DEFENDING THE DEFENSELESS
Many laborers who managed to keep their jobs during the Depression suffered as much as people on relief. The onslaught of massive unemployment gave businessmen the opportunity to exploit helpless workers by sharply reducing wages and lengthening the workday. Although the cost of living also fell after 1929, the wages of many New Yorkers dropped faster, and working conditions deteriorated as fly-by-night sweatshops reappeared in numerous industries. The collapse of labor standards hit women and child employees hardest because they held the lowest-paying jobs and remained largely unorganized. Under the impact of the Depression, one clothing manufacturer in New York instituted a system of piecework which cut the weekly paychecks of skilled women employees from $11.00 in 1931 to $3.00 in 1933. During this period, a girl in another factory found her wages slashed from $20.00 a week to 20 cents a day for the same job. To compensate for these cuts, some women in the garment industry started taking work home at night, and they labored until two or three o'clock in the morning to earn $2.00 a day. Many less fortunate families turned their homes into factories where they produced a variety of articles under the age-old system of industrial homework. 1
Long-time defenders of women and child wage earners expressed dismay at seeing the return of conditions which undermined many achievements of the previous generation. An official of the Women's Trade Union League lamented in 1933: "We have discovered during this depression that American workers stand for a great deal more than we ever supposed they would." 2 Mary W. Dewson, a leader of the Consumers' League, observed: "Industrial standards built up inch by inch after years of struggle are going down like card houses before the demand of the unemployed for work at any price."3 Often unprotected by state labor laws or even by trade unions in many cases, women and child workers were at the mercy of employers who followed the dictates of the competitive system.