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November 20: Rose Pesotta, Champion Organizer

Lawrence Bush
November 20, 2016
Rose Pesotta (Rakhel Peisoty), union organizer, anarchist, and the first female vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was born in the Ukraine on this date in 1896. Pesotta emigrated to the U.S. in 1913 to avoid an arranged marriage and worked in a shirtwaist factory. She joined ILGWU Local 25 and led it in a 1914 strike. Writing at the Jewish Women’s Archive, Ann Schofield describes Pesotta as “a charismatic personality, [with] boundless energy, and a unique ability to empathize with the downtrodden to the organizing field. . . . Between 1934 and 1944 . . . Pesotta was one of the most successful organizers in the United States. She carried the union message to workers in Puerto Rico, Detroit, Montreal, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles. On loan from the ILGWU to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), she joined the great labor upheavals of the 1930s in Akron, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan. In 1944, Pesotta refused a fourth term on the CIO General Executive Board, with a brief critical statement that ‘one woman vice president could not adequately represent the women who now make up 85 percent of the International’s membership of 305,000.’ ” Pesotta also worked briefly for the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah. “For Pesotta, anarchism was inextricably enmeshed with Jewish culture and communities. . . . It seems ironic that her second memoir casts Judaism in a central role after a lifetime spent in secular activism and outside of the family roles critical to Jewish practice. Closer scrutiny reveals the congruence between Pesotta’s idealized past and her American life. In her books, her need to understand ‘external power relationships’ as a Jew in tsarist Russia meshed neatly with the Jewish labor union in tension with American culture.” --Ann Schofield

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.