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(A copyrighted publication of West Virginia Archives and History)

Volume 52 Labor-Management Conflict
in the Eastern Panhandle:
Perfection Garment Company
Battles the ILGWU

By Jerra Jenrette

Volume 52 (1993), pp. 109-126

During the first six decades of the twentieth century, the Berkeley County seat at Martinsburg boasted a thriving textile industry. From the early 1930s until 1953, changes in the industry intensified animosity between labor and management in the small Eastern Panhandle city. Most of the conflicts in the 1930s mirrored general trends in the national labor movement and reflected the economic pressures of the Great Depression. Labor was successful in organizing union locals in several of the city's factories during this period. After warding off union efforts for almost two decades, a 1953 strike at the Perfection Garment Company factory finally culminated in an International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) victory.

Martinsburg, settled in the early eighteenth century, benefitted greatly from the coming of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1844 and the Martinsburg and Potomac in 1871.1 These important transportation connections enabled Martinsburg to develop its industrial interests. But, between the Civil War and the first decade of the twentieth century Martinsburg was the only West Virginia municipality which failed to triple in population. In 1880, Berkeley County had a population of 17,310 out of a state population of 618,457. The population of Martinsburg was 6,355, a number which rose to 7,226 in 1890 and 7,564 in 1900. In 1900, it ranked fifth in urban population, surpassed by Wheeling, Huntington, Charleston and Parkersburg. By 1910, Martinsburg's population had climbed to 10,698. While West Virginia's total population increased to 1,221,119, the greatest growth was in the coal-mining counties in the southern part of the state.2

By 1880, Berkeley County had 104 manufacturing establishments employing 227 men, one woman and three children. Twenty years later, the number of manufacturing establishments had increased to 150, employing 682 men, 442 women and 57 children. Martinsburg flourished because of the county's efforts to industrialize, but more importantly, its growth was a direct result of electricity furnished in 1889 as part of a franchise granted to the United Edison Manufacturing Company of New York.3

During the 1890s several textile factories began operations in Martinsburg. In 1890, the Martinsburg Board of Trade, predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce, approached a Philadelphia entrepreneur B. J. Hickman about the possibility of establishing a knitting mill in the city. Martinsburg community leaders raised seven thousand dollars to organize the Middlesex Knitting Company because Hickman lacked the necessary capital. The Independent, a local newspaper, reported thirty-seven Martinsburg residents had donated land on which to construct a woolen mill in the same year.4

In 1891, W. H. Crawford established The Crawford Woolen Company and employed fifteen workers who produced approximately seven hundred yards of cloth a week. Crawford, a native of New Rochelle, New York, also held interests in the Shenandoah Pants Company and the Martinsburg Worsted and Cassimere Company, also established in the 1890s. In less than fifteen years, Crawford's textile interests failed primarily because of antiquated machinery and insufficient capital. During the same period, a number modern electric-powered mills transformed Martinsburg into an important textile center. Other textile factories established during the first two decades of the twentieth century also closed. From the financial ruins of Crawford Woolen and the Worsted and Cassimere Company, other businessmen established two new companies, Berkeley Woolen and Dunn Woolen. During the same period, John Poland, Sr. established the Perfection Garment Company which manufactured textiles.5

The Berkeley Woolen Company, which began operations in 1914, and the Dunn Woolen Company enjoyed several decades of prosperity. Both companies thrived during World War II, but were unable to compete with other local textile factories, increased national and international competition and the introduction of synthetic fibers to the industry in the postwar period. Berkeley Woolen closed in 1949 and Dunn Woolen in 1953, resulting in the loss of approximately one thousand jobs and a payroll of over one million dollars annually in the community. Local businessman John Poland, Jr. faulted organized labor for the decline of Martinsburg's textile industry. Wilbur Johnston, local historian of other Shenandoah Valley mills, in Weaving A Common Thread, convincingly argues that labor and management both contributed to the decline.6 In 1905, John Poland, Sr., Martinsburg community and church leader, established the Perfection Garment Company, which manufactured textiles until December 1991. With three hundred dollars borrowed on his life insurance policy, Poland opened the business in an old building on North Queen Street. Production began with one treadle sewing machine operated by a female employee who made ladies' skirts. Shortly thereafter, Poland bought two more machines and hired two more women. During the day, he traveled within a two hundred mile radius of Martinsburg taking orders and selling skirts. In the evenings, he returned to the old building to cut out material for the next day's production. In 1906, J. E. Thrasher joined Poland in this business venture and, in a few years, they added a small store where Martinsburg residents could purchase the skirts.7

By 1913, Martinsburg "was widely known as a splendid manufacturing center" where thousands found "employment and good wages" in its factories. Among these were Interwoven Mills, which employed eleven hundred workers, many of them skilled, and Berkeley Pants Company, which employed over one hundred.8 Perfection Garment Company prospered during its first decade of operation and, by 1915, its annual shipments totaled $50,137.76. Poland soon discontinued the manufacture of skirts which had become unpopular and began making muslin underwear. Ladies' dresses were added to the company's limited line in 1919, helping to maintain the company's revenues, and by 1923, had become so successful that Poland ceased the production of underwear.9

On January 30, 1923, the firm's success enabled Poland, Thrasher, May Poland, Duncan McTavish and H. L. Shaull to sign an agreement incorporating the Perfection Garment Company. Five years later, the company's stockholders voted to increase the corporation's capitalization from one hundred to two hundred fifty thousand dollars by increasing the number of shares from one thousand to twenty five hundred. By 1930, Perfection's shipments totaled more than $1.5 million.10

With the stock market crash in October 1929, the country experienced financial disaster. Perfection Garment Company, which had moved from North Queen Street to Winchester Avenue, had suffered losses of $25,000 by 1931. Despite the company's misfortunes, Poland maintained operations by reducing the number of work hours per week and continued to provide limited employment to Martinsburg citizens. Dorothy Beard began working at Perfection during summer vacations while enrolled at West Virginia University. Upon graduation in 1943, Beard was hired as bookkeeper for Perfection, a job previously held by her mother. She recalled that "a local man was talking to Poland about his financial problems indicating that he was not sure how he and his wife would survive the Depression. Poland told him to send his wife to the plant and he would give her a job." According to Beard, this was a common occurrence in Depression-struck Martinsburg.11

Perfection's production improved in 1932. Located in a three-story brick building, with elevator service to transport goods between floors, the company employed 440 women and men. Women comprised the majority of the work force, while men held the management positions and worked as cloth cutters. With the production of twelve thousand dresses a day, sold at one dollar each, the company was gradually recuperating from financial losses of the previous year.12

John Poland, Sr. established his reputation on the value of family and endeavored to instill this in the company and its employees. The company sponsored picnics and Christmas parties for employees, prided itself on its "family atmosphere" and frequently employed several members of the same family. Under Poland's leadership, Perfection Garment Company created an unreceptive climate for union efforts to organize the mill.13

During the 1930s, the company required new Perfection employees to give their reasons for seeking employment. Prospective employees were asked, "did you seek this place of your own free will? You weren't induced to apply, were you? Did you know that Perfection pays the highest wages?" At the conclusion of the interview, they stated,

I promise to enter into the spirit of the organization and to do my part in promoting honest ethics, goodwill, and friendship among all with whom I work, and if disagreement should unhappily arise between me and anyone in the organization I promise first to lay the matter before the management and not mention it to anyone outside.14

By this process Poland encouraged his employees to view the company as an extension of their own families, further reducing the chances for unionization.

Union activity at other Martinsburg companies heightened Poland's concerns. Berkeley Woolen Mill workers, on August 14, 1933, aroused the interest of other city textile employees when 228 of 335 workers went out on strike after the company fired several suspected union organizers. After mediation conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as a test case on the application of the National Recovery Act, the strike was resolved on September 20. Employees returned to the mill, which now recognized their representation by the United Textile Workers.15

In 1934, Poland's interest in expanding Perfection's market led him to contract with Samuel Goldfarb, a New York textile manufacturer. Goldfarb's contract to market Perfection's line at two hundred dollar a week lasted briefly. Approximately three years later, Goldfarb, challenged by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) drive to organize New York dress manufacturers, contacted Poland for assistance. Within days, Goldfarb and Poland came to terms and Goldfarb moved his equipment to Martinsburg and resumed his former position in sales with Perfection. This agreement moved Perfection forward in its plan to sell to national chain stores, such as Sears, Roebuck and Company and.16

When the United States entered World War II, Perfection responded to the demands of war, allocating 20 percent of its production to wartime necessities. During the war, Perfection filled three types of government orders. Under the Lend-Lease Program, the company shipped three hundred thousand seersucker slips to Europe and produced twenty five thousand cotton shirts for the United States Navy. Company employees sewed material for parachutes and continued the line of women's house dresses, pajamas and work uniforms. During the war, Perfection employed four office staff and approximately 440 floor workers.17

The war years were a period when differences between labor and management were minimized, but did not disappear completely. On December 24, 1941, company officers terminated the employment of Margaret Decker, a "single needle-work machine operator," because of her membership and activity in the ILGWU. After several months of union negotiations on her behalf, the company reinstated Decker to her position.18

The next year, union correspondence contended Perfection took advantage of employee patriotism to keep wages at a minimum while increasing company profits. Angela Bambace, general organizer for the ILGWU, pinpointed the problems in a letter to Perfection workers. She wrote,

. . . the employees of Perfection Garment Co. face many problems with the start of a new season. For one thing the new styles are going to be of a higher grade of work. They are going to sell at higher prices in the stores the same way as all other commodities have gone up. Your employer, through a very simple trick, will make a much greater profit from them. That trick is to pay you the old, low prices for producing a better and more valuable dress.19

Bambace urged workers to attend a scheduled meeting later that week, and assured them that the union would work unrelentingly to gain higher wages for them.20 In a meeting on June 26, 1943, stockholders reevaluated Perfection's management and capitalization and, in February 1949, again amended the charter increasing the par value of shares without changing the total amount of authorized capital21.

From 1930 to 1953, Perfection management kept the ILGWU, from organizing the Martinsburg plant. The immediate post-World War II period produced gains for the labor movement in the region and a number of victories in the textile industry in the Upper South. Encouraged by these victories, the campaign to organize Perfection escalated during the 1940s. After the war, the ILGWU restructured its organization and established the Upper South Department, which included Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. In 1946, union officials appointed Angela Bambace of Baltimore, later the first woman to be appointed international vice-president in the ILGWU, as district manager. By August 6, 1946, the ILGWU was only nine short of signing a majority of Perfection workers join the union. Six days later, Bambace notified Perfection's management that a majority of workers had designated the ILGWU as their collective bargaining representative. On August 13, J. R. Poland replied that "we do not care to discuss this matter until the National Labor Board rules that you have a majority of our employees signed up. . . ." The company refused to comply with the NLRB order for an election.22

Union efforts proved fruitless through the remainder of the decade and company newsletters depicted a scene of harmony at Perfection. In the September 1948 issue of the company newsletter, The Needle's Eye, Goldfarb's editorial informed employees about the state of the textile industry. He said, "we respect our associates . . . too much to kid or mislead them. . . . The truth is business is bad and many factories in soft goods lines are shutting down as did the Berkeley Woolen Mill." Goldfarb's timely reference to the previous closing of another mill must have captured the attention of his employees. Simultaneously, Perfection expanded and updated equipment, spending seventy five thousand dollars to install new Singer sewing machines and thirty thousand dollars to add an annex to the factory complex. Other improvements included a new parking lot, office supply room and new private offices for the Polands.23

In December 1949, a statement in The Needle's Eye from company president J. R. Poland recounted the previous year and forecast a bright future for Perfection. Appealing to the familial sensibilities of the workers, he said,

so it is TOGETHER and only TOGETHER can we face 1950 in faith and confidence -- confidence in the "Perfection Way of Life." With this famous team going hand-in-hand we're in a better position than ever before to make 1950 the busiest and most profitable year Perfection and Perfectioners have ever experienced. May this be a happy holiday season for you and yours.24

On September 9, 1950, union organizer Joseph Lewis informed Perfection workers that union representatives and Perfection owners were meeting with the NLRB. He apprised workers of the company's attempts to prevent an election in the plant by demanding that employees in Perfection's Keyser and Ranson mills be included. Lewis argued that this was merely a company ploy to stonewall union efforts to organize Perfection workers.25

These obstacles did not deter the union, which, for approximately twenty years, had attempted to organize Perfection workers. Organizers continued soliciting support from employees and their persistence paid off. The ILGWU sent informative letters assuring workers they were not alone in their struggle. Prior to the NLRB-ordered election in 1950, Poland encouraged workers to vote and reminded them of Perfection's forty-five years of service in Martinsburg. He insisted the election would determine whether or not the workers appreciated their jobs with the company. Poland concluded, "we want every employee of the Martinsburg plant to express, by his or her secret vote, exactly how he or she feels. Don't let anybody else do your thinking. Think for yourself, and act for what you believe to be your best interest."26

Tensions mounted and allegations from both sides exacerbated the problems. Both union and company officials accused the other of lying to the workers. Factory owners believed organized labor was indirectly accountable for the closing of two of the city's factories between 1948 and 1953 and feared the same fate awaited Perfection. On November 24, 1950, Poland informed employees the company had operated at a loss fifteen weeks annually for ten years, but reminded them he had kept the plant open despite the loss. "During those fifteen weeks . . . I could have closed this plant and saved thousands upon thousands of dollars." Poland warned that other plants in Martinsburg with union representation had been forced to close. "What has become of the Berkeley Woolen Company?" he asked. He told employees there was a waiting list of 250 potential workers wanting jobs at Perfection and left his employees no doubt that there were people ready to fill their positions.26 In the November 30, 1950, election only 70 of the 414 eligible voters voted in favor of the ILGWU, an overwhelming victory for company management.27

In 1952, the union renewed its campaign to organize Perfection workers. Throughout the year, the union sent a barrage of literature informing workers of the significant inroads made in other southern textile plants. Officials hoped Perfection workers would follow the lead of the four hundred fifty thousand other Americans who had joined the ILGWU. They used fliers to warn employees their jobs would never be secure and workers with twenty to thirty years of service could lose their jobs without collective bargaining. 28

Two decades of unrelenting union drives culminated in 1952 when Perfection fired Joe Sirbaugh, who had been with the company since October 1945. When he was hired, management made the company position clear on union activity. Sirbaugh explained, "`Mr. Poland asked me if I was in favor of the union. I told him that I was, a 100 percent -- that I held two cards.' Mr. Poland said, `my gracious, you don't have to pay that money out. You can take that and buy cokes. You don't need a union here. We have a peaceful and gloriful place to work'."29 Sirbaugh contended that Bill Atkinson, personnel director and Poland's son-in-law, carefully scrutinized his work during the next few years. During his shift, Sirbaugh often observed Atkinson watching him from a distance.

In describing the incident that led to his dismissal, Sirbaugh testified:

I just came out of the boiler room checking the boilers and I had a stack down and was cleaning it. My hands were all dirty. I came out and a man was taking up some cloth -- it was Mr. Yontz. He asked me to give him a lift, that they had a hot order. So I wiped my hands dry and in the meantime, it was trimmings, I got a little dirt on them. I don't know who told Mr. Atkinson about it, but this was the grounds he used on me.30

Atkinson called Sirbaugh into his office and said "he had a

notion to fire me about the work out there. I told him I didn't know what he meant. Mr. Atkinson said, `don't be so damn dumb, look at the dirt on it'." Without giving Sirbaugh an opportunity to explain, Atkinson fired him and offered two weeks severance pay, which Sirbaugh refused. He then filed a grievance with the union.31

The ILGWU saw great possibilities if it successfully intervened in Sirbaugh's behalf and promptly offered him assistance and counsel. Union attorney Charles Mandestam appealed the case to the NLRB and won reinstatement and four hundred dollars in back pay for Sirbaugh. This proved to Perfection workers the ILGWU could provide job and financial security. ILGWU organizers Murray Markoff and Steve Schlossberg led the campaign and enlisted the help of Martinsburg residents to encourage employees to vote for the union. Workers distributed leaflets, held meetings, visited people in their homes and placed ads in newspapers explaining the benefits of unions. Local individuals, such as Virginia Frye at Ranson and Virginia Rogers at Martinsburg, were quite effective in stirring up pro-union sentiment. They demanded a fair minimum wage, incentive pay for piece work, paid holidays, hourly pay raises and reasonable job security.32

John Poland, Sr., who had been ill during this organizing campaign, died on December 14, 1952, and The Martinsburg Journal reported that "one aspect of his long life was his successful opposition to unionization." Ironically, two days previous, Perfection's Martinsburg and Ranson employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of the ILGWU. The Martinsburg vote was 213 for and 159 against the union. The Upper South Department of the ILGWU, with its headquarters in Baltimore, reported that the organizing campaign was conducted without bitterness or hostilities on either side. Angela Bambace, Upper South district manager, further reported that newspapers and townspeople helped the union by their fair and friendly attitudes. Other unions in Martinsburg, such as the American Federation of Hosiery Workers, also joined with Perfection employees in their struggle for unionization. ILGWU vice-president Charles Kreindler reported that the victory was a major gain for the Upper South Department. He credited Perfection workers for their persistence and hoped this event would be the start of a long period of union-management harmony at Perfection, benefiting workers and employees alike.33

Kreindler's optimism proved premature. The election initiated a four-month struggle between ILGWU representatives and Perfection management. After the election, union representatives petitioned management to negotiate a contract. Both union and local newspapers reported the company continually delayed negotiations for unknown reasons. Schlossberg insisted employees were tired of the delays and broken appointments and accused Perfection of acting in bad faith by failing to comply with the employees' wishes and threatening workers with dismissal. He further argued that Perfection workers were legally entitled to strike under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which guaranteed equal bargaining power for unions and management. Schlossberg charged that Perfection had reneged on the initial agreement by refusing to meet at the negotiating table.34

The ILGWU's initial deadline of April 21, 1953, was postponed in hopes that an agreement could be reached. According to the union, workers only wanted a two dollar increase and company management responded in "uncharitable determination to withhold that moderate increase." Two days later, in the absence of any negotiation, Perfection Garment workers went on strike, the first in the Martinsburg textile industry in twelve years. The events of the following two weeks would have a long-lasting effect on the company.35

Anticipating a strike call, several pro-union workers patrolled the factory from midnight until about 6:00 a. m. By 7:00 a. m., 125 employees were prepared when the strike call was announced, but not before 75 workers had entered the factory for their shift. During the day, the number of strikers increased to approximately 200 in Martinsburg, with the ILGWU claiming only 60 production workers entered the factory. Truckers and teamsters honored the picket line.36

According to union reports, the number of strikers in Martinsburg increased to 310, with 100 out in Ranson. Women, who dominated Perfection's work force, composed approximately 85 percent of those on strike. The ILGWU argued the walkout was effective because a majority of workers at two of the three Perfection branches had complied with the strike call. The Keyser plant, where the union had failed to achieve a majority, was not involved in the strike. However, the company argued that union numbers were exaggerated.37

Incidental violence occurred as the picket lines surrounded the company's property in Martinsburg. When non-strikers tried to cross picket lines, they were pushed, shoved and verbally abused by strikers. Martinsburg police were called in to break up a fight and, in another incident, charged a non-striker with reckless driving after he drove through picket lines, temporarily scattering the strikers. Law enforcement officers also charged Murray Markoff with disorderly conduct for allegedly assaulting a non-striker. At the conclusion of the first day alone, police forces arrested and jailed six people.38

The company notified workers the factory would continue operation and not be deterred by the strike. Union officials responded that the strike would proceed until the company complied with employee demands. Schlossberg claimed the strike was voted by an overwhelming majority of the workers and was caused by the complete lack of company cooperation. He insisted the union had repeatedly tried to reach an acceptable agreement with the company. Perfection, calling the NLRB-mandated election illegal, refused to announce that it recognized and was negotiating with the union. After four and a half months, Schlossberg concluded, "we have endeavored to cooperate to the utmost, but are faced with an impossible situation."39

John Poland, Jr., vice-president and general manager of the Martinsburg branch, responded that the strikes in Martinsburg and Ranson were unwarranted because management had been negotiating. He stated the meetings had been held in the ILGWU's regional office in Baltimore and the international office in New York and charged that union representatives had ignored the employees' bargaining committee. Due to the location of the meetings, the bargaining committee was not present during negotiations and Perfection's discussions had been with the international, not the local, union. Poland insisted Perfection had agreed to meet all employee demands, but the union was not satisfied and left the negotiating table. The ILGWU also insisted upon a union shop, although that was not mentioned during the initial meeting and, according to Poland, this was the underlying reason for the strike. Poland had refused to submit to this demand because he believed it forced employees to join the union in order to work. He insisted that workers should not be required to pay dues to exercise their constitutional right to work. Labor laws guaranteed the right to work as well as the right to strike, as long as the latter was carried out in a lawful manner. Employees have the "sacred and inalienable right to work without being interfered with and coerced. All types of coercion and intimidation are being carried on to prevent large numbers of our employees from getting into the plant to work." Poland assured non-strikers that the plant would remain open to those who wanted to work. He was confident city, county and state officers would protect the company's right to conduct business as usual.40

Violence again flared at both the Martinsburg and Ranson plants on the second day of the strike, with conflicting reports regarding the number of people involved. Observers stated fewer non-strikers were able to cross the picket line. In Ranson, police arrested and charged Schlossberg with assault and battery and charged Lottie Mae Crim of Martinsburg with obstructing an officer in the line of duty. At one point, a worker tried to drive onto the Perfection parking lot but pickets rocked his car, forcing him to drive away. An ambulance had to be called to transport a non-striker to the hospital after she collapsed at work, possibly from anxiety induced by the situation.41

Each side accused the other of violence. Union officials successfully solicited the support of the American Federation of Hosiery Workers and the United Cement, Lime and Gypsum Workers. Support from other unions and Martinsburg residents who were not Perfection employees raised strikers' morale. They were determined not to be swayed in their endeavor to have a union shop included in the final agreement. To avoid further misunderstanding with workers as well as the company, Schlossberg informed company officials that union representatives would not meet at any time or place without the bargaining being present. Another boost to morale was the presence of some Keyser employees who joined the picket lines. The Perfection strike was one of the ILGWU's most effective efforts.42

By Monday, April 27, when Judge Decatur H. Rogers issued an injunction to bar mass picketing at Perfection in response to the company's complaint filed against 165 ILGWU members, nineteen had been arrested on various charges. Violence spread from the picket lines to homes and personal property with incidents of vandalism.43 The injunction ordered that:

Pickets cannot be closer than fifteen feet together while on the picket line. Also prohibits parking motor vehicles on the north side of First Avenue, from Winchester Avenue to the Pennsylvania Railroad which is in front of Perfection property. Violations will lead to contempt of court charges, fines or imprisonment or both. It shall be unlawful for persons to congregate in crowds, or be guilty of any disorderly conduct around the corners or on the streets of said corporation, thereby obstructing the free passage of the same, day or night.44

Martinsburg mayor Carlton B. Stuckey responded by mobilizing the police department to maintain order throughout the hostilities. He requested the assistance of the state police when the company complained that non-strikers could not enter the factory safely. Five state police officers worked in conjunction with city police to restore order and prevent further unnecessary violence. While minor skirmishes resulted in the arrests of sixteen more people, non-striking workers had no trouble parking their vehicles in the plant's lot. Company attorney Harry H. Byrer charged that the pickets had threatened to do bodily harm to non-strikers. Union attorney Whiting C. Faulkner instructed all pickets to obey the provisions of the court injunction. He accused Stuckey of acting in bad faith after reneging on his promise to use state police at the picket line. Stuckey retorted, "`I took this action in good faith and with the welfare of the entire community at heart. . . . It is my duty to see that no citizens are injured and that those who want to work have the right to do so and that those who want to strike have the same privilege'."45

Twenty eight people had been arrested in the first three days of the strike. The actions taken on the 27th reversed the tense atmosphere as strikers obeyed the injunction and picketing became peaceful. No arrests were made and a non-violent phase in the strike began, allowing Mayor Stuckey to order the withdrawal of the state police.46

The reduction in violence opened the way for more employees to return to work, and police estimated at least seventy-five women crossed the picket line. Company spokesman William Atkinson issued a statement contending that this indicated they were not in sympathy with this "`unprovoked'" strike. He stated that the company had received numerous phone calls and letters suggesting workers had not been kept informed about the negotiations. They were upset by the violence which was initiated by alleged outside agitators and union organizers. Schlossberg announced a labor meeting which would be held at 7:30 p. m. on April 28 at Union Hall. There would also be a radio broadcast by a Perfection employee and union member. He challenged Gene Goldfarb, a company official, to a public debate over the issues.47

During the next two days the situation remained relatively unchanged. Peaceful demonstrating continued with one hundred strikers on the picket lines and no indication that the contesting parties were moving closer to the negotiating table. By April 30, all the company's departments were operating, including two full sewing units, and the shipping department was receiving and shipping goods.48

Union officials, realizing the need to bolster the strikers' morale, reminded them they could not be fired for going out on strike. They announced the ILGWU would begin paying strike benefits to all employees who remained off the job and filed a claim for compensation, with payment on Fridays at Union Hall. The ILGWU also used a truck to broadcast messages of encouragement and songs to strikers, and to plead to non-strikers not to return to work.49

A break in hostilities came when the plant closed for the annual Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester, Virginia, an established holiday for Perfection employees. The strike resumed on May 2 and remained peaceful, although three members of the ILGWU accused Perfection of using intimidation to force them to return to work. The ILGWU sent Angela Bambace to Martinsburg with the news that pickets would be paid twenty five dollars per week and those who remained at home, fifteen dollars.50

Available records do not explain what happened in the negotiations during the next two days, but on May 4, 1953, the twelve-day strike at Perfection Garment Company ended when both sides agreed to an eighteen-point contract. Bambace informed strikers that basic union demands had been met and would be confirmed in a written contract. A memorandum acceptable to workers, the ILGWU and Perfection stated the company would institute pay raises, vacations and the right to collective bargaining.51

Both sides seemed pleased with the eighteen-point agreement. Perfection employees saw their demands met by the company, the ILGWU was firmly established at Perfection and the plant returned to full production. The ILGWU indicated it was also pleased with the economic gains made during the strike. In an effort to abrogate feelings of hostility caused by the strike, the two parties withdrew charges which had been filed against approximately thirty people. Although the twelve-day strike was marked by bitterness and some violence on the picket lines, no one was seriously hurt. Union representatives made it clear they wanted to cooperate with the company in the future, initiating a new era at Perfection Garment Company.52

The majority of Perfection workers were women and members of the ILGWU, but plant supervisors and office staff never organized. Employees who were hired in a category covered by the union were required to join. Union members' benefits included a retirement plan, vision care and raises based on the union's three-year contract cycle. The company started employees at $3.77 per hour with the possibility of making $7 to $8 per hour, depending on the amount one produced.53 DATE?

A typical work day (Shift?) began at 7:00 a. m. and ended at 3:30 p. m., but many of the women arrived around 6:00 a. m. to have coffee in the cafeteria. The shift included a ten minute break at 8:40, one half-hour for lunch and a ten minute afternoon break. Hot meals were served in the cafeteria until the latter days of operation, when the number of employees was insufficient to justify this service. Most women brought their lunches or purchased sandwiches from a vending machine.54

New employees entered a training period of 480 hours to determine if they liked the job and were able to meet production standards. After successfully completing the training, the employee was eligible for nine paid holidays, vacation and insurance. Vacation time was not easy to accumulate; one had to work fifteen years to qualify for four weeks of vacation.55

Throughout its eighty-three year history, most of Perfection's workers were women who stayed with the company for long periods of time. During the 1960s, employers hired two men to sew, but their stay with the company was brief.. Most of the men were supervisors, cutters or management. Shortly before the Martinsburg facility closed in 1991, several women had been hired as cutters.56

Hundreds of women spent years with Perfection and some reflected on their tenure with appreciation for John Poland, Sr.'s contribution to the city's growth. Lottie Myers, a resident and long-term employee, fondly recalled that Perfection gave her a trip to the Holy Land after working for sixty-three years. "All the time I worked there I never had a `falling out' with anybody. Everyone was wonderful. Mr. Poland was a great guy."57 Edna Wetzel told a different story about her employment at Perfection. Wetzel explained that they were

involved in a union fight up there and there was such turmoil. I thought it was bad at Jefferson but it was pleasant there compared to Perfection. When you went to the bathroom -- they smoked in there -- it was like going to a wrestling match. . . . Women were "hot-'n'-heavy" into it -- just "a bickering" about the union. . . . As soon as Jefferson got back in full swing, I left.58

Myers and Wetzel illustrate the differing experiences the employees of Perfection encountered.

Without access to company financial records, it is difficult to determine accurately the beginning of Perfection's decline. It appears that 1953 was a crucial year, but the company continued to prosper and opened new factories. Perfection Garment Company overcame many financial difficulties, but inability to compete with other local industries and increasing international competition forced it to close the Martinsburg plant on December 31, 1991, and move all operations to its Columbia, South Carolina, plant. Company officials said "closing was not an easy decision to make," and Johnnie Neese, executive vice-president, attributed the closing to "imports and the bad economy. Imports of garments have been a problem and will be until something is done." Union spokesman Jerry Gingrich agreed, stating, "as long as you have an administration that cares more about Mexico and China, you will continue to lose these kinds of jobs."59

Perfection's legacy is a major part of Martinsburg and Berkeley County's industrial heritage. It is one of paternalism, loyalty, cooperation, adversity and pride in the manufacturing of quality goods. Workers like Myers believed there was no better place to work in the city, while others like Wetzel felt it was the worst. Other employees vividly recalled the violence connected with the 1953 strike. When compared to more violent incidents in American labor history, such as the shirtwaist strikes in New York and coal mine strikes in southern West Virginia, the Perfection strike was minor. But, relative to the population of Martinsburg and number of employees in the factory, the strike at Perfection was a dramatic event in the city's textile and labor history. The position of Perfection's owners resembled the paternalistic attitudes of other textile mill owners, and many workers believed they were overworked and underpaid. John Poland, Sr., who contended "the core of his operations was his indestructible faith in his employees and his effort to follow the Golden Rule in labor and business relations," captured the position of Perfection toward its employees.60

When Perfection closed in 1991 a chapter in the city's textile history had ended. The company's founder, J. R. Poland, Sr. had been a banker, lay leader in the Methodist Church, a Mason and an industrialist. He had also been a member of the Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party and supported several other organizations. Poland, who started Perfection with his three hundred dollar investment and whose death followed ILGWU recognition by two days, had earned the title "Martinsburg's Grand Old Man."61 When the ILGWU succeeded in organizing Perfection in December 1952, Poland's paternalistic operation was no longer a reality. Company-sponsored picnics and parties with live entertainment, and hiring jobless people during economically difficult times, gave way to collective bargaining as a means of establishing equilibrium between management and labor.


1. National Register of Historic Places Nomination, prepared by Don Wood, Berkeley County, West Virginia. Teaneck, NJ: Chadwyck-Healey, Inc., 1984; Wilbur Johnston, Weaving A Common Thread: A History of the Woolen Industry in the Top of the Shenandoah Valley (Winchester: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 1990), 60.

2. Fourteenth Census of the United States State Compendium, West Virginia (Washington, D. C.: Department of Labor, Commerce, and Trade, 1920), 7-11; Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910. Vol. III: Population (Washington, D. C.: GPO, 1913), 1012; William T. Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A.: A Bicentennial History of a Virginia and West Virginia County, 1772-1972 (Martinsburg: Berkeley County Bi-Centennial Association, Inc., 1972), 249, 257-58.

3. Fourteenth Census of the United States State Compendium, 7-11; Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 261.

4. Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 263, 366; Martinsburg Journal, 20 March 1970.

5. Albert E. Walker, comp., The Statesman: Historical and Industrial Edition (Martinsburg: Fairfax Publishing, 1905), 18; Johnston, Weaving A Common Thread, 58; National Register Nomination, Berkeley County, West Virginia.

6. Shenandoah Sun, 11 August 1933; Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 298, 337; Johnston, Weaving A Common Thread, 71, 74; Corporation Records, Berkeley County Courthouse, Martinsburg, West Virginia, Book 7, 296; Martinsburg Journal, 29 April 1953.

7. Interview by the author, Mrs. Dorothy Beard, Martinsburg, 17 October 1988; Berkeley County News, 11 December 1931; Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 332.

8. "Martinsburg and Berkeley County, West Virginia, with Brief Sketches of Some of the Prominent People and Institutions." Illustrated (1913), 5.

9. Berkeley County News, 11 December 1931; Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 332-33.

10. Corporation Record, Berkeley County Courthouse, Martinsburg, West Virginia, Book 4, 121; Berkeley County News, 11 December 1931; Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 333.

11. Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 333; interview with Dorothy Beard.

12. Berkeley County News, 17 June 1932.

13. Interview with Dorothy Beard.

14. Berkeley County News, 17 June 1932.

15. Shenandoah Sun, 14 August 1933; Martinsburg Journal, 13 and 25 September 1933.

16. Samuel Goldfarb, How From A Monkey I Became A Man (Hallandale, FL: Operation Truth, Inc., 1967), 98, 112-13; interview with Dorothy Beard.

17. Doherty, Berkeley County, U. S. A., 334; interview woth Dorothy Beard; Patricia Wood Alger, "Berkeley County in World War II," (MA thesis, West Virginia University, 1953), 65.

18. Perfection Garment Company and International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, Grievance, National Labor Relations Board, 7 February 1942. ILGWU Records, Labor-Management Documentation Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, hereafter referred to as ILGWU Records.

19. Angela Bambace to Perfection Employees, 20 January 1942, ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Corporation Record, Berkeley County Courthouse, Martinsburg, West Virginia, Book 7, 87-88, 287.

22. Report of the General Executive Board to the 26th Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, 16-26 June 1947, International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (New York: Abco Press, 1947), 140-41; Organizing Committee to Fellow Workers, 8 August 1946, Angela Bambace to Perfection Garment Company, 12 August 1946, J. R. Poland to Angela Bambace, 13 August 1946, ILGWU Records.

23. The Needle's Eye, September 1948, ILGWU Records.

24. Ibid., December 1949.

25. Joseph Lewis to Perfection Members, 9 September 1950, ILGWU Records.

26. ILGWU to Perfection Garment Workers, n. d., J. R. Poland and John Poland, Jr. to Perfection Garment Company Employees, 8 November 1950, J. R. Poland to Employees, 24 November 1950, ILGWU Records; Martinsburg Journal, 29 April 1953.

27. Perfection Garment Company and International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, AFL. Tally of Ballots, 30 November 1950. ILGWU Records.

28. "It's Time For A Change!!" 24 July 1952, "It Can Happen To You," 7 August 1952. ILGWU Records.

29. Justice: International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, 1 May 1953; "Joseph Sirbaugh's Statements," 28 August 1952, John R. Poland, Jr. to Joseph Sirbaugh, 22 August 1952, ILGWU Records.

30. "Joseph Sirbuagh's Statements," ILGWU Records.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.; Justice, 1 May 1953.

33. Martinsburg Journal, 15 December 1952; Report of the General Executive Board to the 28th Convention, ILGWU, 18 May 1953, 141-42.

34. Martinsburg Journal, 23 April 1953.

35. Justice, 1 May 1953; Martinsburg Journal, 23 April 1953.

36. Justice, 1 May 1953; Martinsburg Journal, 23 April 1953; Martinsburg News, 24 April 1953.

37. Martinsburg Journal, 23 April 1953.

38. Justice, 1 May 1953; Martinsburg Journal, 23 April 1953.

39. Martinsburg Journal, 23 April 1953.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid., 24 April 1953.

42. Ibid.

43. Interview with Dorothy Beard.

44. Martinsburg Journal, 27 April 1953.

45. Ibid., 24 and 27 April 1953.

46. Ibid., 28 April 1953.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., 28 and 30 April 1953.

49. Ibid.

50. Martinsburg Journal, 2-4 May 1953.

51. Ibid., 5 May 1953.

52. Justice, 15 May 1953.

53. Interview with Dorothy Beard.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.

57. Interview by the author, Lottie Myers, Martinsburg, 20 February 1991.

58. Interview by the author, Mrs. Edna Wetzel, Martinsburg, 4 April 1992. Jefferson Manufacturing Company was another one of the city's textile factories that was established during the 1950s.

59. Martinsburg Journal, 8 November 1991.

60. Ibid., 15 December 1991.

61. Ibid.

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