“I’ve Always Been A Rebel”
Sam Brosilow (1898-1983) was three years old when his family in 1900 fled Russia for Philadelphia, where his father found work in the city’s thriving garment industry, one of the nation’s largest.
“He could make a suit for you from scratch without even putting a pattern down... He measured you, and when it was finished, perfect!” – Sam Brosilow, 1982
Jobs in Philadelphia were plentiful for thousands of working children as well as adults, but the city was a low-wage town with harsh working conditions, high rates of seasonal unemployment, and both a city government and manufacturers openly hostile to unions. When pushed too hard, workers revolted.
Sam was twelve years old when Philadelphia’s Rapid Transit Company (RTC) laid off its organized employees in 1910, and more than 60,000 Philadelphia workers walked out in a general strike that paralyzed the city and erupted into violence as police beat striking employees and workers retaliated.
“I saw my first labor strike in front of our house. I came running home excited, and I burst out, ‘A lot of people are being hurt and being arrested!’ And my mother and father said, ‘Don't worry, everything is okay. They're strikers, and the police are taking care of them.’ ‘Okay—’ It was the Pennsylvania State Police. They used to be called the Cossacks of Pennsylvania (laughter).... The employees of the Rapid Transit Company were on strike, the first strike that I ever saw, and although I was to participate in plenty of them, that was the first one that I saw. Naturally it left an impression on me that I've never forgotten.” – Sam Brosilow, 1981
The 1910 General Strike, after twenty-nine deaths, forced the RTC to increase wages and rehire its striking workers. Despite the low pay and long hours in the garment industry, Sam’s father, like many immigrant parents, pulled Sam out of school at the age of thirteen to go to work as a spindle boy in a thread mill.
“He didn't even want me to go to high school. Now, this sounds strange, but he came from Europe, and… he was illiterate himself. He didn't know how to read or write anything. But there's a reason for that. His mother was a widow…. He was the oldest of the group, so she sold him—she, uh, put him into a—as apprenticeship to a tailor. And when you do that in Russia, in the old country, any country, didn't make any difference, you were a virtual slave.” – Sam Brosilow, 1981
Sam worked his way up from sweeper, to errand boy, to bookkeeper to an apprentice cutter at the Spector Brothers Clothing Factory, Sam quickly learned the harsh realities of work in the men’s garment industry.
“Now, in the wintertime you froze to death. In the summertime, you melted from the heat. 'Cause why? The steam from the pressing machines. The cutting machine and the cloths combined gave it an unhealthy situation for the lungs. Every time you would cut cloth, you would get lint, and if you breathe too long, you get the same result as coal miners get. Theirs is called Black Lung and this was Brown Lung.”
– Sam Brosilow, 1981
Sam also witnessed the helplessness of his co-workers, who knuckled under to whatever their bosses demanded of them.
“In the needle industry there were no grievances. You either worked or you quit, or you got fired. If you opened your mouth up, you were put in your place. If you kept it up, you were told to get out. The only way you could hold a job is by keeping quiet.”
– Sam Brosilow, 1981
Quickly making his way up the ranks, Sam became a tailor. Self-confident, good at his job, and hot tempered, he refused to suffer the insults and mistreatment of his bosses at Spectors.
“The only reason I quit there [Spector Brothers] was because the other partner was the outside man, and he was one of these here, ‘I'm the boss." ...One day...he said something to me I didn't like so I said, ‘You can take this damn job and stick it up your ass." ‘What?!" I said, ‘Goodbye!’ and I walked out. So I went around looking for a job. After four months, I came home one day, and my father told me, ‘Frank called up.’ That's the brother that was in the inside. ‘He wants to see you. Go down and see him.’ So I went down. He says, ‘Look, Sam, come on back, don't mind Morris, you listen to me.’ So I said, ‘Ah, all right,’ and I went back. That's my experience there, the other ones I was too damned arrogant. In the needle industry there were no grievances. You either worked or you quit, or you got fired. If you opened your mouth up, you were put in your place. If you kept it up, you were told to get out. The only way you could hold a job is by keeping quiet.” – Sam Brosilow, 1981
In the early 1900s, Philadelphia was known by national union organizers as the “Siberia of the clothing industry.” Following the First World War when the United States stood up for the rights of people to form their own nations and governments, Sam thought that workers would get their rights at home.
“I think America was in it for two years and became the leading nation in the world at that particular moment. So everybody looked up to the United States. In the meantime, people were working here as slaves. They had no unions, and they couldn’t even start any. The law was against them. The situation got so bad that they were actually being forced out of work by the employers, because there was no union to protect them.... We were at the bottom. We were the bottom hole in the industry.”
– Sam Brosilow, 1981
In the 1920s the national garment worker unions figured that if they could organize Philadelphia’s clothing industry, the nation’s second largest, then other cities would follow. Tired of seeing his fellow workers treated like slaves, Sam joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
“I was working at a place on 13th and Hamilton. They're still in business today, After Six.... They're manufacturers of eveningwear. So I was working for them, and we were called out on strike. I went out and I became a union man in a way.... I got a union card, but it didn't mean anything because we didn't have any organization yet. After that strike, people became interested, because things were turning. In the meantime, people were making money in real estate, investing in stocks, which was going up, and everybody was flush. It was real bonanza, for everybody who had the money and the reserves to do it with. Not for me, or guys like me." – Sam Brosilow, 1981
Committed to “social unionism”—that is, to improving the social conditions of its members—the Amalgamated provided cooperative housing, educational opportunities, unemployment benefits, and a bank to provide workers financial services and loans. By 1929 the Amalgamated’s membership in Philadelphia had soared from 700 to 10,000, and the union was preparing to launch a new campaign.
“We finally got it organized, and had a meeting, and I was at the meeting. I helped organize it. We sat around talking and somebody mentioned something about what we expect now that this thing seems to be cracking wide open. ‘Don't worry about it,' they were told. ‘We'll take care of you.’ 'Well, what do you mean, you'll take care of us?’ They were taxing the other markets to organize Philadelphia, which was the usual procedure. ‘Where are you going to get money from?’ So, we had a meeting, and we were organized. All of a sudden the market dropped out and everybody was out of work again, and here we were in the midst of an organizing drive, and couldn't do anything with it.” – Sam Brosilow, 1981
After the stock market crashed, the number of American clothing workers plummeted from 149,868 in 1929 to 109,000 in 1933. Sweatshop labor and “home work” returned to Philadelphia. During the Great Depression Sam's shop steward told him that their boss, I. M. Cohen, wanted him on a company committee. After protesting that he wouldn't participate, Sam agreed to go to the meeting.
“So we got there, and he started off the spiel, and it went something like this. He said, ‘Now, I want you to know," he said, ‘I'm not going to be the one to break a system." And then he says, ‘I want you to know I'm not a Communist before 6:00, nor am I a Communist after 6:00." And I didn't understand that--(laughter)…. Finally he wound up with saying… ‘Another thing: if you don't like it, quit.’ So I looked at him, and that riled me. I don't like anybody that tells me--give me that kind of a command. I said, ‘Look, Mr. Cohen, could I say a few words?’ He said, ‘Well, that's what you're here for.’ I says, ‘Fine. I want you to know also that I am not a Communist before 6:00. I'm not a Communist after 6:00.’ I said, ‘I know you have a hard situation to confront, in between seasons—if the retailer doesn't buy, you don't produce. But if you don't produce, are we producing? We don't work when you don't… sell any stock.’ ‘Oh, oh, right.’ I says, ‘You make up for it later, but do we? Can we make up for it later?... Look, I'll tell you one thing. Before any one of us quit, I'm going to tell you, you are going to have a strike on your hands, and don't kid yourself. Because while you're sending your children to college, we can't afford to do that. That's too rich for us. And then you tell us that if we don't like the trade that we should get out of it. Well, I'm going to tell you, Mr. Cohen, that if you don't like the trade, you get the hell out of it,’ I said, ‘because we have no way of getting back our money that we lose if we don't work, but you do. All you do is put your stock aside, then when the season opens up you get the same price you would've sold it for last season.’” – Sam Brosilow, 1981
Sam remained in the garment industry and for many years served as the treasurer of a workers’ credit union. After retiring, he stayed connected to old friends and the union at the Hillman Center on Chestnut Street in Center City, where he took classes, socialized with other retired garment workers, and remained passionate about labor issues.
“We used to have a lot of visitors come in because of the two women who were the leaders, both ex-public schoolteachers. And I got so angry with them one day, when they were talking about the glory of the employers and all that. ‘Wait a minute. Let's get something straight in here,’ I says. ‘Who are we praising? A system or a group of people? Which comes first, the group or the system?’ So they looked at me. ‘Well, evidently,’ one woman said, ‘evidently you think that the rich are no good. But look at all the fine buildings they put up for us.’ Well, I thought that was the most asinine answer that anybody could give (laughter). So I said, 'Lady, let me tell you something. How much did it take away from the workers? It had to come from somewhere.’” – Sam Brosilow, 1981
Back in 1931 Sam married Ethel Stein, whom he met through the union. Although his father had been illiterate, and Sam himself had never attended high school, the Brosilow’s son, Coleman earned his Ph.D. at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, then taught chemical engineering at Case Western University in Cleveland for almost forty years. (from 1963-2001). When interviewed in 1981 Sam was still as cantankerous as ever.
“I admit, I'm a rebel. I've always been a rebel. I've never taken anything for granted. Everything had to have certain reasons, and certain whys and wherefores, and if they didn't satisfy me I wouldn't have it. Now, that's the best I can give you.” – Sam Brosilow, 1981