked and beat her, causing a lifelong hearing impairment. When the strike was finally settled, Pesotta was one of the CIO and UAW leaders who led the workers out.
Pesotta was an anarchist in philosophy but a pragmatist in action. She made the choice to be practical based on her experiences as a union organizer. She came under fire from fellow anarchists for being too willing to compromise and for her position as a bureaucrat. Pesotta also increasingly ran into difficulties with Dubinsky. She criticized him for ruling the ILGWU as a dictatorship and for the sexism she so plainly saw within the union. Publicly she was loyal to Dubinsky, but privately she began to view him as a sellout and lost all respect for him. Their differences grew so great that Dubinsky sent Pesotta to Los Angeles in 1940, a form of banishment to which she vigorously objected.
Return to the Factory
After a difficult time organizing in Los Angeles, marked by internal fighting with local male ILGWU leaders, Pesotta surprised everyone by returning to the sewing machine at a dress factory in New York City. In fact, Pesotta had been devastated by her experiences in Los Angeles. She was not allowed to manage the locals she had organized on the West Coast and felt abandoned by Dubinsky and the other members of the executive board. For the next few years Pesotta searched for purpose in her life after the many years of organizing. Sometimes she lost jobs in the dress industry because of her previous years of agitation.
Pesotta was marginalized and isolated from the ILGWU because she was an outspoken woman trying to make changes in a male-dominated hierarchy. Her anarchism further threatened those in power. In many cases women had subservient and powerless roles in the 1930s. Pesotta dared to step out of the role society gave her. She is one of the few women who made it past the bastions of male power in the 1930s and tried to instill her own brand of feminism into the labor movement.
Further Reading on Rose Pesotta
Elaine Leeder, The Gentle General: Rose Pesotta, Anarchist and Labor Organizer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1933).