online book
Xavier Timoteo Martinez
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Mexican War
World War II
Chicano Movement

Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of Mexican Americans in California:

Anjac Fashion Building
Los Angeles, Los Angeles County

The Anjac Fashion Building in the City of Los Angeles is an 11-story, brick-front structure with cement sides. The front of the building, facing Broadway, has a series of windows and a fire escape on each story. The fire escapes also front on Broadway. The top story has detail work that appears to be Gothic in design.

The Anjac Fashion Building is next to the United Artists Building on one of downtown Los Angeles' major streets. In the heart of the city's original garment district, this building is still in use as a clothing manufacturing and needle trades industry center.

On October 12, 1933, dressmakers in Los Angeles' garment district went on strike. Lasting three weeks, the strike affected approximately 2,000 female workers and 80 manufacturing establishments. An overwhelming majority of the workers in the dressmaking industry, 75 percent, were Mexican women and girls. The vast majority of strikers were Mexicans. Their participation and the major roles they took in the strike is clear evidence that Chicanas can be organized in their work, and have, in fact, played a significant role in Chicano labor history.

In view of the fact that Los Angeles was, and remains today, an important center of the Mexican working-class population, and that Mexicana workers are still the major work force in the garment and needle trades industry, the garment strike of 1933 should be commemorated. Working conditions that strikers protested against in 1933 have not changed dramatically in the garment industry since that time. Recent Latina and Asian immigrants suffer many of the same degrading and humiliating sweatshop conditions their sisters struck against in 1933: no control of hours and wages, exploitative piecework rates, and no place to go for redress of grievances for fear of being fired or deported.

The 1933 strike by female garment workers, members of the newly established Los Angeles Chapter of the I.L.G.W.U. (International Ladies Garment Workers' Union), was unprecedented in many ways. Los Angeles was, and prided itself in being, an open shop, anti-union town. City government and authorities and the press had historically favored business interests in Los Angeles. Rated as a $3 million business and one of Los Angeles' most rapidly growing industries, particularly during the Depression, the garment industry was an important employer in a period of massive unemployment. As one of the larger centers of women's apparel in the United States, the industry employed an estimated 7,500 persons at the height of the season. Thus, neither industry, labor, nor public officials expected a strike in an industry that was providing jobs in a depression. Most particularly, they did not expect a strike in an industry where most of the workers were women, and Mexican women at that.

The garment industry's growth at the height of the Depression, however, was in part a function of the industry's severe exploitation of its female labor force. The companies' profits were made at the expense of the labor force, and the industry minimized its labor costs. The industry's workers labored in unsafe, unsanitary, poorly ventilated, congested, and crowded work places. Garment manufacturers flagrantly disregarded California's minimum wage law of $16.00 per week for women, and companies often falsified records of hours the dressmakers worked. Dressmakers received payment only for the hours in which a garment was actually being cut, sewn, or finished. In the words of Maria Flores, one Mexicana garment worker, the process was as follows:

I come in the morning, punch my card, work for an hour, punch the card again. I wait for two hours, get another bundle, punch card, finish bundle, punch card again. Then I wait some more — the whole day that way. (Clementina Duron, "The Dressmakers' Strike. Los Angeles, 1933," p. 5)

In addition to the system described by Maria Flores, which resulted in an almost unintelligible time sheet that nevertheless had to be turned in before workers got paid, certain manufacturers used "kickbacks" to maintain low labor costs. Under this system, workers received the minimum wage, but were required to "kick back" part of the money to the employer.

Finally, the "open-door system" prevailed in manufacturing where shops of the same industry were housed in one building. In such situations,

women were given "the freedom of the building" when seeking employment. That is, dressmakers took the elevator to the top floor of a building housing a number of garment businesses. If no work was available at this shop, they would use the staircase to walk down to the next floor and repeat the activity . . . until, if lucky, they found a few days' employment for the price offered" (Duron, "The Dressmakers' Strike, "p. 6)

The Anjac Fashion Building, one of the major buildings struck in 1933, housed several garment businesses. In addition, when there was a rush order, factory owners hung out "Help Wanted" signs. This brought in numerous workers who quickly completed the order and were just as quickly laid off.

Anjac Fashion Building
Anjac Fashion Building, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County

Until 1933, factory owners effectively staved off unionization. Workers who attempted to organize for self-protection were immediately fired. Those who fought were blacklisted. Despite hostility to labor unions and an anti-picketing ordinance passed by the City of Los Angeles in 1911, growing unrest among dressmakers led to an organizing drive by the I.L.G.W.U. in the spring of 1933.

At that time, an estimated 3,000 persons worked in the 150 to 185 dress factories located in the down town garment district. About 75 percent were Mexican, and the rest Italian, Russian, Jewish, and American-born women and girls.

Under the leadership of Rose Pesotta, a Russian Jewish garment worker, Los Angeles dress workers received an I.L.G.W.U. charter from the international union and an advance allowance of $250 for organizational expenses from David Dubinsky, the international's president. Pesotta and Chicana garment workers began organizing in the factories and communities. They went to Mexican barrios in the outskirts of the city to talk with workers in their homes. They reached the Chicano population through Spanish-language programming on radio station KELW, which was operated by a local Mexican cultural society. The organizers wrote and distributed literature in both English and Spanish. The Organizer, a four-page, semi-weekly newspaper, was bilingual. Leaflets were addressed to workers in specific shops, and as the number of Mexicanas joining the union increased, Chicanas addressed union meetings in Spanish.

The largest meeting of dressmakers in Los Angeles took place at Walker's Orange Grove Theater September 27, 1933. At this meeting, workers discussed their grievances at length. They voted to strike if employers failed to recognize the union and refused to grant a series of nine demands:

  1. Union recognition
  2. A 35-hour week
  3. A guaranteed minimum wage
  4. Six legal holidays per year
  5. Regular union hours to be observed in all shops
  6. A regular shop chairman and price committee elected by the workers of each shop
  7. No home work
  8. The time clock to be punched only when entering and leaving the shop
  9. Disputes in the shop to be adjusted by a duly appointed committee with representatives of the union and the employer

The union sent the demands to the manufacturers, along with a letter requesting that the employers meet with I.L.G.W.U. representatives.

When the employers did not respond to the union's letter, the union asked the N.R.A. (National Recovery Administration) to mediate. In the meetings that followed, the employers refused to recognize the union and rejected the workers' demand, with the exception of those regarding minimum wages and work hours. In this case, employers indicated a willingness to comply with the N.RA. code covering hours and wages. The workers, for whom the major issue was union recognition and the right to organize for self-protection, voted to strike. A strike call was issued, and on October 12, 1933, the first major strike in the Los Angeles garment industry began.

The garment workers' strike lasted three weeks. It affected the entire garment district. In addition to the workers, the union, and the employers, it involved people from various sectors of the Los Angeles community. Police were called in by the employers; local grocers, butchers, and bakers donated food to the strikers; and local clergy also offered food and mediation efforts. The National Labor Relations Board was called in to resolve the labor dispute.

The strike involved police violence, intimidation of strikers, and strikers' retaliation against scabs. The press provided extensive coverage. La Opinion, California's major Spanish-language newspaper, covered it in greatest detail, because most of the striking workers were Mexicanas. The garment industry was effectively paralyzed for several days when hundreds of picketing strikers clashed with non-strikers and police.

On October 24, Norman Thomas, a leading socialist, spoke to about 1,200 strikers. On the 25th, one manufacturer, David Haister, broke with the other employers and signed with the union. Haister was soon followed by another manufacturer. On October 26, the fifteenth day of the strike, both sides agreed to "arbitrate without reservation." An appointed arbitration board then held a series of meetings, hearings, and mediation sessions. On November 6, the twenty-sixth day of the strike, the arbitration board submitted its decision to the strikers at a mass meeting. The decision declared that the strike was to be called off; workers could return to work without penalty; wages and working hours would comply with the new N.RA. code; collective bargaining was provided for; and no home work or child labor would be allowed. The workers voted to accept the board's decision.

Thus ended the garment workers' strike of 1933. In her book, Bread Upon the Waters, Rose Pesotta credits the Mexicana garment workers for the longevity, the vitality, and the success of the strike. They were the major part of the workers in the garment industry and the majority of the strikers. Their gains in the strike, however, were minimal.

By the 1940s, non-union factories were competing with the few union shops that were left by working longer hours and paying less than minimum union wage. The composition of the labor force had also changed. Mexican women no longer dominated the garment industry which relied instead on recent migrant families, poor Whites, Blacks, and others. In the 1960s, however, the composition of the industry's labor force again began to include an increasing number of Mexicanas and Latinas. Workers in dressmaking are now largely Spanish-surnamed and Asian women.

The 1933 garment workers' strike dispels the idea that women workers, and particularly Hispanic women workers, are meek, docile, and unorganizable. The striking dressmakers challenged a major, growing industry in an open-shop town at the height of the Depression, and they won.

Anjac Fashion Building
Anjac Fashion Building, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County

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