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Jewish Communists and Other Radicals in Chicago

Jay Schaffner
January 1, 1970

Across the Decades

by Harry Targ and Jay Schaffner JEWISH RADICALS have figured prominently in social movements in 20th century America. There is much speculation about the root causes of seeming over-representation of men and women of Jewish background in the politics of labor and the left. This paper will suggest ways in which class, ideology, and ethnicity shaped the social movement activity of Jewish Americans, drawing upon four cases of Chicago activists from the first decade of the 20th century, the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1990s. HANNAH SHAPIRO AND THE WALKOUT AT HART, SCHAFFNER AND MARX shapiroOne hundred years ago, Hannah Shapiro, 17, known as “Annie” among her fellow workers, sewed pants pockets at one of the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx men’s clothing factories in Chicago. She worked ten hours a day, unless the foreman demanded more pants produced than usual. She earned four cents for every pocket she sewed. Annie and her parents came from Russia to the United States in 1905 and the family settled on the west side of Chicago. Her father, formerly a rabbi, earned a modest living teaching Hebrew, and Annie, the oldest of eight children, had to go to work to help support the family. She began working when she was 12. On a bright and sunny day, September 22, 1910, Annie went to work early in the morning. Most of the year, daylight would be gone by the time she went home. Upon arriving that morning, Annie and her fellow workers were informed by the foreman on the floor that the piece rate for each pocket sewed would be cut from four cents to three and three quarter cents. This was the last straw for Annie, who had experienced daily indignities at the work place involving rules and wages. She stormed off the job. As she marched down the stairs from the fifth floor, she heard the tramping of many feet: Her fellow workers were following her off the job. As a result of Annie Shapiro’s spontaneous leadership, the great Hart, Schaffner, and Marx strike of 1910 was launched. Eventually, 40,000 workers from job sites around the city would march in solidarity with the HSM workers. Workers would receive support from noted progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow, the Women’s Trade Union League, and, after a time, the United Garment Workers Union. After a month-long strike, HSM agreed to the establishment of a workers’ grievance committee but refused to recognize a union in the factory. That was to come later, with the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, but workers all around Chicago learned a valuable lesson: that the power of the working class comes from solidarity, organization, and action. (The inspiring story is told in a children’s book by Marlene Targ Brill, the sister of one of the authors of this article. The book, Annie Shapiro and the Clothing Workers’ Strike, Millbrook Press, 2011, tells the story of Annie in words and attractive illustrations, and includes a script for children’s use in theatrical performances.) JACK SPIEGEL AND THE UNEMPLOYED COUNCILS depression unemploymentMembers of the Staley Workers Solidarity Committee had bussed to Decatur, Illinois to show solidarity with locked-out union workers in 1994. At the end of the day, protestors reassembled at the bus to return to Chicago. All were ready to board the bus except Jack Spiegel. Nobody knew were he was. Before spreading out all along the company grounds to look for him, someone suggested that they form a picket line around the bus. They did that and 90-year-old Jack Spiegel came running to join the picket line. His comrades knew that wherever there was a picket line, he would be there. A child of Polish immigrants in Chicago, Spiegel joined the Communist Party in 1929, after participating in Marxist study groups and observing the new Soviet Union. With the onset of the Great Depression, law school was no longer a possibility, so he turned to politics instead. In interviews given in the 1990s to Randi Storch (in Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928-35, 2007), Spiegel admitted that he had become “overzealous,” “militant,” and “sectarian.” However, he remained proud of his active participation in mobilizations to save workers displaced from their homes and workers denied welfare assistance due to economic crisis. He became a Communist Party leader of the Unemployed Councils movement, working particularly on the North and Northwest sides of Chicago. A leader of the Shoe Workers Union in the city, Spiegel fought corporate efforts to control workers via piecework wages and tried to forestall the outsourcing of manufacturing of shoes to low-wage labor markets that ultimately destroyed shoe and clothing manufacturing in the United States. In a 1972 interview with Studs Terkel (in Working, 1974), Spiegel warned of the demise of all clothing, textile, and shoe manufacturing in the United States if government refused to tax corporations who shifted their operations overseas. His predictions were prophetic. Summarizing Spiegel’s lifetime commitment to the left James Janega wrote in the Chicago Tribune (2000):
Jack D. Spiegel first became active in demonstrating for labor rights in 1927, when he joined protesters opposed to the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. He was still active as recently as 1994, when union members marched on the A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. plant in Decatur. In between, Mr. Spiegel’s life traced the history of the city’s 20th Century labor movement. His longevity earned the spry, 95-year-old man an honored place in Chicago’s socialist bookstores and leftist theaters. It placed him in the forefront of protests and demonstrations that spanned the period, and the sobering reflection and restructuring that befell the political left in the last two decades.
HERB MARCH AND THE BUILDING OF THE UNITED PACKINGHOUSE WORKERS UNION 6990759565_f1e663ecc6_b-1Herb March grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised by parents who were sympathetic to socialism. Being around rent strikes and other street actions in the neighborhood, March was exposed to the public meetings of the predecessor to the Communist Party USA, and he joined the Young Communist League (YCL). The visible presence of the left and his developing sentiment that “I didn’t think it was right for some people to be poor and some people to be so damn rich” shaped his consciousness and political life. As the YCL expanded its organizational commitments to the struggle against racism, that became a focus of March’s attention, including working on anti-lynching campaigns, and campaigns to free African American males wrongly accused of rape, the most famous of which was the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” trial and conviction in Alabama. In the late 1920s, March was sent as an organizer for the YCL to Kansas City. He organized rallies and marches of the unemployed, suffered police beatings and jail, and organized a large unemployed movement. Reflecting on the YCL and organizing campaigns, March later reported (in Harry Targ’s Diary of a Heartland Radical, 2011) that “In many respects, you have a narrow, sectarian organization, and a lot of theoretical discussion operating in an atmosphere in which, in the United States, there was considerable unrest, exploitation, unemployment. And even as sectarian as they were, people were just looking for some way out to do anything.” While the Communist Party supported organizing efforts, it was the Young Communist League, locally grounded, that took the lead in shop floor mobilizations at Armour and Swift meatpacking plants. In 1933, Herbert and Jane March moved to Chicago, and became major organizers of the incipient Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC) which would become the United Packinghouse Workers Union (CIO) in 1943. The combination of massive stockyards on Chicago’s south side, the history of class struggle in “the yards” in 1904 and 1921 strikes, the newly passed National Recovery Act that authorized trade unions, the presence of unemployed councils and branches of the CP and YCL in the neighborhoods, provided a context for the massive organizing in Chicago over the next decade. Jane March, a YCL member, worked with the University of Chicago settlement House, not too far from the stockyards; Vicky Starr, a young organizer featured in the powerful 1977 documentary film, Union Maids, networked with radical students from the University of Chicago. March identified racism, which went back to the failed organizing efforts earlier in the century in the stock yards, as the primary hurdle to union organizing:
People were very afraid. Very much for unionism. Fearful that it would not be possible to achieve unionism because you had the split of black and white and too many nationalities…There was all this fear that they would play one nationality against the other…The idea that there should be a union was generally acceptable, but people were afraid. And the whole job was breaking down the fear.
In fact, the history of the struggle for unionization in Chicago’s stockyards following World War I had involved desperate effort by union leaders to create an integrated movement overcome the justified suspicions African Americans bore towards their white counterparts. After the failed strike in 1921, and throughout the 1920s, meatpacking companies sought to maintain the rifts between black and white workers. Overcoming this long history was central to building the PWOC. March played a leading role from 1933 until the end of World War II in building the PWOC and finally the UPWA. He organized huge rallies in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1937, recruited workers into the CIO and CPUSA, and engaged in efforts to remove CIO-imposed leaders who had little connection to meatpacking. Some of these leaders, according to March and others, were more interested in stabilizing the union, reducing conflicts with the four main meat packers, and eliminating Communist influence in the union, than in expanding grassroots trade-union militancy. While March avoided engaging in the 1930s Communist Party internal disputes between William Z. Foster and Earl Browder, his public declaration that he was a member of the CPUSA contradicted party policy. Yet many workers joined the CP, he said, because he had demonstrated his effective trade union leadership. “Most of my time was spent on union work.... Just by functioning and playing a role as an effective leader and organizer, why, I was able to attract people into the party.” After World War II, he and his comrade Jesse Prosten played a leading role in the selection of staff attorney Ralph Helstein as president of the new UPWA. Helstein represented the union’s “left-center coalition” against insurgent campaigns by the CIO Caucus to de-radicalize the union. He served as UPWA president from 1946 until 1968 when the union folded into the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. March characterized UPWA union politics during the Cold War as, for the most part, progressive: fighting rising anti-communism in the labor movement, insisting that all UPWA locals and the international itself take the lead in fighting racism, and opposing escalating Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union. (The Packinghouse Worker, in an April, 1953 special issue of the paper, declared its opposition to the United States’ Korean War policy.) However, March says, with increasing anti-communist attacks on the union from both outside and inside the labor movement, with growing demands from black workers for more leadership positions in the union, and with continuing tensions between him and the national leadership of the CP, he left the union and the party in the mid-1950s. Defending the early tradition of shop-floor militancy and spontaneous work stoppages, March critiqued the evolution of the U.S. labor movement, including the UPWA, after the great organizing CIO organizing drives of the 1930s: “When people develop the concept that what they do is have an organization that pays dues and is respectable, and that is the objective of the union, it’s business unionism. Unionism is a business. It’s no longer a labor movement.” “All things considered,” he said, the UPWA “was the closest thing to a decent union around in the CIO. It didn’t develop, as far as the national leadership is concerned, the same sort of bureaucracy that existed in steel and other unions.” However, he added, “it grew more and more timid and hesitant.” Perhaps, he suggested, the merger of the CIO with the AFL had a lot to do with the diminution of the old labor militancy. During the 1950s, the CP waged struggles for African American equality and against white chauvinism, in the ranks for the Party and trade unions and other progressive organizations. However, often, those charged with white chauvinism were more victims of intra-Party feuds and factionalism of this period. March fell prey to such charges of white chauvinism in the 1950s. Still, he praised the UPWA for fighting against racism in the industry and society. “We initiated the union,” he said, “and developed the union, and carried it through as a union of black and white workers from the inception.... it was just an integral part of the union and its thinking from the word go.” March concluded a 1986 interview with these words: “I’m still convinced that what this world needs is socialism in some form.... What’s going to happen is that the whole burden of a declining economy in this country is going to be placed on, to the degree that it can be managed, on the shoulders of working people in this country…A new re-awakening of the labor movement is going to have to take place.” JAY SCHAFFNER: CONNECTING GENERATIONS OF SOCIALISTS Jay Schaffner was born in Chicago in 1952, as the Old Left was being destroyed by domestic repression, and the mania of the Cold War against a demonized Soviet Union was escalating. He grew up in Skokie in an era when a New Left of young people emerged to challenge the military-industrial complex, the growing danger of nuclear war, Jim Crow racism in the South and institutionalized racism everywhere, and an escalating new war in Southeast Asia, and to demand greater influence over the institutions that shaped their lives. Schaffner became a militant activist in high school, participating in a citywide chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, mobilizing youth forces against the war in Vietnam, and connecting with younger members of the Communist Party USA. In the 1960s he participated in Dubois Club activities and helped found the Young Workers Liberation League (YWLL) in 1970, organizing for them through the rest of the decade in Chicago, downstate Illinois, Iowa, and later nationally. His anti-war work earned him an invitation to North Vietnam as part of a youth 1970. He was the youngest representative from the United States peace movement to visit that war-torn country. Active in peace and justice, civil rights, and worker movements, Schaffner was an active member, often in leadership roles, in the CPUSA for twenty-three years. When he left the CP in 1991, he became a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), a socialist organization envisioned to include “socialist-minded” activists and intellectuals from various political traditions. He became an organizer, then a negotiator of national recording contracts and administrator for the Musicians Union in New York City. He was elected to the local’s executive bard and served as a member of numerous negotiating committees. Before retiring from that post, he became a founder and moderator of Portside, an online news source for information on the left, which now has some 30,000 subscribers and online readers. While his organization venues and the issues have changed, Schaffner continues a lifetime of activism on the left. In a recent presentation at Lafayette College, he reflected on what influenced the direction of his political vision of socialism and his politics, including his activism on peace, labor, and anti-racism issues. “My political view of the world is a product of two generations — the 1960s, and that of my parents, immigrants to the United States who were radicalized in the 1920s and 1930s.” In his discussion of the ’60s, when he came of age politically, Schaffner challenged the stereotype of the era as driven by “sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” The 1960s that shaped his consciousness and lifetime commitments included successful struggle by African Americans to defeat Jim Crow segregation; rising youth anger at the draft and the burgeoning anti-war movement; outrage at the possibility of nuclear war; the dramatic worldwide decolonization of countries in Asia and Africa; and curiosity about a socialist world demonized in the Western press.
My generation was shaped by these events — African Americans being brutalized and murdered by white sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan; daily images of caskets coming back from Vietnam, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; the vicious attacks on the Black freedom movement, and in Chicago, the brutal police murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark; the attack against and murder of peaceful student demonstrators at Kent State and Jackson State, and a few years later the CIA’s toppling of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. These events, and their coverage, helped shape the consciousness of the generation of the 60s and 70s.
Schaffner’s parents escaped anti-Semitic persecution in the Ukraine and came to Chicago, where his mother was a clerical worker and his father worked as a milkman for different dairies and helped organize and build the Milk Drivers Union (Local 753 of the Teamsters). Schaffner’s father worked with Jack Spiegel and another CPUSA activist Claude Ligthfoot to bring milk and groceries collected from grocers to the Unemployment Councils. Working for a pro-Nazi dairy owner in the late 1930s, the senior Schaffner opposed anti-Semitism and was fired and blacklisted from other dairies. As young people, Schaffner’s parents became part of the maelstrom of communist and socialist politics in the 1920s and 1930s (Schaffner’s mother got lost traveling to the Southside of Chicago for the big Memorial Day strike at Republic Steel in 1937, when Chicago police brutally attacked striking steel workers, killing several. She was spared by being late). During the dark days of the 1950s, the Schaffner family was hounded by FBI agents, who successfully pressured employers to fire Jay’s mother. Although they left the CP during this time, they remained committed to its politics. The Schaffner family, two parents and two sons, continued to discuss the issues of the day. In addition, the sons attended a progressive Jewish Sunday School. As his narrative suggests, Schaffner remains committed to the struggle for socialism. He pointed out that organizing for socialism is an historical project with gains and losses, errors and acts of brilliance. In the end, he still believes, history will move in a direction that will improve the condition of peoples’ lives.
I think that radical consciousness will grow and develop, and as part of that there will also be a growth in a new socialist movement. In 1848 when Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, there were no large socialist movement, no socialist countries, and no communist parties. In the early part of this century, socialists were elected to city and state office across the country, and to Congress; Eugene Debs received six percent of all votes cast for president. This was when there were no socialist countries, no communist parties. So again I think that a new Left movement will come into existence. It will be based in part on the vast Occupy sentiment; it will work on different levels, in different forms in community after community. Out of this new new left will also come a new socialist movement. I am not sure what it will be called, what it will look like, but I know that I will be a part of it.
THE FOUR ACTIVISTS profiled here were all Jewish. Three of the four were communists. All of them, not coincidentally, spent most of their lives in Chicago — which was the hub of industrial America in its years of development, and particularly a key center of the U.S. economy, from manufacturing to finance, with a complicated working-class politics that includes elements of racism that are typical of the nation as a whole. By the 1880s, Chicago was a key economic hub of America, linking east to west and heavily involved with industrial technology, agricultural production, mass-manufacturing, and early financial capital. Chicago’s status as “the hog butcher of the world,” as well as its involvement with steel, automobile, electronics, textiles, and farm equipment, made it a center of worker migration from all across the globe. Chicago also became a pivot of political protest against the modern industrial capitalist system. The Haymarket Affair (1886) generated worldwide attention among workers when eight anarchists who participated in mass marches to secure the eight-hour day were falsely convicted and sentenced to death for the bombing death of a policeman. The frame-up set off a worldwide movement of socialists and anarchists to fight back and/or overthrow the capitalist system. In 1905, the first meeting of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) was held in Chicago. For a time during the 1920s, the CPUSA had its headquarters in Chicago. Communists, socialists, anarchists, “bohemian” counter-culturalists, and political and cultural movements in the African-American community all had a physical presence in Chicago. In the 1960s, Chicago was a significant venue for from the Black Panther Party, SDS, and the anti-war movement. From the 1880s to the 1920s, the Jewish population of Chicago increased from 10,000 to 225,000 (from 2 to 8 percent of the population). By 2000, the Jewish population was 270,000, over 70 percent living in suburbs. During the heyday of Communist Party organizing, mobilization for industrial unionization, and the efforts of Unemployment Councils to save families from evictions, Jews were the second largest minority in the city and hugely overrepresented in the CPUSA. Randi Storch reports that in 1931 in Chicago, 16 percent of its population was Jewish and, at the same time, 22 percent of the party’s membership was Jewish. 1890: New York City’s mostly Jewish knee-pants workers go on a general strike, forcing their bosses to sign union contracts for the first time. 1892: A Jewish anarchist attempts to assassinate one of America’s leading industrialists. 1916: eight hundred workers assemble in a Philadelphia hall to hear a Yiddish lecture on “Revolutionary Motifs in World Literature.” 1919: An up-and-coming Jewish labor lawyer is elected to the New York State Assembly on the Socialist Party ticket, only to be expelled, along with four other Socialists, a year later. 1929: A Los Angeles judge sentences five women to San Quentin for flying the Soviet flag at a summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains. 1947: The Communist Party USA calls for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. These disparate events provide glimpses into the long, complicated involvement of Jews in American socialism, a history in which class conflict, political repression, revolutionary fervor, and universalistic visions of humanity collided into and intermixed with faith in American democracy, striving for economic success, and commitment to Jewish group solidarity. Along the way, Jews redefined who they were, as both individuals and a community, as they joined with like-minded people of all backgrounds to remake American society. Tony Michels introduced his collection of essays by Jewish radicals linking class, ethnicity, ideology, and praxis making several points. First, Jewish socialism emerges in the Jewish labor movement of the 1880s with workers bringing to their organizing a variety of political variants of socialist and anarchist thought. Jewish workers organized labor circles, cultural associations and a variety of community help organizations. Thousands of Jewish immigrants gravitated toward the Socialist Party in the early twentieth century, supporting the presidential candidacy of Eugene V. Debs during his four failed campaigns for president. In addition, Jewish workers played key roles in organizing twentieth century trade unions, particularly in the garment and textile industries. Further, Michels argues that Jewish workers were radicalized more by their class rather than their ethnic status. In addition, they were likely to embrace visions of worker solidarity with workers worldwide. After World War I, Jews were overrepresented in the ranks of the Communist Party USA compared with other ethnic minorities. Freiheit, the Jewish Communist newspaper in the 1920s had 20,000 subscribers. Jewish Communists also built a network of summer camps, cultural societies, and a housing cooperative during that decade as well. Michels claims that socialism and communism had broad appeal among American born Jews as well. While many second generation Jews did not come from sweatshops and in many cases attended the university, experiences of their parents, the Great Depression and the rise of anti-Semitism of the 1930s stimulated a disproportionately large number of their generation to embrace the left politically. For Jews, socialism was in the culture, the community, and among friends and neighbors. Conclusion The four narratives presented above and the survey of history and theory that followed point to the centrality of class as an explanation of the political practice of Jewish Americans. Experiencing the twentieth century shop floor predisposed Jews to seek the right to form unions, to secure better wages and working conditions, and to envision a new world where bosses did not determine the destiny of work. The first generation of Jewish radicals fled to the United States to avoid anti-Semitism and they came and planted roots as communities. They brought with them the old world sensibility about community. They also adopted a socialism learned from earlier immigrants, and transmitted from overseas movements, particularly the Russian Revolution. And finally they found political homes in the newly organized trade union movement, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. And, for Hannah Shapiro, Jack Spiegel, Herb March, and Jay Schaffner the political economy of Chicago provided the fertile soil in which to grow politically and intellectually. A big issue that helped shape the Jewish-social consciousness in this country was their experience as victims of anti-Semitism across the many countries from which they emigrated. Other national groups fled economic conditions and political repression, mainly coming from one country. Jews fled from that, as well as from anti-Semitism. The consciousness of being victims of anti-Semitism, a form of racial hatred, we believe led wide swaths of the Jewish community to identify with the humanism of their Jewish roots. Once in this country, again faced with anti-Semitism, Jews were able to identify with and support the cause of African Americans, victims of vicious racism, rooted in slavery. Now not all Jews, but the Jewish community as a community was receptive to the cause of the fight against national and racial oppression of other peoples. Now link that with the ideology of socialism and communism (even anarchism) and once in this country, the reality that only through solidarity and unity could both economic oppression and anti-Semitism be overcome. That, they learned, required a fight also against racism and all forms of inequality and national oppression. This was a major, if not the dominant current in the Jewish community of the 1930s, rooted with their class position as workers. The notion of two oppressed peoples linking their futures together resonated within the Jewish community of the 20s and 30s (especially so after the intensive ideological campaign of the Communist Party, spurred on by the Communist International and Lenin’s thinking on linking of the class struggles of workers with that of the struggles of oppressed peoples against a common oppressor. The slogan of Negro-Jewish unity resonated from the time of the unemployed and Scottsboro and into the Civil Rights movement. It is no accident that amongst those who gave their lives for the cause of African American equality were the young Jews Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — both of whom were off-spring of the radical, left, socialist and communist movements of New York City. This was a dominant current in the Jewish community in this country until the founding of the state of Israel. Beginning in 1948, but especially after 1967, loyalty to Israel then became the prime issue. It is interesting that under the influence of Lenin and later Stalin, support and solidarity with the Soviet Union as the first workers state took priority over issues of one’s own class and people. The Soviet Union had to be supported no matter what. Today the dominant current in the Jewish community may be support of Israel, even if it is against one’s own interests. War with Iran is not in the interest of the American people, or of Jews in this country, yet the dominant Jewish leadership and their politicians are supporting the call of the most reactionaries in Israel. Harry Targ is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Purdue University. Jay Schaffner is one of the moderators of Portside and was previously recording contracts supervisor and member of the executive board of Local 802, American Federation of Musicians.