Rochester and its garment workers: Then and now | Guest Opinion

Rochester and its garment workers: Then and now | Guest Opinion

At the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century, Rochester was quite the center of the clothing industry in our nation. In fact, by 1910, Rochester produced 68 percent of men’s ready-made clothing and ranked fifth in the nation in this category after New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Despite attaining these impressive statistics, the garment industry in Rochester was a very inequitable place with approximately 3,000 women who were routinely faced with the short end of the stick from overbearing and occasionally lascivious employers who were, disproportionately, men. The gradual rise from 1860 in the number of women employed in the garment industry and the increasing recognition by many of them that their working conditions and wages were inferior to those enjoyed by their male counterparts led, inter alia, to the significant strike of 1913 that is sometimes referred to as the “great struggle of the garment workers of Rochester.” The many women who were a part of the roughly 10,000 people on strike were seeking an eight-hour workday, a ten percent wage increase, union recognition, and pay for overtime and holidays.

A key related demand was to put an end to the sexual harassment that male foremen frequently subjected female garment workers to. It is in the context of these righteous demands that today, more than 100 years after the strike, we remember stalwart female strikers such as Libbie Alpern and Ida Brayman, the latter of whom was shot and killed at age 17 in the course of one of her striking activities at Valentine Sauer’s shop.

Even though the courageous strikers did not ultimately get everything they asked for, two points about the garment industry in Rochester in the early 20th century deserve to be emphasized. First, the strike in 1913 was fundamentally about fairness and the grossly inequitable working conditions of women workers. Second, Rochesterians were invested in the success of the garment industry because Rochester was a major producer of garments in the nation.

Moving forward in time, more than a century later, even though the working conditions of women in general have improved in the United States, the working conditions of many female garment workers in the world’s developing nations such as Bangladesh and Cambodia have improved very little. In other words, the fight for enhanced working conditions for the developing world’s garment workers, many of whom are women, continues.

That said, in contemporary times, Rochesterians are interested in garments and more generally in the garment industry primarily as consumers. Therefore, with their purchase decisions, Rochesterians are now able to influence the miserable working conditions that many of the world’s female garment workers find themselves in.

As pointed out recently by Benjamin Skinner, consumer purchase decisions, and particularly the purchase decisions of young people, matter. This is because many consumers have stated that they are willing to pay more for sustainably produced goods.

What Rochesterians, wearing their consumer hats, can do to improve the conditions of garment workers in general and women workers in particular is to buy only from manufacturers that are (1) willing to be transparent about audits they have undertaken to monitor compliance violations in factories, (2) prepared to provide information about working conditions throughout their supply chains, (3) ready to allow all their workers to hold on to their travel documents, and, more generally, to contribute to funds such as the Women and Girls Solidarity Fund.

These are reasonable ways of honoring the memories of courageous Rochester garment workers like the redoubtable Libbie Alpern and Ida Brayman. Today’s female garment workers in the developing world are fighting for the same things that these two women from yesteryear valiantly fought for.

Batabyal is the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics and the Interim Head of the Sustainability Department, both at RIT, but these views are his own.