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In the 1940s, Ruth Young was a prominent trade union activist in the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). In 1944 she became the first woman on the UE Executive Board. Throughout that period she was also very active within the Communist party (CP) of the USA. Young had been a Party member for quite some time, and a militant fighter for working women’s rights. In 1950, however, craving the stability and normality of a middle class family life, a life she hoped to build with Schenectady UE Local 301’s Business Agent, Leo Jandreau, she gave up her position as Secretary of UE District 4. Earlier, she had withdrawn from the CP. In 1954, she and her husband severed all of their connections to both the UE and the CP when Local 301, led by her husband, withdrew from the UE and merged with the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (IUE). The original of the following document is in Ruth Young Jandreau’s handwriting.
— By Gerald Zahavi, Professor of History, State University of New York, Albany.
My Story (Some Splinters of a Life)
by Ruth Jandreau, 1979
A game which people often play is to ask one another—”if you could live your life over, what would you change, what would you do again”—or—one is often asked “what age would you like to be again”? I almost always have said my life was great when I was in my mid-twenties. Everything seemed to come together for me: I’d reached the pinnacle in my Union career; I finally gave birth to my lovely daughter Karen; I was healthy, attractive, travelling around the country, and doing many exciting gratifying things. This was in my “other life.”
You see I feel I’ve had several distinct lives: my first life was one of poverty and great unhappiness when I was a small child. My second life was in the factory, the union, with the masses. My third life was begun when I married by second husband, my beloved Leo and became a housewife in a small community; had my second child; was stepmother to three including a young man only ten years my junior; and became active in community and church work. My fourth life began when I went back to work in an entirely new milieu—academe. And now—I do not know if my widowhood will lead to a fifth life, or a revision of the fourth. This is still in process, ever-changing and evolving.
I choose to write about the second life—or period in my life. I have been remembering bits and pieces. For years many of these memories lay buried. I felt I made a break with this life when I chose to marry Leo. But now that I am trying to remember, so many scenes are in front of me, my head is full—I cannot get away from the fragments when driving, thinking, reading, or seeing a film like “Norma Rae.” It is my intention to write some of these, and, perhaps, to create a semblance of “order.” This is one of my small stories. There are so many….
I was pregnant—and so very, very happy. I had been married since I was not quite 18. I was going to have a child and a career I loved. Our factories were booming, the Union was growing. It was 1941. The United States was not in the war but we were lending all kinds of support to our Western European allies. Our union was in the Electrical, Radio and Machine industry. Many thousands of young women as well as housewives were entering industry. It was the era of “Rosie the Riveter.” I was organizer and director of the Membership Activities Department. Besides organizing trade union training classes for new shop stewards, we also made a special effort to involve women at every level—organizing, negotiating, and even knitting for our men in service. We also had bus-loads of our girls go to Fort Dix for dances on base, and to USO sponsored parties. It was A-Z—organizing to mittens.
The first big conference we had, had several hundred women, the Governor of New Jersey and the national Vice-President of the General Electric Company. The Governor was the son of the inventor, Thomas Edison. I had to make a speech and was nauseous from my pregnancy. With help of saltine soda crackers and will I managed to speak…. I was a woman speaking to my sisters.
When my daughter Karen’s birth was imminent I finally decided to stay home and work by phone. One night the bell rang and there were the two young women, Jean and Mary who had taken over my job (they split it between New York and New Jersey—I had covered two states). Within the next hour about thirty more young women arrived—it was a surprise shower for my expected baby. She was literally showered with so many beautiful hand-made garments. These women who knit for the soldiers, knit for my baby. I still have the album they gave me and the baby book, over 37 years ago. I loved these people and they were happy for me….
I was watching a movie at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre when my serious “labor” began. I entered the hospital that Sunday evening but my tiny Karen, not much over 5 pounds, was not born until very early Tuesday. Her father, my first husband Charles was at work. I phoned and left word at the Shipyard where he was employed, saying our child had arrived. (Today husbands and fathers are with their wives, sharing the birth.) She was so pretty, so pink, so tiny. I was surrounded by flowers from the many organizations I worked in—but a small bunch of sweet peas were my favorite.
It is curious that the first thing I write about is Karen—yet not so curious—because she remains so precious and dear. Work—kudos—applause—even acquaintances come and go. I learned during those years, sometimes the hard way, a lesson I still remember. It is your children, your beloved, those close to you, that are central to life. The other things are important but not as enduring. Exciting—but not fulfilling.
I mentioned the movie “Norma Rae.” It took me back in time when I also stood at factory gates giving out leaflets—ran the mimeograph machine in the Union Hall, and in the late thirties worked for a dollar a day for the Union. No organizer could go into a factory then, as he does in the movie. Joining a union meant putting a lot “on the line.”
After World War II ended all the CIO unions decided it was time to “catch up”—wages had been frozen for so long. Throughout the country, in the large organized plants, people struck. I was assigned to the Westinghouse Plant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. There were 10,000 people—mostly young women. We manufactured lamps and radio tubes. The night before the strike I slept in the small home of Dick Lynch, the President of the union. We were to begin the strike at 6 a.m., with the first shift. I was scared and awed by the responsibility thrust upon me. These people believed in me. I was at that time the only woman on the National Board of our union of 600,000, and the second officer in our District. I had wanted the position and now I had to deliver! We struck the plant.
For thirteen weeks I was with these people, going home to Brooklyn to sleep a few hours each night. On week-ends, when my housekeeper who lived with me had time off, I would sometimes bring little Karen with me. We had an Easter party and other parties for the children of the strikers. We set up soup kitchens, got welfare, had banks declare a moratorium on loans and mortgages, sent committees out to raise funds. I went to speak to large meetings in New York City—to maritime workers, transport workers, garment workers, pleading for money.
Some days I was discouraged. Sometimes frightened. But I couldn’t tell anyone. Couldn’t show weakness to the workers. They were counting on me. My husband was in the Pacific. It’s funny—peculiar—I cannot remember if he was back from his navy stint at that time!! I’m sitting here trying to remember, and cannot! But I do remember when the Courts issued an injunction against our strike and we answered by calling for a mass picket line of thousands. The sheriff came with bull horns and read the riot act (literally—the act dated back many years), calling on us to disperse. But we marched. I was frightened but was in front. I was angry at the men in the union office who left me alone. But—I’d asked for it—wanted to be a leader!
Five of our men were arrested. They stood trial, facing serious sentencing. I worked with the lawyer, Sam Rothbard, for days, preparing their defense. (How strange I can remember his name after 33 years, but cannot remember when Charles was discharged from the Navy!)
I lived in Brooklyn all those years. Before Karen was born we lived in Brooklyn Heights and then in Park Slope. When she was on her way, we got a two-bedroom apartment in Flatbush. We were near the Dodgers’ Ball Park—Ebbetts Field. When they played a night game, the lights shone in our house. I loved to go to the ballgames with Charles and later with Karen. It is the only sport event that ever interested me.
During the War, there were many alliances, committees, organizations formed. Actually there was a spirit abroad in our land that I have never felt since. We were a people with one purpose. In the Union our slogan was “a good union man is a good citizen.” (Liberated as I believe I was, I never minded using the word man to denote man/woman.) Trade union leaders were welcomed everywhere. I met people I would not otherwise have met.
Once I went to Washington to a government meeting in the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor—we talked about working conditions for women in our big plants, about day care centers, about shift differentials, minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, etc. Actually we addressed and moved toward resolving many of the questions current today, all over again, among women. I was young, articulate, filled with confidence in my people, a zealous woman with a “cause” and captured the attention of Catherine Filene Shouse. She invited me home for a week-end at her estate—Wolf Trap Farm. Today that estate is seen on TV as Wolf Trap Music Center—the Channel 17 carries concerts from there. It is similar to SPAC. Kay Shouse’s father was Lincoln Filene, a Boston philanthropist and department store owner. I was introduced to how “the other half lived.” A chauffeured limousine drove us to the estate in Virginia. A maid in uniform brought me coffee on a tray in the morning. To Kay Shouse I was an “oddity.” She offered me a job in Washington. I had a husband, a child, a commitment to workers—people to be organized. We kept in touch for a while. When she came to New York City once I invited her to a large shop stewards meeting. Then it was her turn to see “the other half” and how we lived! I was at her home the day FDR died—that was the last place I wanted to be at that time! Her husband, Jonett Shouse, was the founder of the Liberty League—the reactionary Democrats who were undermining FDR. I longed to be with my people—the workers—at this time of sorrow.
I remember the hard work and the hard times. But I also remember some of the fun. Cafe Society had opened—with many newly discovered jazz artists—Hazel Scott, Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson, Helena (later Lena) Horne. After a meeting we’d go there—sit in the back—listen, talk, drink. We were free women, taking over for the men who’d gone into service—and we opened many doors. I worked among men on the outside I was rather tough, firm, aggressive, holding my own. Inside I was quite vulnerable, wanting so very much to be held, to be loved…. I was an aggressive leader, a good mass speaker, but I wanted to be cuddled and held. I seemed so self-assured, and in many ways I was—but I wanted someone to hold me. I’d been on my own for so long…. But that’s another story.
This was the period when the musical “Oklahoma” hit Broadway. I remember Ado Annie singing the song “Everything you can do I can to better.” That seems to have been my theme song. I went from a factory job, to shop steward, to organizer, to Membership Activities Director, to Executive Secretary, to National Officer. I spoke at mass rallies at Madison Square Garden—a young woman in a hurry. Once my first husband told me—as our marriage was coming apart—that I would “never be happy.” Life has proven him to be wrong. But there was, and is, this urgency for perfection, to do more and more. Why?
During the big strike I met many people—approached many for help. Hollywood stars, writers, television personalities. Labor was glamorous—everyone was drawn to it—until the going got rough again.
If I make everything sound so “pat,” so ordered—it wasn’t. There was the long hours of work—ringing doorbells and visiting people in their homes and trying to persuade them to join the Union. There were leaflets to be written, news releases, committees.
I remember the first union contract I negotiated. The plant made zippers—Conmar zippers. Most of the workers were unskilled. Their conditions were lousy. Low pay, no benefits or security. I would approach them in the cafeterias and diners where they congregated. When we have enough cards we had an election. Then we had meetings to draw up our demands and entered negotiations. On one side of the table the chief foreman and one of the company partners. On the other side—me and my workers. I felt so at home with the people, so at ease.
In my life I judged people by rather stringent standards. They were for the workers or against them—good or bad—right or wrong. That was in that life. I’ve since learned one can be “for workers” and not very ethical, nice, or principled, and one can be “against workers,” or anti-union and still be a decent human being. But this I learned in one of my other “lives” or “stories.”
A high moment I remember was my meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt. Actually, as I begin to remember this piece of “splintered glass” (from Loren Eiseley) I recall I met her personally on four separate occasions. I began to tell you of this high moment. It was in the New York City apartment which she maintained at Washington Square. I had come to enlist her support for our working women and their organizing campaigns; for better conditions in the war plants and day care centers for children. I met her another time and sat on the floor very close by her at the first American Youth Congress which was held on the campus of Vassar College (the only time in my life I slept in a college dorm and was on a campus! It was in one of my later lives, many years in the future, that I finally began to go to college at night, as a part time student). Joseph Lash, later the award-winning biographer of “Eleanor and Franklin” was one of the prime organizers of this Congress. Young delegates came from all over the world—in the early forties—when we were allies against fascism. Mrs. Roosevelt was the idol of all of us.
The third occasion was at a tea at the White House, with a group of women who had been convened by Miss Mary Anderson, then the Director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. Again, our common interest was working women on the “home front” supplying our men on the “war front.”
My final personal meeting was when she spoke at a city-wide conference of women which I chaired—again, in support of the war. I can see her now with her kind face, concern for people, her humanity, her inspiring words. I even remember what I wore that day and could describe it in minute detail (but cannot remember if Charles was home from the Pacific when I led the Westinghouse strike).
My beautiful, precious Karen was there, to come home to, to love, to cherish. She used to love to crawl into my bed and play with my colored handkerchiefs. Now her children crawl into my bed when I visit. This is an unbroken chain of love.
While I worked I had two different wonderful women, both black, live in my house (my four room apartment) and take care of Karen. The first woman was Phala. She came from Alabama. I had originally hired Genevieve, white, Brooklyn born, to live with me and be with Karen. I had returned to work when Karen was four weeks young. But Genevieve did not seem right for my precious little girl. A woman in the union, newly arrived from the South, the wife of our newspaper editor, suggested she knew someone anxious to come North, if someone paid her fare. So I sent for Phala. She was a tall, loving, warm person—she took fine care of Karen, played with her, told her stories, and walked her to and from nursery school. Weekends I was there. When Karen was older, four, five, if I had to work on a weekend I took her with me. She’d write me notes and draw pictures while I conducted meetings. She sat on platforms when I spoke. She still remembers this.
When Phala had been with me a few years she met a man at church and wanted to move out. This was fine. We sent for her sister-in-law, Minnie, Phala’s brother’s widow. Minnie was with us until I quit this life, married my Leo, and moved to Schenectady. One at a time I helped Minnie bring her grandchildren to New York City and got them jobs in union factories.
I loved Minnie. She was for me the mother I’d never had. We were a family. To this day Karen and I have no patience for or understanding of racial prejudice. No superbly educated woman could have given to us more than Minnie gave.
As I sit and write, disorganized, remembering, incidents, I am reminded of Eiseley saying: “the brain has become a kind of unseen artist’s loft. There are pictures that hang askew, pictures with outlines barely chalked in, pictures torn—pictures the artist has striven unsuccessfully to erase….”
This is difficult—I think of many things, and of nothing. I wonder why small incidents can bother me on my present job, when big ones were a challenge to be met and overcome when I was half my present age? As we get older, and mellow, and learn to compromise and live among people do we also get weaker and less confident? If we are the sum total (and I believe we are) of all our experiences, should we not be stronger? Or was the strength of my youth really a brashness and boldness born of ignorance? Was the idealism by which I lived—(my father’s substitute for his religion)—the devotion to helping the poor—my source of strength?
Why do I remember, as I try to stop writing, how at the tender age of twelve or thirteen I went through the subway trains in New York City, collecting money for poor miners and textile workers? I carried the cans that the Salvation Army and the Veterans of Foreign Wars shake at holiday time when they ask for our donations.
Writing this is like opening a floodgate. It is like taking a finger out of a hole in a dyke. Or it is picking up splinters and pieces. It hurts. With the good memories there are painful ones, too. Enough for now. I must think and still my heart. Some of my memories are not pretty ones. I would like to think of myself in favorable terms—but it’s not black and white. Life isn’t black and white. People, including me, aren’t all good or all bad….
A Brief Note on Unitarian Connections
Ruth Y. Jandreau was a member of the First Parish Unitarian Church of Schenectedy. New York.