Discusses the role of Jewish workers in early unions in the U.S.
|As many states begin to look at the cutting away of public union benefits in response to growing budget deficits, I was reminded of the role of the Jewish worker in the establishment of some of the earliest trade unions in the United States. During the time period of 1880 thru 1919, almost 2 million Jewish immigrants arrived in America and quickly became the labor backbone of the garment industry. Jewish immigrants continued in this role through the depression years, fading out of this industry after World War II as the children of these immigrants became more educated and moved into other career fields.
Most of the Jewish immigrants worked in sweatshop like conditions for 12-16 hours a day within the same tenements they lived in. These workers had to supply their own equipment on top of the lousy work conditions and long hours they suffered through. The conditions and squalor that the early Jewish workers were forced to endure eventually lead to the call to organize.
Early efforts to organize only resulted in short term walkouts that led to very minimal changes in the working environment. Union organizer and leader of the American Socialist Party Morris Hillquit observed the Jewish worker as “unorganizable, dull, apathetic, and unintelligent.” The Jewish workers were soon to prove his statement false.
In 1888, thanks in part to the efforts of a 19 year old shirt maker named Bernard Weinstein, Hillquit formed the United Hebrew Trades. By 1890, this group was able to setup no less than 22 unions, including a Yiddish actors union, despite their intense yet unfocused idealism.
The United Hebrew Trades made arguably their first public group appearance in 1890 when it accepted the request of Labor Socialist Labor Party Daniel De Leon’s invitation to participate in that year’s May Day parade, which was meant as a demonstration for an eight hour workday. Around 9,000 Jewish workers marched in this parade in the rain to Union Square in Manhattan. Unfortunately for the Jewish workers, De Leon’s group would soon fold.
Shortly after De Leon’s group folded, the United Hebrew Trades would find itself at the mercy of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), lead by Samuel Gompers, which he had negotiated for and became president of in 1886. The troubling thing for Jewish workers was the opinion Gompers held about the typical Jewish worker; he thought of them to be lazy and indignant. Although this was a setback to the Jewish garment workers, this setback would be short lived as an unexpected group would emerge as a major player on the labor scene.
Joseph Barondess successfully organized the cloak makers in 1890, which at the time was the largest sector of the garment industry. Barondess wasted little time in organizing a strike of the cloak makers that lasted eight weeks. The strike took a toll on the striking workers, as they endured police beatings and hunger. In the end the cloak makers were successful, gaining concessions from management in the form of reduced hours and work.
The dawn of the 20th century brought with it many economic and technological gains throughout the garment industry, which saw the sunset on the sweatshop model and saw the rise of the factory model. The rise of the factory played a key role in the rise of the union worker. Workers were now able to work side by side, and could more readily share complaints, ideas, and thoughts among themselves. This was not possible under the sweatshop model in which most workers completed their work in the relative isolation of the tenements.
Within the women’s garment industry, which had become the 3rd largest goods industry in the U.S., an increasing number of Jewish workers started or joined unions. These unions would often time act independently of each other, until the AFL convinced the independent unions to come together under one organization, called the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, in 1900. The ILGWU quickly became the most outspoken and radical part of the AFL, and had grown to a size of nearly 20,000 members by 1909. It was in this year that the ILGWU made history.
In 1909, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, an uprising of the ILGWU began and would last two months. Shock was expressed by multiple groups around the country that a group of women, Jewish women, could organize and hold on to their ideals so steadfastly. The ILGWU had set out to put an end to long days, low wages, and other discriminatory methods used by management to curtail and control the lives of these women.
The leader of the strike, Clara Lemlich, was not scheduled to speak to the AFL in the Great Hall at New York’s Cooper Union, but what she said sparked the strike. Although she concluded her speech in Yiddish, the other workers in attendance that day understood what she had said; “I offer that a general strike be declared now”. Samuel Gompers would comment afterwards that the strike “brought to the consciousness of the nation a recognition of certain features looming up on its social development.”
Unfortunately, little was gained by this uprising at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company where tragedy struck on March 25, 1911. A fire broke out and claimed 146 lives, most of which were Jewish women. The victims became symbols for what was wrong with labor conditions in America, and eventually led to better fire and safety regulations in the State of New York.
The after affects of the strike and tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company would prove to be empowering to not just to garment unions but unions all over the country. The ILGWU wanted to be a union to protect the needs of its workers, as well as their development and role in shaping society. Their work would lead to educational gains for Jewish and non-Jewish members of unions everywhere, as in 1920 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that the ILGWU established “the first systematic scheme of education undertaken by organized [labor] in the United States.”
The Jewish immigrants that were part of the garment industry near the turn of the 20th century played a pivotal role in labor equality and organization. Many of the discussions we have today about organized labor, as well as the benefits and working conditions we have all become accustomed to are a direct result of the Jewish workers near the turn of the 20th century.
“A History of the Jews in America”; by Howard Sachar
“Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and Their Union”; by Alice Kessler-Harris