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A Short History of Jews in the American Labor Movement

Bennett Muraskin
March 24, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

1302THINK OF the greatest strikes in U.S. labor history and, apart from the garment workers strikes in New York and Chicago before World War I, none come to mind in which Jews played a major role. The railroad workers strike in 1877, the strike for the eight-hour day in 1886, the Homestead Strike in 1892, the Pullman strike in 1894, the coalminers strike in 1902, the steelworkers strike in 1919, the general strike in San Francisco in 1934 and the autoworkers sit-down strike in 1936-1937 occurred either before Jews emigrated in large numbers to the U.S. or in industries where few Jews were employed. Among the “industrial proletariat” considered by Marxists to be the agency of social revolution, Jews were under-represented. Furthermore, apart from the native WASP elite, only Jews among all the immigrants to the U.S. have been over-represented in the world of banking and finance.

Yet Samuel Gompers was president of the American Federation of Labor for nearly forty years; Sidney Hillman became a top advisor to FDR, and the only two socialists to serve in Congress (three, if you count Bernie Sanders) were Jews. The role Jewish women have played in the American labor movement is even more remarkable in comparison to their non-Jewish counterparts. Jewish-led unions had close ties with Martin Luther King. Jews have also stood out in fields supportive of the labor movement, such as educational institutions, fraternal organizations, law and popular culture.

How did this all happen?

GERMAN-SPEAKING JEWS who arrived in the U.S. in the mid-19th century spread across the country and tended to be merchants and shopkeepers. Some grew their businesses into department stores or made fortunes in other mass consumption-oriented businesses (toys, novelties, books, fashion, and more).

Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe who arrived in the U.S. beginning in the 1880s settled in the big cities and tended to be workers. From the beginning, they gravitated to the garment industry, in part because they had experience as tailors in Eastern Europe. At first, most were preoccupied with earning enough money to send for relatives they left behind in Europe. It did not take long, however, before they began to see labor unions as the path their economic and social progress.

The conditions they faced were daunting. Low wages, long hours, unsafe workplaces, and overcrowded and unsanitary tenement housing were the norm. Most of these Jewish immigrants came from small towns and were not prepared for the noise, dirt, congestion, disease, and crime rampant in the great American cities of that period. Some turned to crime and prostitution themselves. However, they were free of the anti-Semitic laws and violence that plagued them in Eastern Europe. Their children were entitled to a free public education. Once becoming citizens, they could vote and participate in the political process.

Among the first labor leaders to organize them was Samuel Gompers.

Gompers came to U.S. from England in 1863. His parents came from Holland, with ancestry dating back to Spain. In other words, he was a Sephardic Jew. Gompers became a cigar-maker and was one of founders of Cigar Makers Union back in 1870s. He was integral to the founding of the American Federation of Labor in the 1880s and led it until 1924 — but he did not share language, culture or politics of East European Jews. Gompers is considered a relatively conservative influence within the labor movement because of his devotion to craft unionism, hostility toward socialism, and opposition to immigration.

By 1888, there was already a Jewish labor organization called the United Hebrew Trades, originally conceived by Russian-speaking Jewish intellectuals and revolutionaries who frowned on Yiddish as inferior language of the shtetl. Some actually came to the U.S. to established farms run on a socialist basis in a “back-to-the-land” movement. But these projects soon fizzled, and they moved to the big cities among other Jewish immigrants. As committed anarchists and socialists, they sought to organize the Jewish working class, but in order to do so, they first had to master Yiddish.

At this early stage, Yiddish was a means to an end, not an instrument for cultural development. Their propaganda, though, used religious imagery to inspire the workers — passages from the Prophets on social justice, references to modern-day Pharoahs and to the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery, etc.

Abraham Cahan, later the editor of the socialist daily Forvertz, was one of these early revolutionaries and was the first to use Yiddish to reach Jewish workers. (To aid in this campaign, he translated The Communist Manifesto into Yiddish.)

THE EARLIEST JEWISH unions were, of course, in the garment industry, but also among cigar-makers, bakers, printers, painters, and, surprisingly, actors. Most of these were semi-skilled or skilled workers in sectors in which Jews were not only the workers but often the bosses, too. These owners were typically German Jews who had arrived in the U.S. a few generations earlier and become successful businessmen — by exploiting the East European Jews who came after them.

In 1886, even before the formation of the United Hebrew Trades, Jewish labor unions, although very small at this time, participated in a nationwide general strike to achieve the eight-hour day. They supported the campaign to elect social reformer Henry George mayor of New York. He lost to the Democratic candidate, but beat out the Republican, young Theodore Roosevelt.

Another early Jewish labor leader, also of Sephardic origin, was Daniel DeLeon, the dominant figure in the first major socialist organization in the U.S., the Socialist Labor Party. An immigrant from Curaçao, a Caribbean island ruled by the Dutch, he was, for a brief period, a popular figure among East European Jewish workers in the U.S., although he was not openly Jewish. In the 1890s, there were twenty-five Yiddish-speaking branches of the SLP, and in New York over 30 percent of the Jewish vote went to SLP candidates.

Who were Jewish labor leaders’ role models and mentors? German-American anarchists and socialists who came to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, a few Jews among them, and the German Social Democratic Party, then the largest socialist party in the world. Many Jewish immigrants who arrived in the late 1880s or early 1890s were radicalized by the famous Haymarket Affair of 1886 in Chicago, which resulted in the hanging of four anarchists, all but one German immigrants, for allegedly throwing a bomb that killed police who who were breaking up a rally in favor of the eight-hour day.

Alongside the Jewish labor movement arose the Yiddish socialist and anarchist press — not just editors and journalists, but poets, novelists, and short story writers, who worked by day and wrote by night, and whose creative work ardently reflected their support for the Jewish labor movement. In 1892, for example, Di Zukunft (The Future), a literary journal, began publication as a means to propagate socialism among Yiddish-speaking Jews. Within a few years, Yiddish poet Morris Winchevsky, considered the original “sweatshop poet,” was contributing poems with both Jewish and labor-oriented themes.

The best known “sweatshop poet,” Morris Rosenfeld, who arrived in this country from London in 1886, but grew up in Poland, wrote this verse (translated by Aaron Kramer):

The sweatshop at midday — I will draw you a picture;

A battlefield bloody; the conflict at rest;

Around and about me the corpses are lying;

The blood cries aloud from the earth’s gory breast.

A moment... and hark! The loud signal is sounded,

And dead rise again and renewed in their fight...

They struggle, these corpses; for strangers, for strangers!

They struggle, they fall and they sink into the night.

Not only were poems like this widely read, they were put to music and sung by Jewish workers. Workers’ rights were also the subject of Yiddish prose, most notably Sholem Asch’s short story “A Union for Shabbos” in which Orthodox Jews go on strike to stop their Jewish employer from forcing them to work on the Sabbath.

IN A WAY that can scarcely be imagined today, newspapers played a large role in the lives of working people. Immigrant Jews, highly literate and politically active, founded one of the most influential newspapers, the Yiddish Forvertz, edited by Abe Cahan. It began publication around the turn of the 20th century and attained a peak daily circulation of 250,000 in the 1920s. The Forvertz building on the Lower East Side featured engravings of Marx and Engels and the phrase “Workers of the World Unite” appeared on its masthead. The two other most influential labor-oriented newspapers were the Frei Arbeter Shtimme, with an anarchist perspective, and the Freiheit, the Yiddish communist paper, a rival to the Forvertz that emerged in the early 1920s.

In addition to advocating for socialism, unionism and Jewish secularism, the Forvertz featured human interest stories and its famous advice column known as “bintl brief.” Short stories by Yiddish writers appeared in serial form.

After 1905, the Jewish labor movement was invigorated by the immigration of Bundists, Yiddish-speaking socialist activists from tsarist Russia, escaping the repression that followed a failed revolution. They wasted no time in rising to the leadership in the unions, the Socialist Party, the fraternal orders, the socialist press, and kindred organizations.

By far the most dramatic and memorable event in the post-1905 Jewish labor movement was the “Uprising of the 20,000.” For four months over the winter of 1909-1910, Jewish and Italian women, and a few men involved in the manufacturing of women’s “shirtwaists” in NYC, led by the new International Ladies Garment Worker Union (ILGWU), conducted a general strike against sweatshop conditions. These included long hours, piece work, abusive supervisors, poor ventilation, and no job security.

Strikes had already broken out in various shops. At a mass meeting, Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish woman who had already been arrested many times by the police and beaten up by thugs, came to the platform and called for a general strike. Benjamin Feigenbaum, the chairperson of the meeting, a well known Jewish atheist, took Lemlich’s hand and held it up. He asked if the crowd was ready to take the old Jewish oath, which says “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither from the arm I raise.” But he changed a few key words: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may my right hand wither from the arm I raise.” Every arm in the hall went up, and this is how the general strike began. Four months later — four winter months later — after many arrests and picket-line violence, the union won. A general strike of tens of thousands more workers in the cloak and suit industry, most who whom were men, followed in 1910 which was also successful. A similar victory was achieved in Chicago in 1912-13, in a mass strike led by a young Sidney Hillman and Bessie Abramowitz, who later became his wife.

Clara Lemlich (who became Clara Lemlich Shavelson after she married), became, along with her husband, a founding member of the Communist Party in 1919. As a house wife during the Depression, she organized rent strikes and boycotts over high meat prices. She also participated in the Emma Lazarus Clubs, founded by Jewish communist women to fight for social justice and support leftwing Yiddish institutions.

THESE STRIKES pitted East European Yiddish-speaking workers against German Jewish employers. But many of the wives of the German Jewish employers and other upper class and middle class gentile women were involved in the Women’s Trade Union League, and as such supported the strike and actually joined the picket lines. The big makhers in the Jewish community were so disturbed that they eventually pressured the employers to agree to mediation by a young Louis Brandeis, later the first Jewish Supreme Court justice appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and a prominent Zionist.

A document he helped negotiate, called the “Protocols of Peace,” covered 339 shops. Workers won a 50-hour week, a union shop, and end to piecework, equal division of work during slack season, a limit on forced overtime, paid holidays and the arbitration of grievances. An even larger strike of cloakmakers in New York and Chicago in 1910 was also successful. Gains of this nature were not won by other industrial workers for another twenty-five years!

In the midst of this strike wave, there occurred a great man-made tragedy — the Triangle Fire on March 25, 1911, which killed 146 mostly Jewish and Italian “girls” in a shop that had managed to resist the union tide. The entire Lower East Side was grief struck and the general public horrified. After the strike, impartial investigations were conducted and the New York State legislature enacted various safety codes. The garment workers unions took advantage of the justified hostility toward the garment manufacturers to renew their organizing drives.

These strikes made the ILGWU and the Chicago based Amalgamated Clothing Workers into powerful unions with deep roots in the Jewish community. Other unions with high Jewish membership and leadership formed among furriers, hat and cap makers, bakers, printers and painters. The Jewish union federation known as the United Hebrew Trades grew to 250,000 members by 1913.

It did not happen all at once, but the big garment workers union’s pioneered what became known as SOCIAL UNIONISM. Some of its features were:

  • health clinics
  • sanatoria for TB
  • pensions
  • daycare centers
  • cooperative housing like the Amalgamated Houses and Penn South in New York
  • vacation resorts/summer camps (e.g, Camp Nit Gedayget, “No Worries”)
  • adult education and lectures
  • cultural activities,first in Yiddish, later in English
  • labor banks (one still exists in NYC)
  • labor solidarity and support for industrial unionism

Jewish workers also took an expansive view of their craftsmanship. As a Jewish garment worker declared, “it is not the way of a Jew to do his [sic] work like there is not a human to suffer when it’s done badly. A coat is not just a piece of cloth. The tailor is connected to the one who wears it and he should not forget it.”

Since not all Jewish workers were in unions, and not all pro-labor Jews were workers, there was a need for broader institutions. The same generation of left-leaning immigrant Jews who founded the Jewish labor unions also founded the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, known for its insurance plans, health care programs, old age homes, Yiddish schools, summer camps, sports teams, women’s clubs, reading circles, choruses, orchestras, and much more — all with a strong emphasis on Yiddish, socialism, and labor solidarity across ethnic lines. Socialist Zionists and Jewish communists established parallel institutions.

ANOTHER PIVOTAL EVENT in the history of the Jewish labor movement was the election of Meyer London to Congress from the Lower East Side in 1914. London served two more terms until 1922. He was a Jewish labor lawyer, an immigrant fluent in Yiddish and English, who ran as a candidate for the Socialist Party, which was the majority party among Jewish workers in these years. His election was a great source of pride for the immigrant Jewish working class of NYC. He joined another Socialist member of Congress, Victor Berger, a German Jew from Milwaukee, then a socialist stronghold due to the German population, more gentile than Jewish. Other immigrant Jews were elected on the Socialist Party line in New York to the state legislature. On the federal level, Jews in the labor movement voted Socialist too, most notably for Eugene Victor Debs before World War I and to a lesser extent for Norman Thomas in the 1920s and early 1930s. Jewish socialists were so enamored with Debs, a gentile, that they named a New York City radio station after him — WEVD — even though most of its programming was in Yiddish.

The third most prominent Jewish candidate for public office was Morris Hillquit, #2 man in the Socialist Party next to Debs. Hillquit, also a labor lawyer, won 22 percent of the vote running for mayor of New York in 1917 and 33 percent in 1932, during the depths of the Depression.

The most radical union between 1905 and U.S. entrance into World War I in 1917 was the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, aka the Wobblies). It did not have many Jewish members because the IWW did most of its organizing among industrial workers, agricultural workers, miners and lumberjacks, where Jews were rarely found. But in the IWW’s forays into the East, most notably the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile workers strike and the 1913 Paterson, NJ silk workers strike, thousands of Jewish workers participated -- including Hannah Silverman, a Paterson mill worker, who became an important strike leader. Matilda Robbins, born Tatiana Rabinowitz, led a strike of textile workers in Little Falls, NY in 1912 and was hired by the IWW as one of two paid female organizers.

The best known Jewish Wobbly was Frank Tannenbaum, who organized unemployed workers in New York City to demand food and shelter from churches during the bitter cold winter of 1913-14. He was falsely accused of inciting to riot and served a year in a notorious city prison, where he organized a strike of inmates against harsh conditions. Tannenbaum later dropped out of the labor movement to pursue a higher education. He earned a PhD from Columbia University and become a scholar specializing in race relations, criminology and Latin American history.

The Jewish-dominated labor unions constituted the leftwing of the American Federation of Labor, along with a few others unions in which Jews were not a factor. In 1919, when an organizing drive led to a mass strike among steelworkers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers donated nearly 40 percent of the funds raised by the entire labor movement, even though the number of Jewish steelworkers was miniscule. The Forvertz covered this and other strikes by non-Jewish workers for its Yiddish readership, not only for their news value, but to encourage labor solidarity.

To be continued.

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.