"Average Wage of Immigrant - GREEK Real Money Maker" article - Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1909

Published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1909


By Elias Tobenkin

Race, nationality, and religious affiliations, all of which enter into any discussion of immigrant life, have little or no place in a discussion of immigrant wages.  The average wage received by an immigrant is not determined by the race or nation he comes from, but by the class of laborers he joined and by the grade of work he is doing in this country.

If he comes from a nation and country of a high grade of civilization he may be able to leave the trade which he took up upon coming to America and enter a higher and better paying trade or occupation much more quickly than his fellow immigrants from the less civilized, less enterprising countries of Europe.  But so long as he stays in a certain circle and works at a certain trade his wages will be the same as those of his fellow workers in the same trade.

In sweatshops, in steel mills, among street workers, and railway laborers in the cities there are hundreds of men and women who are graduates of secondary and even higher schools of learning in Europe.  In a few years they will enter some well paying profession in this country.  Some will become business men, and instead of receiving "wages" they will be paying out wages to others and themselves will have "incomes".  But as long as they work in the sweatshop, or steel mill, or are digging up or filling in the streets of a city they are receiving the same wages as their other fellow workers who have no education and who never will rise above the status of sweatshop worker or street laborer.

Average Wage the Same.

Thus the average wage of the unskilled street laborer, whether he be Pole, Italian, German, Bohemian, or Hungarian, is the same.  The wage of the street laborer runs from about $1.25 to $1.50 a day.  Only in rare instances, as when it is necessary to finish a certain job quickly, does this wage go to $1.75 a day.  The out of work seasons, which among street laborers are numerous and prolonged, are shared by all alike.  The street laborer of one nationality is not in any way favored more than the man of another race doing the same sort of work.  The equal wages received by the street laborers of various nationalities tends to make them all lead a sort of similar un-American home life.  The Italian, like the Polish or Bohemian worker, lives in the same basement, rear flat, or alley tenement.  They all depend upon their wives to help meet the living expenses by taking in clothing to "finish" in their homes.

The Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, and the numerous other nationalities working in the stockyards receive the same wages that do their fellow-countrymen who work in the street - that is, if their work in the yards is of same grade as the work of their fellow-countrymen in the street.

The region "back of the yards," where some 50,000 Slavs live, has no clothing shops which would furnish the wives of these men with work and make "home finishers" out of them.  To make up for this, and to add their share to the family living wage, the wives of these stockyard workers keep boarders.

Children Feel the Effect.

The effect of so small an average wage - $8 or $8.50 a week - which the Italian, Polish, and the common laborers of other nationalities earn is telling upon the older children of these parents as well as the babies.  The minute the boy or girl of such parents becomes 14 years of age, no matter how frail and delicate he or she might be, they are at once sent to work.  Their parents feel that they have done enough, under the circumstances, in sending them to school until they were 14.

The Servian, Bulgarian, Montenegrin, and many immigrants from other countries in eastern Europe generally get a higher wage than the Polish or Italian street laborer.  Their wage ranks from $1.50 to $1.75.  The reason for their commanding a higher wage is the fact that they work at more dangerous trades.  They work in steel mills and blast furnaces.  They have not their families here and consequently can go from place to place in search of jobs which pay them better.  And, finally, if the mills and factories of a large city do not agree with them, the labor agent with whom they are connected sends them away to work in mines.

Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Bohemians, as well as Germans, and men from all other nationalities, who engage in skilled trades, get the same wages as the American workmen in these trades, which is $12, $15, and even more a week.  Where these trades are organized, as in the building trades, the wages are those agreed upon by the union and employers.  Immigrants working in these trades earn enough to keep up an American home.  And this they do.  A visit to the home of an unskilled laborer in the Italian or Polish quarter, who has been in this country five or eight years, will in nearly every case reveal the home to be a wretched place with damp walls.  A skilled worker, on the other hand, in the bohemian, Scandinavian, or any district in Chicago, who had been in this country only six or eight months, and has been employed all that time, will be found to have a comfortable home, one which is American in everything but the language.

"Piece Work" Usual System.

To find the average wage in the clothing trade - the leading occupation of a great many Jewish, Polish, and bohemian immigrants - is well nigh impossible.  Generally the workers in that trade labor under what is known as the system of piece work.  Each one is paid for the amount of work he does.  And the amount of work turned out no infrequently depends not so much upon the strength of the worker, but upon the needs of his family.  The man who works out only $10 a week ordinarily will work out $12 and more when there is sickness in the family and doctor bills are to be met.

The clothing trade more perhaps than any other trade pays the highest as well as the lowest wages.  There are operators who turn out $25 a week and there are operators who barely make $8 a week.  The same man, too, makes different wages at different times.  "In season" an operator can make $40  a week.  After the demand falls off he may hang around the shop and make $5 a week.  And he is lucky to get that, too.  For hundreds of operators like himself are probably tramping the streets for just such a job as he has.  The girl finisher and the girl who sews on buttons are in much the same position as the operator.  The girl who can work fast, even if she does more or less shoddy work, will earn $10 and $12 a week.  The girl on the other hand who can work with only ordinary speed will make $3.50 or $4 a week.

In spite of the high wages which an operator in the clothing trades gets at a certain period in his life, the average wage of the sweatshop worker is extremely low.  For generally after a period of three or at most five years even the strongest of these begins to weaken.  The periods when he makes $25 a week come less frequently and after a short time are a thing of the past.  Unless he succeeds in getting out of the sweatshop and starting a little business by himself at the time he gets high wages he is a candidate for a life of sickness, misery and poverty for the rest of his days.

Extremes Shown in Storekeepers.

The average wage of the thousands of little storekeepers and standkeepers in the Ghetto and other congested districts likewise is a thing which cannot be definitely given.  Some of these storekeepers do not make enough to keep the wolf from the door most of the time.  Others, on the contrary, make enough money, even if they don't show it in their dress and manner of living to send their sons to college and to give their daughters large dowries.  Many a small business man in the Ghetto lives in a most insanitary place, when he could easily afford to have a nice comfortable flat.  Others again look poor and are so.  They live in hovels and shanties, not because they want to save, but because they cannot afford to rent a more spacious apartment.

The Jews are supposed to be the cleverest money makers.  When one looks, however, at the large vistas of poverty which stretch through the Chicago Ghetto this century old fable is soon dispelled.  The number of families have $8 a week as their average wage is as large in the Ghetto as it is in any other foreign district.  While the number of cases of chronic, as well as acute poverty, are perhaps more numerous in the Ghetto than anywhere else.

The nationality whose members in Chicago command the highest average wage for about three-fourths of its immigrants is the Greek.  In the matter of money making Greeks, it is claimed, outdo all other nations.  Whether the Greek keeps a shoe shining shop or whether he is a vegetable peddler, or a wholesale fruit dealer on South Water street, he usually makes more money than anybody else would make in that same business.

Greek restaurant keepers are buying restaurants from American proprietors.  There are, according to a leader of the Greek community in Chicago, many cases on record where men have sold out their shoe shining shops because they could not make more than $25 a week, and such a wage was considered small and not worth while bothering with.