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A Short History of Jews in the American Labor Movement, Part 3

Bennett Muraskin
April 7, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.

Weavers-1MUSIC was an integral part of the left wing of the labor movement -- Jewish and non-Jewish. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger (non-Jews) began singing in union halls and picket lines across the country in the late 1930s. After World War II, Seeger, Lee Hays and two Jewish performers, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, formed the Weavers, and packed concert halls in major venues, singing folk songs and songs of social justice. They did not sing in Yiddish, but a few Hebrew songs, celebrating the new state of Israel, were part of their repertoire.

Joe Glazer (d. 2006), known as “Labor’s Troubadour,” and Tom Glazer (d. 2003) were also part of this tradition. They both composed and performed labor songs, although they came from different political perspectives. Joe was anti-communist; Tom was more sympathetic to communism. The Weavers disbanded in the mid-1960s. The Glazers, who were not related, continued on (separately) until the 1990s.

In June 1979, Joe Glazer invited other labor musicians to the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in Silver Spring Maryland to share labor-related songs and to discuss the effective use of music, song, poetry and chants in labor activism. The three-day event became an annual event known as the Great Labor Arts Exchange (GLAE), which still convenes today.

Historically, unions led by Jewish socialists and communists were heavily involved in fighting racism against African Americans. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a leading campaigner against employment discrimination, had ties to the Socialist Party and its many Jewish activists. Jewish labor unions and labor radicals were historically the most active in supporting equal treatment for blacks in the workplace and in the union hierarchy. In the civil rights struggles of the late 1940s, Jewish communists stood out in their tireless efforts to integrate baseball. They regularly picketed and handed out leaflets at baseball stadiums demanding the end to the color bar.

ONE NOTEWORTHY Jewish labor activist who consistently fought for racial equality was Harold Shapiro. In 1948, as a president of a Detroit local of the communist-led Fur and Leather Workers Union in Detroit, he helped convince the Wayne County CIO to include the UAW’s Coleman Young in its leadership. Young became the first black mayor of Detroit in 1974. Shapiro was also one of the founders of the National Negro Labor Council. In 1954, he was called to called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he refused to discuss his affiliations or the affiliations of others in his union with the Communist Party. During the next decade, he organized in the South for labor unionism and civil rights, braving arrests and beatings.

1954posterThe post-World War II anti-communist hysteria known as the McCarthy era, lasting from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, caused the AFL and CIO to purge communists from its ranks, including a high proportion of Jewish communists. This had a chilling effect on all forms of labor radicalism. One union expelled was the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, the successor to the Western Federation of Miners, the union that was originally the backbone of the IWW. In 1954, Jewish screen writer Herbert Biberman’s film The Salt of the Earth appeared, based on a bitter 1951 strike conducted by this union among Mexican American miners in New Mexico. Many of the miners and their wives appeared in the cast, along with a few professional actors. Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten, writers and directors, who were blacklisted and jailed for contempt of Congress in the late 1940s. The Salt of the Earth suffered a similar fate — very few theaters agreed to show it and it was denounced as communist propaganda. The film was rarely seen until the late 1960s. Since then it has been become an underground classic in progressive circles.

Coincidentally, 1954 also saw the appearance of Pajama Game, a Tony award winning hit musical featuring a strike at a pajama factory (enlivened by a love story), with music by Richard Adler and lyrics by Jerry Ross, both Jews.

AFTER WORLD WAR II, the role of Jews in the labor movement was further diminished by the post-war economic boom, which lifted Jews into the middle class. The “Jewish labor movement” transitioned to “Jews in the labor movement,” and the Yiddish component and strong immigrant-based urban communities that sustained and nurtured a specifically Jewish labor movement went into rapid decline.

As the number of Jewish garment workers dropped dramatically beginning in the 1950s, the ILGWU leadership remained Jewish, raising allegations that it had become an entrenched bureaucracy discriminating against the new minorities in the union ranks --Puerto Ricans and blacks -- as well as women. Mob control also became a serious problem in some ILGWU locals.

Perhaps the ugliest episode in the post-war history of the Jewish labor movement was the 1968 New York teachers strike, led the United Federation of Teachers and its high profile president Albert Shanker. In 1967, the Board of Education, with funding from the Ford Foundation, had chosen the predominantly black Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn for an experiment in “community control.” The UFT and the elected school board clashed over UFT demands to remove disruptive students, the community board’s appointment of a principal not on the approved civil service list, and especially its decision to transfer nineteen teachers and administrators the board considered ineffective. The UFT responded with a series of strikes that closed down the entire New York school system. The community board accused the union of racism, the union accused the community board of union-busting and anti-Semitism (the bulk of the teachers it removed were Jewish). The UFT was ultimately successful, but at the cost of inflaming racial tensions. Nevertheless, the UFT was later successful in organizing mostly minority para-professionals in the school system.

On the brighter side, Local 1199, the Drug and Hospital Workers Union, and AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, were so active in the civil rights movement that In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called 1199 “my favorite union.” King chose Local 1199’s 1968 “Salute to Freedom” program as his platform to announce his opposition to the Vietnam War. Later that year, King was assassinated in Memphis, where he had come to support a strike of black sanitation workers organized by AFSCME. (One of King’s top advisors, Stanley Levison, was Jewish. Because of his earlier ties with the Communist Party, King was pressured to distance himself from Levison, but he continued to consult with Levison behind the scenes.)

1199 (led by Leon Davis), District 65 (led by David Livingston and representing retail and light manufacturing employees), and AFSCME, led by Jerry Wurf and representing public employees, were also among the few labor unions that opposed the Vietnam War.

Most of the children of Jewish workers earned college degrees and went on to become professionals. Many continued their parents’ tradition of social activism in the 1960s by joining the civil rights movement. There was a very large Jewish presence among the Freedom Riders. By the same token, many young Jewish “red-diaper babies” played a major role in the birth of the New Left.

Paul Jacobs was one Jewish labor activist whose career spanned the pre-war and post-war eras. In the early 1940s, he organized non-Jewish workers in Pennsylvania for the ILGWU in then, in the late 40s and early 50s, served non-Jewish workers as International Representative for the Oil Workers International Union. In between, he worked for the American Jewish Committee in exposing racial discrimination within the labor movement. To his discredit, he also led a purge of the pro-communist Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order from the Jewish Community Council in Los Angeles.

During the 1950s Jacobs visited Israel as a guest of the Histadrut, the Israeli labor federation and took trips to Eastern Europe, where he toured Auschwitz and educated himself about the Holocaust. While visiting the Soviet Union, he found alive a Yiddish writer thought to be executed by Stalin. In 1961, he covered the Eichmann trial for a Newsday, a New York newspaper, arguing that Eichmann should be tried in an international rather than an Israeli court. His last foray into the labor movement was to write a Harper’s magazine article in 1963 indicting the ILGWU for flouting union democracy, refusing to recognize its staff union and excluding blacks from leadership. Although middle aged, he joined the New Left and became involved in the movements against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. In 1976, he co-founded Mother Jones magazine. In 1965, Jacobs wrote a colorful yet little known memoir Is Curly Jewish? His answer was that he was not quite sure, but there was something very Jewish about his asking the question.

JEWISH INVOLVEMENT in the labor movement received a new lease on life with the expansion of the public sector, associated with LBJ’s War on Poverty in the mid-1960s and similar programs on state and local levels. Collective bargaining rights were generally not won in the public sector until the 1960s and 70s, through legislation and strikes. On the federal, state and local levels, Jews were heavily represented as teachers, librarians, social workers, college faculty and in other professional civil-service and white-collar positions. Unions such as AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers, and some of the postal workers unions had a significant number of Jews in their rank-and-file and featured an even higher percentage in leadership and as union staffers and lawyers. Victor Gotbaum, for example, led AFSCME’s District 37 from 1965 to 1987, as it became a powerful union of New York civil-service workers.

In public higher education, the American Federation of Teachers organized faculty in the New York City college system in the late 1960s, soon to followed in the state university system. The groundwork was laid by a protracted and ultimately failed strike at the private Catholic St. John’s University led by Israel Kugler over 1966-67. Kugler was also a leader of the Workmen’s Circle, which contributed heavily to the strike fund.

rosieThe 1960s saw the massive expansion of women in the labor movement while leadership remained male-dominated. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) was founded in 1974 by women unionists affiliated with the AFL-CIO to address women’s issues in the workplace. Its goals were and remain to promote affirmative action in the workplace, strengthen the role of women in unions, and organize more women into unions. At CLUW’s founding convention in Chicago, Myra Wolfgang, secretary-treasurer of the Detroit Joint Executive Board of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union (HERE), brought the delegates to their feet by declaring, “You can call Mr. Meany and tell him there are 3,000 women in Chicago and they didn’t come here to swap recipes!”

Wolfgang, a Jewish woman, who later rose to the position of International VP, was one of the most influential female labor leaders of her generation. In 1937, at the age of 23, she led a sit-down strike of salesclerks and waitresses at one of Woolworth’s “five and ten cents” stores in Detroit. Nicknamed the “battling belle of Detroit,” she ran the union’s Detroit Joint Council, which represented thousands of cooks, bartenders, food servers, dishwashers, maids, and other hotel and restaurant workers. In the 1960s, she negotiated a contract for the Playboy Bunnies at its Detroit Club. By 1969, HERE had won a national contract covering all Playboy Clubs.

Another founding member of CLUW was Evelyn Dubrow. For decades she served as chief lobbyist for the ILGWU, working for the passage of minimum wage, family and medical leave, civil rights and fair trade legislation.

MarvinMillerJEWISH LABOR LEADERS also made their mark in new fields for union organizing. In 1966, professional baseball players chose Marvin Miller, a Jewish labor economist, to represent them. Over the next sixteen years, he led the players through a number of successful strikes and negotiated their collective bargaining agreements. The consensus among players, sports journalists and fans is that Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame, but opposition from the owners has kept him out. Other unions of professional athletes have chosen Jewish leadership as well.

Movies about labor struggles have often been the creation of Jewish producers, directors, writers and actors. The Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA (1976), about a bitter miners’ strike in Kentucky, was produced and directed by Barbara Kopple. In 1979, Norma Rae, a major Hollywood movie, appeared about a dramatic organizing drive among Southern textile workers that ended in victory for the Union. It was based on the true story of workers, led the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, who fought a protracted struggle to win union recognition and collective bargaining rights at JP Stevens, a North Carolina textile manufacturer. The heroes of the movie were Norma Rae Webster, a scrappy non-Jewish woman who worked in the mill until she was fired for union organizing, played by Sally Field, and a union organizer from the North named Rueben Warshowsky, played by Ron Leibman. Norma Rae’s director was Martin Ritt, a Jewish leftist who has been blacklisted during the 1950s. Nu? What did you expect?

It was certainly true to life that one of the chief union organizers, Bruce Raynor, was Jewish. In fact, it was Sol Stetin, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, who, as president of the Textile Workers Union, began the organizing drive at JP Stevens and engineered a merger with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union during the struggle that is considered to be the key factor in the union victory. Stetin went on to found the American Labor Museum/Botto House in Haledon, NJ, a historic site connected to the 1913 Paterson silk workers strike. He also taught labor studies at William Paterson College and Rutgers University, where he was honored as the first “labor leader in residence.”

The movie I’m Not Rappaport (1996), directed by Herb Gardner, who also wrote and directed the Tony Award-winning Broadway play of the same name, is a comedy that features an elderly Jew, a former union activist and incurable kibitzer, who continues, in his own way, to fight for social justice. It begins with a depiction of the launching of “The Uprising of the 20,000,” the great garment workers strike of 1909-1910, as seen by the old Jewish man when he was a young boy, carried on his father’s shoulders. Walter Matthau played the lead. His park bench buddy was played by black actor Ossie Davis, who, along with his wife, actress Ruby Dee, had close ties with the left-wing of the Jewish labor movement and were long time supporters of our magazine, Jewish Currents.

In Bread and Roses, a 2000 film based on the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, the workers are undocumented Hispanics, but the union organizer, played by Adrien Brody, is “Sam Shapiro,” a Jew.

UNIONS ARE imperfect organizations. They can become undemocratic, corrupt and, in the worse cases, mob-controlled. The single pro-labor organization that has relentlessly campaigned for union democracy is the aptly named Association for Union Democracy. It has been described as a “civil liberties organization that focuses on the rights of members in their union to free speech, fair elections, due process . . . and fair hiring.” Through education, legal action and organization, it has defended union dissidents and helped bring democratic reforms to unions including the Painters, the United Mine Workers, the United Steelworkers and the Teamsters.

Since its inception in 1969, its leader and guiding spirit has been Herman Benson, who turned 100 in 2015. Benson entered politics as a young socialist back in the 1930s, transitioned through the Trotskyist movement, then back to the Socialist Party before founding the AUD. He also worked as a machinist and toolmaker and held membership at various times in four different industrial unions. He was inspired to take up the cause of union democracy when he perceived that the goals of the 1959 Landrum Griffin Act were being thwarted by the Labor Department and entrenched union bureaucrats. His memoir, Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement (2004), chronicles his noble crusade.

The entire labor movement is in the doldrums, but Jews are still part of it, not so much in the rank-and-file as in leadership or in related fields. Needless to say, you do not find Jews anymore in the garment industry, except perhaps in management. In fact, Jews were never found in large numbers in the mass-production industrial unions, the building trades (except the painters union), or the transportation sector (except for taxicab drivers). But Jews can still be found in white-collar public sector unions, especially in education or higher education, and in unions in the entertainment industry, like Actors’ Equity, and in the medical field, like the Committee of Interns and Residents. It is perhaps inevitable that their numbers are diminishing as other minorities move into these fields and young Jews choose different occupations.

In October 1996, a two-day teach-in was held at Columbia University to forge an alliance between the AFL-CIO, under the reform administration of President John Sweeney, and progressive intellectuals. Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian, was co-chair of the organizing committee. Eric Foner (nephew of labor historian Philip Foner and labor leaders Moe and Henry Foner) chaired the event. About one-third of the speakers were Jewish, including Betty Friedan, who started her career as a labor journalist, Nelson Lichtenstein, and fellow labor historian Stanley Aronowitz, New Left activist and sociologist Todd Gitlin, journalist Paul Berman, and UNITE’s Director of Communications Jo-Ann Mort.

UNITE was the union that resulted from the merger of the ILGWU and the ACTWU -- the backbone of the old Jewish labor movement. Mort later edited Not Your Father’s Labor Movement: Inside the New AFL-CIO (1999). Although the teach-in was well attended and appeared to offer great promise (as reflected in Mort’s book, published three years later), it did little to reverse the long-term decline of the labor movement.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE, I am employed as a staff representative for the Council of New Jersey State College Locals, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. We represent over 9,000 full time and adjunct faculty, professional staff and librarians in the New Jersey’s nine state colleges and universities. When I was hired in 1988, six out of the nine local presidents were Jewish. Today, only two out of eleven are Jewish. Our union delegates and rank and file have also become less Jewish over the years.

When I attended a massive labor rally of public employees in Trenton a few years back, I joined Arieh Lebowitz, longtime staffer for the Jewish Labor Committee, and a few other JLC members in holding up signs. Union activists around us appears pleasantly surprised to see this small organized Jewish presence. Years ago, I think a Jewish presence would have been taken for granted. Now Jews are assumed to be middle- or upper-class.

There are still, however, many Jews among American labor leaders. They include:

Stuart Appelbaum, the openly gay president of Retail Wholesale Department Store Union, now a/w United Food and Commercial Workers; Appelbaum is also president of the Jewish Labor Committee

Randi Weingarten, the openly gay president of American Federation of Teachers

Larry Cohen, until very recently, president of Communication Workers of America (CWA)

Matthew Loeb, plresident of International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees

Eric Scherzer, executive director of the Committee of Interns and Residents

Hetty Rosenstein, CWA director for New Jersey and related to the founders of the progressive Puffin Foundation

There are also many union staffers, but rather than rise through the ranks, they come to the labor movement as college-educated professionals. I am one of them. Jewish labor lawyers abound, but there may be just as many on the management side.

Prominent Jewish labor leaders in recent years included Bruce Raynor, former president of UNITE/HERE, and Andrew Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, who attracted a lot of publicity for his success in organizing low- wage workers in the 1990s and 2000s, and as the prime mover behind the Change to Win labor federation formed in 2005. The Jewish Labor Committee continues in its role as the advocate for labor causes in the Jewish communit,y and Jewish causes in the labor community. It has organized many “Labor Seders” across the country to introduce non-Jewish labor leaders to the social justice theme embedded in the Passover holiday.

In the field of cultural arts, Bread and Roses, founded by Jewish labor activist Moe Foner (d. 2002) as a project of Local 1199 Drug and Hospital Workers in 1978 and steered for more than twenty years by Esther Cohen, lives on. Foner’s brother Philip (d. 1994) was a major historian of the American labor movement. Contemporary Jewish labor historians include Stanley Aronowitz, David Brody, Lizabeth Cohen, Melvyn Dubofsky, Nelson Lichtenstein and a younger generation consisting of Daniel Katz and Tony Michels, whose latest book is Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History (2012).

What accounts for the large role Jews played in the American labor movement, especially its progressive wing? Most of these Jews were immigrants or the offspring of immigrants from tsarist Russia. There, Jewish men were doubly oppressed as Jews and workers, and Jewish women were triply oppressed. Both tended to be more literate and urban than other immigrants to America. As perennial outsiders, Jews were positioned to take a critical of the status quo and more receptive to radical ideas. Although Jewish clergy were conservative, they did not exercise the type of control imposed on Christians by the Russian Orthodox or Catholic Church. Living as minorities in many countries, Jews had a broader and more critical perspective on the world than the Gentiles that surrounded them.

Commenting on the presence of Jews in leftwing movements, Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher observed: “I do not believe in the exclusive genius of any race. Yet I think that in some ways, they were very Jewish indeed. They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect. They were a priori exception in that as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs. Their minds matured where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized each other. They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations. They were each in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.”

It has been suggested that some of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) that deal with economics and the prophetic teaching of social justice have also played a role in promoting Jewish progressivism. In my opinion, this is wishful thinking. Those who study the Bible most rigorously have never been in the forefront of the struggle for social justice. However, there may be something to the theory that Judaism’s emphasis on collective responsibility rather than original sin and individual redemption helps explain Jews’ attraction to movements that stress social solidarity and the common good. Finally, the Jewish tradition of arguing with God and debating points of Jewish law, applied to the secular world, may have given Jewish men the khutspe -- and the analytic tools -- to envision greater possibilities for social progress.

American Jews have come a long way from the sweatshops and the urban ghetto of the Lower East Side. We are no longer on the margins of society. Three Jews sit on the Supreme Court, and many more are in corporate and bank boardrooms and in executive positions in law firms and the media. Although the poor are still among us, Jews are, in fact, among the wealthiest demographic.

Jews still have their Bernie Sanders and Robert Reichs and the labor leaders cited in this essay, but we also have our Walter Annenbergs, Sheldon Adelsons and Bernard Madoffs. As Jews shrink as a percentage of US population, and right-leaning Orthodox Jews grow in number, it is uncertain whether Jews will continue to distinguish themselves as advocates for the labor movement and social justice. To quote a quondam progressive Jew, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

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.