DESCRIPTION: In an excerpt from her memoir, Rose Cohen recalls her first day on the job in a piecework shop. TEXT: All day I took my finished work and laid it on the boss’s table. He would glance at the clock and give me other work. Before the day was over I knew that this was a “piece work shop,” that there were four machines and sixteen people were working… Seven o’clock came and everyone worked on. [She had arrived at the shop at 7:00 in the morning.] I wanted to rise as father had told me to do and go home. But I had not the courage to stand up alone. I kept putting off going from minute to minute. My neck felt stiff and my back ached. I wished there were a back to my chair so that I could rest against it a little. When the people began to go home it seemed to me that it had been night a long time. The next morning when I came into the shop at seven o’clock, I saw at once that all the people were there and working steadily as if they had been at work a long while. I had just time to put away my coat and go over to the table, when the boss shouted gruffly, “Look here, girl, if you want to work here you better come in early. No office hours in my shop.” From this hour a hard life began for me. He refused to employ me except by the week. He paid me three dollars and for this he hurried me from early until late. He gave me only two coats at a time to do. When I took them over and as he handed me the work he would say quickly and sharply, “Hurry!”…Late at night when the people would stand up and begin to fold their work away and I too would rise, feeling stiff in every limb and thinking with dread of our cold empty little room and the uncooked rice, he would come over with still another coat. “I need it the first thing in the morning,” he would give as an excuse. I understood that he was taking advantage of me because I was a child. [Cohen’s father] never came home before eleven and he left at five in the morning. He said to me now, “Work a little longer until you have more experience; then you can be independent.” “But if I did piece work [getting paid by finished piece rather than by the week], father, I would not have to hurry so. And I could go home earlier when the other people go.” Father explained further, “It pays him better to employ you by the week. Don’t you see if you did piece work he would have to pay you as much as he pays a woman piece worker? But this way he gets almost as much work out of you for half the amount a woman is paid.” I myself did not want to leave the shop for fear of losing a day or even more perhaps in finding other work. To lose half a dollar meant that it would take so much longer before mother and the children would come. SOURCE: Rose Cohen, Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side (New York: George H. Doran, 1918), 110-113. Reprinted by Cornell University Press, 1995.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
For discussion questions and related lesson plan, see http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/from-suffering-to-action-from-individual-to-collective
Time Period: Modern (Spinoza through post-WWII)