Slaves in the Trenches 1888

Italians who work like slaves and live like pigs for little or no Pay.
Some time ago the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company determined to sink the tracks of its Harlem River Division below the level of the streets. A contract was given to O'Brien & Clark, who made the lowest bid. The undertaking was a large one. A deep trench, miles long, had to be dug, and a tunnel of solid masonry built in it. The work is now well under way, and it is in connection with the labor engaged in this work that a system of shaving is carried on that is well nigh as co-ercive as was that of twenty-odd years ago, and over which its victims have no control, largely because of their ignorance of the English language.

The contract called for the sinking of the tracks all through upper Harlem, Morrisania, Tremont, and for some distance beyond. O'Brien & Clark's bid was very low, and they made sub-contracts with a half dozen other contractors. The work is consequently being done by six gangs, each of 200 or 300 men. These gangs are known as Catabery's, Aiteria Brothers', Riley's, Boxindale's, Hawkes & Sullivan's and Pennell & O'Hearn's. Nine out of ten of the laborers are italians, hired under contract at 80 CENTS A DAY. The small percentage of the men who are able to speak English get from $1.40 to $1.75 a day, but they are few and far between.

The system under which this slavery is carried on is as simple as it is effective. In this city are two or three men who deal exclusively in cheap foreign labor. When a contractor wants a gang of men he goes to one of these labor capitalists and tells him he wants so many men. They are furnished for a considertion. Over 800 Italians were thus purchased in and about Mulberry-street for work on the Harlem Road by O'Brien & Clark's sub-contractors. The men were carted off to their field of labor. Once there they do what the contractor says they shall do, eat what he gives them to eat, and are forced to pay whatever price he demands.

In the first place, each contractor puts up what he calls a camp. This camp is nothing more than three or four rough board sheds covered with tar paper. One is used as a stable and the rest are filled with bunks, 50 or more in a shed, in which the men are forced to sleep. What else can they do? They have no money, and the contractor will give them shelter for $2 a month, which he takes out of their wages. If they want a place to sleep, however, they must pay the contractor an additional 50 cents for the use of a bundle of straw. Thus $2.50 is taken as a starter from their 80 cents a day for lodgings. It seems little enough, but after a look into the sheds, the air in which is positively foul, it seems an outrage that men should have to sleep in such a place, let alone paying for the privilege. Another tax which is paid by the men is known as the doctor's fee. Each contractor employs a doctor to look after the health of his men. From every laborer he takes 50 cents a month as a doctor's assessment. The men get no benefit at all from it. If one of t hem is injured or taken sick a city ambulance is called and the unfortunate taken off to the hospital. Again, every man accepting work must be assessed $1 for a pick or shovel, and on the first day of every month, whether he needs it or not, he must buy a new pick or shovel from the Contractor. That beings the wages down to a pretty fine point. For the 26 working days in a month, at 80 cents a day, they get but $20.80. Their assessments, all of which go directly into the pocket of the contractor, reduce their month's pay to $16.80.

It must not be supposed, however, that the laborer gets $16.80 at the end of each month. The men must eat; they have no money to buy with, and so the contractor opens a "credit store." In country stores there is often to be found a card bearing the motto: " If we trust we Bust;" but the store contractor does not find this so. After getting his men for little or no wages and cutting down their pay by all sorts of taxes, that $16.80 remains, subject to further reduction. The "credit store" furnishes food in the shape of bread, bologna, maccaroni, and eggs at prices that would make an army sutler blush. For an ordinary loaf of bread, costing 5 cents, the charge is 10. For bologna, worth 12 cents, 20 cents a pound, and on all the other necessaries of life the prices are correspondingly high. At those prices a man does not need to be particularly extravagant to eat up a little less than $17 a month. So that, after working a month, the laborer is pretty certain to have earned nothing but a bundle of straw in a shed to sleep upon and enough bad food to sustain life.

To inspect the way the men live is enough to arouse one's indignation. At noon they stop work for dinner. Nearly a thousand of them sit in the trenches they are digging and dine. Most of them have nothing but a loaf of bread, some have a piece of bologna, and the very extravagant have a raw egg, which is put to a peculiar use. Cutting their loaf in half they hollow it out. Then they break the egg into the hollowed loaf, shake it up so as to coat the inner surface, and stuff in the sponge first taken out. That is considered a feast by these men, who have been using pick and shovel for six hours.

The condition of the men's bodies is a problem for the Board of Health to deal with. Coated with mud after a day's work in the trenches, they go to the shanties and sleep in their clothes, to get up the next day and thicken the coating by another day's work. Just alongside the track runs a brook, a sort of a cross between a sewer and a swamp. When a spasm of cleanliness strikes a camp the men go to this stream dressed in nothing but coat and trousers, and wash out their only shirt. Then they spread them out on the grass, to be put on in the morning in a condition of clinging muddiness. Few of them wear beards, and the question naturally arose as to how they shaved. Inquiry brought to light the fact that they shaved each other with a big, keen-edged knife. If the demand on the knife is too great, they singe the hair on their faces if it becomes too long.

These men submit to such extortion by the sub-contractors simply because they cannot help themselves. Arriving in this city without money, unable to speak English, and ignorant, it is an easy matter to hire them for 80 cents a day. The minute they start work they are entrapped. They start in debt, their debt increases the longer they work, and at the end of the month they have nothing, unless it be 50 cents for a dollar coming to them. Furthermore, all of the contractors make it a rule to hold back 22 days of their men's wages, and if a poor fellow becomes dissatisfied and wants to q uit work to break his contract he loses, in nine cases out of ten, what little might be due him.

This is the actual state of affairs existing among nearly a thousand contract laborers in this city. There is no difficulty found in getting at the facts. People living along the line of the Harlem Road are thoroughly familiar with them. The Irishmen and negroes who are working on the contract as masons, &c., have no scruples against telling all they know of the miserable condition of the italian laborers. Said the foreman of one gang: " I have been doing railroad construction for 20 years, but I never saw such a state of affairs as exists here. In my gang there are over 200 Italians. They are good laborers, willing to work and work hard. Yet they are hired for 80 cents a day. They live like pigs, work like slaves, and I doubt if they will get a dollar apiece for their month's work when pay day comes. By letting them sleep in those sheds and giving them a loaf of bread and a plate of maccaroni a day they practically get them to work for nothing. They know they are being imposed upon just as well as I do. But what can they do? Leave? Yes; and without money or friends how long would it be before they would be locked up as vagrants? I am opposed to employing them anyway. The places they fill for 80 cents a day belong to Americans at $1.50 or $; but if a contractor does hire them he should not treat them worse than dogs."

A kind-hearted patrolman who is stationed in the locality said: "I tell you my heart bleeds for those poor fellows. I never liked Italian labor, anyway, but the way those fellows are cheated and abused is a shame. They are slaves, more so than the negroes ever were, for the negro's master valued him enough to feed and house him well."

Two or three of the contractors' "camps" are situated just at the foot of Mount Hope. Some of the wealthy gentlemen of this vicinity have looked tho0roughly into the methods of the sub-contractors and say that no words can too forcibly express the state of abject servitude in which the 1,000 laborers are living. It is talked of everywhere in the locality and is creating a great deal of feeling. it was said at the Morrisania station yesterday that a committee of Morrisania gentlemen was going to wait upon the Board of Health and ask it to insist on better sanitary regulations in "the camps."

Website: The History
Article Name: Slaves in the Trenches 1888
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times December 9, 1888
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