Teaching "A Cap Maker's Story"
A Lesson for the Age of The Amazon Labor Union
A Student Led Lesson
By Jeff Schneider
Now that workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island in New York City have established their own Amazon Labor Union, and workers at more that 20 Starbucks franchises have also won the right to be represented by a union, I thought it would be interesting to tackle the outstanding 1905 article"A Cap Maker's Story," by the 20 year old Rose Schneiderman in the magazine The Independent. In just a few pages she opens up the world of the Lower East Side of New York City and her life of work. At the time of the writing Schneiderman was only a few years older than a high school junior or a college freshman which were the ages of the most of my students during my career as a teacher. (1)
This forceful depiction of the making of a union militant includes her background as an immigrant whose childhood education was interrupted at age 9 by having to take care of two brothers and an infant sister after her father died. She had only reached 6th grade when she had to go to work to support her mother and her baby sister. The detail and the excitement that she conveyed about both her work and organizing are tributes to her intelligence and can-do personality. The picture below shows the similar determination of Chris Smalls, President ot the Amazon Labor Union organizing committee. Taking control of your fate was a powerful stimulus in 1905 just as it has been for the workers in 2022. (2)
In order to understand how I taught this lesson please read my article on this site, "The Tarzan Theory of Reading," which explains how I created student led lessons based on documents. (3) In preparation for this class my students had to download and read the document at home and choose seven sentences -- two from the beginning, three from the middle and two from the end. Then on a separate sheet of paper, they wrote out each of those sentences and explained why they chose it underneath each one in one or two sentences. For example: why they thought that it was interesting or why they liked it or hated it, how it was written, why they agreed or disagreed with it or were shocked by it. Then they had to underline the sentence in the document and bring the sentences and the document to class. They would keep the document with the underlining and hand in the separate sheet with the sentences and comments to get credit for homework. This was a fail-safe method to keep the class going during the period. There were no grades for this except for class participation. The students just had to contribute what they thought: Whether their comment was right or wrong was not the point. If some one did not understand an idea or situation, someone else might, and if the second student did not know something else the first student might. The goal of the class was to promote inquiry.
Since this is a short document of about five pages, it might not be necessary to write the first few words of the sentences on the board -- that depends on the level of the students in the class and how accustomed to this method they are.
To begin the class I would ask if anyone had any questions or comments about the reading. Topics would come up which we would discuss briefly as an introduction and then if the discussion slowed down, I would ask students for sentences they had chosen.
There are are so many evocative ideas in this piece! It is rich with emotion and clearly explained. when you are ready you can ask who has a sentence they would like to share with the class. Sometimes the kids will want to read a sentence they chose without your asking. You have to make sure that the student explains where it is in the document and wait for everyone to find it so they all can read along. After she reads the sentence, I ask why the student chose it and ask open-ended questions like, explain how you think about that or how did that make you feel? Then you can have a short discussion by including other students' opinions. It is not necessary to go in the strict order of topics or pages in the document. You can just let the students choose where they want to go. To do this, of course, you have to know the document very well. Restricting the student choices to the order of where they appear in the document cuts down on the voluntary nature of the choices which can stall the class. However, it is important to keep the lesson to one class period. You never want to drag out a lesson: there are many opportunities to discuss labor topics. Keep the lesson going.
As the class proceeds you will be covering the various themes in the article. If you write the ideas and comments the students made on the black board you can make a series of categories like Immigration, Family Life, Working Conditions, The First Strike, The Bosses Fight Back and the Lessons of Labor Organizing. Do not write the categories on the board until the end. The students can come up with the topics and you can use those as a summary at the end of the lesson.
By this time in the semester we would have already discussed European immigration to the US. After 1870 large numbers of immigrants from Western Europe, including Germans, had come to the US. The Russians, Germans and Polish people from further east did not start arriving in the very high hundreds of thousands until after the turn of the 20th century. In the 1880s when she was 5 years old, Rose Schneiderman came from what she called Russian Poland which included the present day Belarus with the cities Minsk and Pinsk. Her father was a tailor coincidently Schneiderman means master tailor in German. He made a family wage that was supposedly sufficient for the whole family. Women in the US made half the wages of men and the children who worked made half of that. They lived in the Lower East Side on Eldridge Street which is now a mixed neighborhood of Chinese, Jews and Hispanics. She comments that they had settled among Jews because as she said proudly, "for we are also Jews." Nowadays there is actually a sign on Avenue C showing the Spanglish (combined Spanish and English) name Loisaida in tribute to all the Puerto Rican people who live there. Orchard Street, also in the neighborhood, used to have Jewish owned carts in the street with clothing and food for sale, open on Sunday because the Jewish sabbath was Saturday. Schneiderman describes the crowded streets and the excitement they exuded -- they still do, albeit with a more mixed population. Finally, there is now a wonderful museum called the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. Founded in 1988 in a typical Lower East Side building with six floors and four apartments on each floor. The Tenement Museum is a years long restoration project in which historian/curators have researched the lives of the people who had lived in many of the apartments and collected appropriate furniture the families might have had. Docents take you on tours of the apartments and tell the stories of generations of residents who lived there from the 1840s through the 1920s. This is a trip worth making if you come to NYC.
There were already Jewish charity organizations in New York City like the Hebrew Orphan Asylum that Schneiderman mentions. It was set up by German Jews to aid the easterners which a was a mixed bag of positive and negative motivations, because part of the reason for its existence was that earlier immigrants did not want the newly arrived Jews to embarrass them or to become burdens on the government. It is evident that the Hebrew Orphan Asylum helped Schneiderman's family, however, and she appreciated that help. By 1905 when this article was written one of her brothers was already working at the Stock Exchange and the other went to City College which was founded in 1847 as the first public institution of higher education in the US. CCNY did not charge tuition until 1976. My mother went to Hunter College, a similar institution. She graduated in 1937 having paid a four year total of $8 for library fees and lab fees. Free college, now a source of wide spread political controversy, had been a tradition in New York City for nearly 130 years!
Rose enjoyed school while her father was alive but after he died she cared for her brothers and infant sister while her mother looked for work. She cooked simple meals with the meat that her mother made in the morning, but her mother was away for 11 hours and Rose felt trapped in the house for she was a "serious child." Even at 9 years old she had "little interest in child's play." Finally, she was "freed" when her aunt took her infant sister and her brothers were sent to the Hebrew Orphan Aslyum.
She was happy to get back to school after a few years, but after 6th grade she went to work "to help support the family."
It is important to point out that families of all races experience these kinds of situations when they are poor. It is a canard of American racism that there was no family connection among enslaved people in the US leading to the supposed absence of fathers among Black people after the Civil War. This fake news produced criminal and irresponsible children. Daniel Patrick Moynihan made that unresearched and racist assumption in his study, The Negro Family in America (1965) that families of Blacks have had a unique experience with such hardships. (4)
Rose Schneiderman began her working life at a famous Manhattan department store as a "cash girl" at Ridley's on Grand Street then moved to Hearn's on 14th St. between 5th and 6th Avenues. These were very large multi-floor stores like Macy's a competitor that was actually near Hearn's at the time. After a few years a friend advised Schneiderman that she could make more money as a cap maker, sewing in the linings for "golf caps, yacht caps etc." She worked at Hein and Fox which was on the West 3rd Street in Greenwch Village. The average pay was $5 per week at 3h (half) cents to 10c per dozen. What do you think about that rate of pay, I ask. The pace was intense. The students come to the conclusion that they were forced to compete against themselves to make more. You can make the rate even clearer by calculating the number of caps they had to make per week. The reality is always worse than you can imagine.
The rate was known as "piecework." You can ask the students to figure out how many caps they had to make at 10 cents per dozen. If $5 is 500 cents, it would take 50 dozen to make $5 per week (50 X 10c). That would be 12x50 or 600 caps per week. The week was 6 days at 10 hours per day or 60 caps per day. But that was at the "high" pay grade. New workers would only make 3h cents per dozen! To make a rough estimate, if the pay were 3 1/3 c per dozen, you would have to make 1800 caps per week because 3 1/3 c
x 3 = 10 cents. It turns out since 1/3 is smaller than 1/2, the real number is 500 divided by 3.5 cents which comes to 143 dozen x 12 which is "only" 1716 caps per week. Instead of the 1800 above. It was a race! That was one reason the factories were called sweatshops and the bosses were called sweaters. The origin of the term, however, was that workers making winter clothing like Schneiderman's mother, who worked with furs, or others who worked with sweaters, woolen coats or suits workers sewed all of these during the summer in poorly ventilated shops. Working with the heavy material wrapped around your arms and shoulders would make you sweat. You don't need a computer algorithm to wield awesome power in a factory.(5)
Working at an Amazon warehouse is a similar situation. The workers have a quota of the number of packages they must process to keep their jobs, but they also work 10 hours and are only allowed two 15 minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch. The pace is exhausting and timed by a computer algorithm to make you work constantly so that they quit at a rate of 150 percent per year! That is, every year the turnover is 100% plus half of the new replacement hires also leave. Workers have to urinate in bottles to save time. They would have to walk across a very large floor to get to the bathroom. It is no wonder they wanted a union! See the interview with Chris Smalls referred to in footnote (2).
In addition to the fast pace of the work, at Hein and Fox the women had to purchase their sewing machines from the boss. They all had to pay $5 down and one dollar per month for 40 months. Schneiderman reported that soon after she started there was a fire which burned down the whole factory. The bosses got $500,000 from insurance, but the workers received nothing. Many of the women had been working there a long time so their investment in the machines went up in smoke. If a student picked the sentence "I think they might have given them $10 any way," having a discussion about the cold attitude of the bosses can be enlightening. How do you react to that statement, I ask.
After the fire, Schneiderman started thinking about a union. "We were helpless; no one girl could stand up for anything alone." "The bosses were making small cuts in our pay a half cent a dozen at a time. It did not seem important, but at the end of the week, we found a difference." One worker said that "she did not think she could make caps for the new price, but another would say she would work a little harder." When students chose those sentences you have to make sure that they understand what a price means. A price is a wage rate the students realize."But then the first would say, 'If she can do it, then so can I." What do you think about those comments, I ask. The students suss out that the workers are feeling taken advantage of or exploited. As we said above about piecework: they are being forced to compete with themselves. "The men had organized and gained some advantages, but the bosses had lost nothing because they were taking it out on us." The idea that a union would protect them began lead to action.
When "a new girl," Bessie Brout, an effective organizer, came to work at Hein and Fox she was able to articulate the ideas about forming a union that the women had been thinking themselves. "She stimulated thoughts that were already in our minds." She was "radical and progressive," which students today are not used to reading in their schoolwork. During the discussion you can ask what they think of the words "radical" and "progressive." What do you think it means to Schneiderman, or why did she use them, I ask. Radical now has a positive meaning in the youth culture but it is not necessarily a political or economic term to them. The students come to the conclusion that she is praising Miss Brout. In linguistics radical means finding the root of the problem (like a radish, a root vegetable). Progressive means change for the better for people who favor it. You might want to wait for the final two statements in the article to fully analyze Schneiderman's point of view, but why did she use those words I ask? After some discussion the students discover that the power of the bosses over the work and the wage rate system were at the root of the problem. Who controls it? That is the key question.
The First Strike
This part of the article is a very detailed discussion of the ins and outs of union activity. It is not necessary to go into all the ideas because the main discussion of Schneiderman's story is the key in the piece. See note (5) below. The strikes and the union organizing itself are good indications of what she did, but not all the fine points are necessary for to comprehend the ideas. I discuss them as a way for you, as the teacher, to have the information to cover the questions, if they come up. This is a one period lesson. Do not get bogged down in too many details.
The next step was to go to the National Board of the men's union, the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers Union. They agreed to help the women organize themselves and we succeeded in getting the support of enough workers at the shop of Hein and Fox to force the company to accept the union label. "We argued that the union label would force the bosses to organize their girls and if there was a girls' union in existence the bosses could not use the union label unless their girls belonged to the union." This is a lot to unpack for students nowadays. What could a union label be? The students could figure out that the power of the union label would depend on the customers refusing to buy caps without a special label sewn into the lining of the cap showing that it was "union made." Consumers in those days supported the workers in the shops by buying only caps with the label, so the power of the union was enforced by the customers.
"When Fox found out what had happened, he discharged Miss Brout and probably would have discharged me, but I was a sample maker and not so easy to replace." This is the power that the students can observe that comes from skill itself. "In a few weeks we had all the girls in the organization, because the men told the girls that they must enter the union or they would not be allowed to work in the shop." This is fraught statement for many students because it is a form of coercion that some students might think is a step too far. It is a delicate discussion. Whatever conclusion the students reach you can explain that during the New Deal the Wagner Act, passed in 1935, protected union activity. The anti-union campaigns that employers like Amazon and Starbucks to which the workers are subject to are actually illegal.(6) But just because it is illegal does not mean they do not do it. The story of organizing at Amazon, Apple and Starbucks is rife with union busting tactics. The companies spend enormous amounts of money on it.
"Price lists for the coming season were given to the bosses to which they did not agree." How would you describe that in other words, I ask. The students realize that the workers are beginning to use their collective power. "After some wrangling, a strike was declared in 5 of the biggest factories. There were 30 factories in the city about 100 girls went out." The students have to figure out how the strike could have been effective when so many of the workers were not on strike. But they won the strike and "netted a $2 raise." The union educated the workers about "what a trades union is and our position in the labor movement." The idea of workers solidarity and the power of workers to win what they wanted by sticking together is the topic here: The union, was also an educational institution that protected itself by teaching the workers. "After a time I became a member of the National Board and had duties and responsibilities that kept me busy after my day's work." It is clear that Schneiderman was an outstanding organizer.
The Bosses Fight Back
Hein and Fox and the other factory owners posted a notice calling for the shops to be run on the "Open System" after December 26, 1904. "The bosses having the right to engage and discharge employees as they see fit, whether the latter are union or nonunion." How do you interpret that, I ask. The students realize that the union was under attack. Schneiderman adds that they want to hire new immigrants and children to do the work. The pay rates are going to go down. If someone picks this sentence the students have to figure out what the "open system" means. How would you comment on that statement, I ask. If the students have trouble understanding this, after a while you can ask them what system did they have before? Closed. Therefore the open system is the opposite. It refers to who gets hired at the shops. They were clearly trying to "break" the union, a technical term. The result was a strike.(7)
"The people were very restive." Does anyone know what "restive" means -- it the opposite of sleepy it means to toss and turn in bed! They were ready to go out on strike. At 2:30 pm on December 26 1904, the word came down that it was time to leave the the shops: Some of the women "sang the Marseilles" as they lay down their scissors and other tools. The Marseilles is the song of the French Revolution, an international call for the common people to take power. The men and the women went on strike. It lasted 13 weeks.
"We established our reputation" is an interesting comment because it is said we have come a long way since 1905. Why did she say that, I ask. One of the key points about that is that women were not seen as capable of holding power in a work place. They proved the doubters wrong and on the last page Schneiderman comments "the men gave them the credit of winning the strike" and "they could be faithful to the organization and to each other." In writing the article Schneiderman uses the "girls" instead of women. This certainly can be a good discussion of how far we have come: Women are more respected now in the law and also in the language we use. It is a productive discussion to have about just how far "we" have come.
The workers were on picket duty from 7 in the morning to 6 in the evening. In a picket line workers walk in front of the entrance to a shop and they move in an ellipse on the sidewalk. "We did not believe in violence and never employed it." Why was that, I ask. The students come to the conclusion that it would alienate the workers whose support they wanted. "If properly approached and talked to few would be found who would resist our offer to join our organization. No right thinking person desires to injure another." Schneiderman explains her thoughts quite thoroughly. Much of what she wrote was as plain as can be. They got strike pay of $3 per week for the women and the single men and the married men got $5 because they were expected to support their wives and children.
That is a family wage, as we discussed above, the pay was supported by union dues, "They were greatly helped by other unions during the strike because the open shop issue was such a big one." The unions had won a victories in the past when they used to work 14 hour days and "take the heads of their sewing machines" home the to work late into the night," just to get by. Why does she call it "slavery?" The ten hour day was a victory the men had won in the past. The workers were forced to work after they left the factory to make a living.
Conclusion: Solidarity Against the Bosses
Finally, as Schneiderman says "The bosses try to represent the open shop issue as though they were fighting a battle for the public... The open shop is a method to break the unions..." Schneiderman says. Union busting is an important point but there is another idea to get to here: Who is the "public?" Eventually the students could figure out that the public is other workers. Whoever works for a living is in the same position. There is no "public" separate from the workers. This is a complicated question, as you see people in favor of unions are on one side and those against are on the other. Similarly, Schneiderman mentions the Woman's Trade Union League which was an organization led and financed by middle class and upper class women who supported the working women and their unions by giving money and walking the picket lines with them. It was part of the Progressive movement.
If a student chooses one of the sentences about other kinds of shops to organize like restaurants, and department stores, you can ask how to interpret that. Why is she suggesting those other places. The students will come to the conclusion that spreading the union movement is essential for maintaining their gains and making further progress.
Solidarity is based on fellow feeling. As Schneiderman said so clearly,"The girls and women by their meetings and discussions come to understand and sympathize with each other and more and more easily they act together." Then in the powerful conclusion to her article she wrote: "There is no hope from the mercy of the bosses. Each boss does the best for himself with no thought of the other bosses, and that compels each to gouge and squeeze the hands to the last penny in order to make a profit. So we must stand together to resist, for we will get what we can take just that and no more."
These final sentences are a mixture of solidarity and stark realism. Asking the students to unpack them is very instructive. The first few statements are fairly plain. You can ask for examples from the other parts of the article: We have already seen there was no mercy when the workers received no compensation for their machines lost in the fire or how the bosses kept taking half a cent per dozen out of their pay. The "hands" are the workers who are exploited by the bosses.The pace of work was punishing when you consider that the average pay was $5 per week for 1716 caps! But what does the last sentence really say? "(F)or we can get what we can take, just that and no more." How do you interpret that, I ask. The students will only get the meaning by making sure that they read the word "take." They tend to read it as given from the bosses. No! The workers must win it for themselves. Nothing they get is a gift, they must take it from the bosses. It is a question of power: either they have it or they do not.
It is a hard lesson, and Rose Schneiderman was an excellent teacher.
(1) You can download "A Cap Maker's Story" at this URL:
(2) Look up the interview with Chris Smalls by Trevor Noah on YouTube it will not play here.
(3) "Tarzan Theory of Reading" is at this URL:
(4) See the introduction to the Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750 - 1925 (1976) by Herbert Gutman for an analysis of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous essay on the supposedly "unique" problems of the Black family. Gutman found plantation records that disproved Moynihan's assumptions that enslaved Blacks had no family life.
(5) When I was teaching this lesson in high school one of my students bowed her head and her face went dark. It could be that during the 1990s her mother or other relative worked in one of the sweat shops in Sunset Park, Brooklyn where the bosses were stealing money from the workers, by not paying minimum wage and not paying on time.
See the article in the NY Times that broke the story:
(6) "A Cap Maker's Story" is clear without all the ins and outs of the union questions. I give the teacher the details in case they come up, but the keys to the piece as a successful lesson are the broad strokes of the main topics not the details of the union history and organizing. It is not necessary to cover every idea. Try to keep this article to one day's lesson. The ideas at the very end cover the importance of the power of the workers -- they are a lesson in the existential world of the sweat shop in the early 20 century.
(7) See the Supreme Court case, Janus v AFSCME (2018) which overturned the compromise the unions made with workers who did not want to join unions. The closed shop or union shop was the standard for many years until unions agreed to make them "agency" shops, which allowed the workers to work in union controlled shops without joining the union. Those workers had to pay dues, however. After all, they were getting the same benefits as those who joined the union. In Janus the Court overturned the agency shop, making it illegal for unions to require all workers to pay dues. So the conservative Court succeeded in forcing unions to make dues voluntary. This was a key event in the concerted and successful effort to roll back union power in the US.