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A Short History of Jews in the American Labor Movement, Part 2

Bennett Muraskin
March 29, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

To read Part One, click here.

pesotta2-237x300THE JEWISH LABOR MOVEMENT was not only about great deeds. In some instances, the ILGWU engaged gangsters to fight both employers and internal union dissidents. Corruption and nepotism were not unknown. Women in the union shops did not receive equal pay for equal work, or the better jobs, and were also kept out of the union leadership. One of the few exceptions, Rose Pesotta (shown at right), eventually became so disillusioned with the inferior status of women in the ILGWU that she resigned. Fellow organizer Fania Cohn suffered a similar fate. Nevertheless, several Jewish women, including Pesotta, Fania Cohn, Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, Bessie Abramowitz, and Rose Pastor Stokes achieved great prominence. On the shop floor, they had a reputation of being more militant than the men and more eager to organize non-Jewish workers.

It was Schneiderman who eloquently stated in 1912 that “the worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.” The phrase “bread and roses” actually comes from a poem written in 1911 by a Jewish poet, James Oppenheim, honoring the sacrifices and dignity of women workers. Put to music, it has become a labor anthem. (The 1912 Lawrence textile strike has gone down into history as the “bread and roses” strike, because of the reported use of the phrase on picket signs, but some historians dispute this claim.)

THE DIFFERENCE that Jewish labor unions and their network of affiliated institutions made in improving lives of the Jewish working class, in the material and spiritual sense, was outstanding. A typical Jewish worker in this period could easily belong to a Jewish labor union and/or a mutual aid organization like the Workmen’s Circle, read the Yiddish Forvertz, send their child to a socialist/Yiddishist after-school program and summer camp, live in cooperative housing, attend lectures by Yiddish and socialist speakers and vote for the Socialist Party. The only other immigrant communities that established comparable networks of labor, social welfare, political, cultural and educational institutions were leftwing German Americans, who, as previously noted, were the original role models for the Jewish labor movement and, for that matter, the Workmen’s Circle and Forvertz. But their heyday was in the 19th century. Finnish immigrant socialists, who were mainly concentrated in Minnesota and Wisconsin, were organized along the same lines, but were far less visible than Jews.

Among the bulk of the non-Jewish immigrant populations, the Catholic Church played a comparable role in terms of providing social services and children’s education, but with a profoundly conservative philosophy. The Church may have accepted trade unionism of the more “bread and butter” variety, but were fiercely opposed to secularism, socialism and a prominent role for women.

What was most distinctive about the immigrant Jewish working class, in the broadest sense of the term, was its desire for education. Many immigrants of all nationalities attended night school to learn English, but Jewish labor activists also established study groups, libraries, schools and lecture programs first in Yiddish and later in English, not just to teach the principles of anarchism, socialism, communism, labor unionism etc., but to teach literature, economics, science and civics. According to one immigrant memoir, “I remember going once to a meeting at Cooper Union to protest against the use of militia in breaking a strike somewhere in the West, and then retiring with a crowd of others to the anarchist reading room on Eldridge Street to hear an informal discussion on ‘Hamlet versus Don Quixote.’ ”

A Jewish Workers University connected with the Communist Party existed from 1926 to 1941 teaching a variety of courses, exclusively in Yiddish. The socialist ILGWU had its own “Workers University.”

The best known adult schools were the socialist Rand School of Social Science (founded in 1906) and the communist Jefferson School of Social Science (founded in 1944), both located in New York City. They were nonsectarian, of course, but the majority of their students were Jewish. The Women’s Trade Union League sponsored a summer school for women workers at Bryn Mawr College that continued from 1921 to 1938. A preponderance of students were Russian Jewish immigrants.

The children of these radical Jewish workers flocked to public colleges in higher numbers than any other ethnic group and were integrally involved in New Left of the 1960s and 1970s including the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and gay liberation movements.

THE NOTORIOUS Palmer raids, associated with the post-World War I Red Scare, caused the arrest and in some cases deportation of non-citizen radicals, many of them Jewish. Social activism and union membership shrunk in the 1920s due to government repression, but some of the harm done to the Jewish labor unions was self-inflicted. A schism in the Jewish labor movement developed in the early to mid-1920s, after the communists seceded from the Socialist Party to form the Communist Party. The issues in dispute were the appropriate attitude toward the new Soviet Union and the assessment of revolutionary prospects in the U.S. The pro-Soviet Jewish communists and anti-Soviet Jewish socialists went to war over control of the ILGWU and became bitter rivals throughout the Jewish labor movement. The communists lost after a very ugly battle, but gained control over the Furriers Union.

The split went far beyond the labor movement. Jewish communists established a new newspaper, the Freiheit, to rival the Forverts. By the late 1920s, Jewish communists had formed their own radical fraternal mutual aid, cultural and educational organization, known as the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order, to compete with the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle. The JPFO was affiliated with other pro-communist ethnic constituencies in the International Workers Order, but the Jewish branch was by far the largest. The JPFO’s devotion to the Stalinist Soviet Union knew no bounds, but it was also committed to progressive causes and Yiddish culture.

The linke (left wing) and rekhte (right wing) Yidn battled it out in their press, in the unions and meeting halls and in the streets. According to Irving Howe, author of World of Our Fathers, there was nothing in the whole Jewish immigrant experience to match the civil war between the Jewish left for “sheer ugliness.” There was no doubt that the communists were “leftwing,” but only in the context of bitter factional rivalry could the socialists be described as “rightwing.”

THE ENTIRE labor movement took a beating in the 1920s and in the early years of the Great Depression, but there was still Jewish labor activism. One of the few major labor struggles of this decade took place in Passaic, NJ, where 20,000 textile workers went on strike, led by Albert Weisbord, a young Jewish communist. Amy Schechter, the daughter of the famous Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter, took an active role in another strike, in 1929, at the Loray Mill among textile workers in Gastonia, North Carolina. She was sent there by the Communist Party, as a representative of its Workers International Relief, to help the strikers’ families. She and eight others were arrested and charged with murder over the shooting of the local police chief. The charges against Schechter were later dismissed.

In 1932, Harry Simms, a young communist from Massachusetts, was murdered by thugs hired by mine owners for attempting to organize coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky.

REVIVAL OF UNION ORGANIZING in all industries and trades came with the New Deal. In 1935, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began to emerge from the American Federation of Labor with a mission to organize millions of industrial workers in the mining, auto, steel, rubber, oil, electrical, and maritime industries. These are not primarily Jewish workers, but three out of the eight AFL unions that split away to form the CIO were the Jewish-dominated ILGWU, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the Hat Makers and Milliners Union. As organizers, Jewish socialists and communists, both men and women, played a significant role in the mass strikes the CIO conducted among largely non-Jewish workers in basicd industry.

A small CIO union called Local 1199, led by a Jewish communist named Leon Davis, organized the mostly Jewish pharmacists and other drug store employees in New York City during the Depression and World War II. In the late 1950s, it branched out into organizing black and Puerto Rican hospital workers in New York City and achieved success by engaging in very militant strikes, first in New York, later in other states.

Jews were also prominent as attorneys for the CIO unions. Lee Pressman was general counsel to the CIO during the late 30s and 40s; Maurice Sugar general counsel to the United Auto Workers, and John Apt general counsel to the Amalgamated from 1938 to 1946 and a top advisor to its president, Sidney Hillman. Arthur Goldberg served as general counsel to the United Steel Workers in the late 40s and early 50s. He went on to become Secretary of Labor under John F. Kennedy and a Supreme Court justice under Lyndon Johnson.

NYC-articleInlineIn 1939, Morris Ernst represented the CIO in a landmark civil liberties case before the U.S. Supreme Court that established the union federation’s right to freedom of assembly in Jersey City, NJ. As an attorney for the American Newspaper Guild, an AFL union, Ernst also won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteeing the right of newspaper employees to organize under the National Labor Relations Act.

Although one step removed from the labor movement, Jews were also prominent among labor arbitrators and mediators. Theodore Kheel (shown at right) was widely known as the mediator of choice in settling labor disputes in New York City, including the lengthy newspaper workers strike of 1962-63.

ON THE CULTURAL FRONT, the ILGWU sponsored a theatrical production called Pins and Needles, which ran on Broadway from 1937 to 1940. It took the form of a review consisting of songs, sketches, and satire, and included rank-and-file workers in the cast. The most socially conscious of all Broadway musical plays, The Cradle Will Rock, was also a product of the Depression era — and the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project. It told the story of an organizing drive among steelworkers. Both music and lyrics were written by Mark Blitzstein.

waiting-for-lefty-advertThe epitome of pro-labor theater during the 1930s was Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (1935) whose final scene consists of New York City taxi drivers chanting “Strike, Strike, Strike!” Odets, like Blitzstein, was a Jewish communist.

There was also a genre to “proletarian literature” during the 1930s and 40s suffused with radical themes. Among Jewish writers, Michael Gold stands out for his fictionalized autobiography, Jews Without Money (1930), about an impoverished child growing up in the Jewish ghetto of Manhattan, whose experiences led him to embrace communism. Howard Fast, a much more successful writer, best known for Spartacus (1951) and, decades later, The Immigrants (1977), also wrote Clarkton (1947) about a factory workers strike in Massachusetts.

On the political front, in 1936, the more conservative wing of the Socialist Party, whose base was the Jewish labor unions, collaborated with the Communist Party in forming the American Labor Party (ALP), which despite its name was limited to New York State. It supported Franklin Roosevelt and other New Deal Democrats, but also ran its own candidates against Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine. Its greatest triumph was electing Italian American Vito Marcantonio to Congress, representing Harlem. He served for six terms and was influential in New York leftwing circles from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. The ALP also elected a Jew, Leo Isaacson, who served only one term in Congress, as well as some local and state legislators. The bulk of its funding, until the socialists split in 1944 to form the Liberal Party, came from the Jewish labor unions.

ILGWU President David Dubinsky was an important figure in the Jewish labor movement during the 1930s and 40s, but the most influential on the national political scene during the New Deal and up through World War II was Sidney Hillman, the president of the leftwing Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Along with the ILGWU, it formed the backbone of the American Labor Party. In the 1940s, Hillman became an FDR’s top advisor on labor issues and head of the CIO’s political action committee. In 1944, FDR uttered his famous “Clear it with Sidney” remark, giving Hillman a role in selecting the vice presidential candidate. His role, however, was limited. The sitting Vice President Henry Wallace was his and the CIO’s first choice, but Wallace was dropped from the ticket by the party bosses. Hillman got to choose between two remaining candidates and approved the selection of Harry Truman over a more conservative contender.

Although Hillman died young in 1946, Dubinsky continued to lead the ILGWU until the mid-1960s. The ILGWU attained a peak membership of 450,000 under his leadership. But in 1941, he unfairly denounced a wildcat strike of over a thousand workers against the Maidenform Bra company in Bayonne, New Jersey as communist-inspired. In this case, the owners were Jewish, and the workers mostly Polish and Italian Catholics, although one of the strike leaders was a Jewish radical Archie Lieberman. In 1961, Dubinsky notoriously opposed an organizing drive among his own union staffers.

JEWISH WORKERS (and Jews in general) idolized FDR, despite his failure to take decisive action to rescue the Jews of Europe from Hitler. Most Jewish organizations did not do much themselves, but in 1934, the Jewish socialist unions, together with the Workman’s Circle and the Yiddish newspaper, Forverts, formed the Jewish Labor Committee, led by Baruch Charney Vladeck, to sound the alarm about the rise of Nazism, organize a boycott of German exports, and bring endangered trade unionists to the US. Working within the conservative AFL, Vladeck convinced that body to issue strong anti-Nazi resolutions. Here is how he appealed to the non-Jewish labor leaders:

In the torture chambers of fascism, the Jew occupies a conspicuous and painful place... One of the most important reasons why all tyrants hate us is because of our long experience resisting injustice. Over 4000 years ago, a Jew by the name of Moses... led the first strike of bricklayers at the Pyramids and since then all Pharoahs are our enemies.

20598182_118523631671Vladeck (shown at left) had a storied career. He was the manager of the Forverts. Before World War I, he was elected as New York City alderman on the Socialist Party ticket. In 1936, he was elected city councilman as a representative of the American Labor Party in 1936 and served until his untimely death in 1938.

After the war, the Jewish Labor Committee provided relief for Jewish refugees and pressured Congress to pass legislation admitting them to the U.S. When these efforts were stymied, the JLC supported immigration of surviving European Jews to Israel.

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.