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The Jewish Unions in America

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Bernard Weinstein

Introduction

Maurice Wolfthal

Texte intégral

1Newly arrived in New York in 1882 at age sixteen from Odessa, where he had survived the 1881 pogrom, Bernard Weinstein was first exposed to the realities of American labor while quartered at Castle Garden with hundreds of other poor, homeless immigrants. An elegantly-dressed gentleman showed up one day and offered jobs to as many men as would come, and many of them eagerly signed up. To his dismay, Weinstein soon learned that they had been hired to break a strike by New York’s longshoremen.

  • 1 Hebrew: The Eternal People.

2Weinstein had already been exposed to democratic ideas and revolutionary ferment in Tsarist Russia before he traveled to America with a group from Am olam,1 which organized groups of Russian Jews to emigrate with the aim of founding Socialist agricultural communities. But he found work in a cigar factory on the Lower East Side and a place to live in the slums. Two of his fellow workers were Samuel Gompers, a Vice-President of the Cigar Makers’ International Union, and Abraham Cahan, an ardent member of the Socialist Labor Party.

3Unionism, socialism, and anarchism were very much in the air, and there had been labor strikes across America. In the 1850s makers of cloaks and flannels struck in Amesbury and Salisbury, MA, as did machine shop workers in Lowell. Shoemakers went on strike in Lynn, MA, in 1860. In 1865 miners walked out at the Marquette Iron Range in Michigan. In the 1860s bricklayers and shipyard workers stopped work in New York City. When shoemakers in North Adams, MA, struck in 1870 they were all fired, and Chinese immigrants were brought in to work eleven hours a day for 90 cents. In the 1870s lumber mill workers struck in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In 1875 coal strikes swept Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and armed troops were called to break the unions. Railroad workers across the nation struck in 1877 when their wages were cut, and armed militias were sent to break the strikes. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers fought a bitter strike against the Bessemer Steel Works in Pennsylvania in early 1882, a few months before Weinstein landed in New York.

  • 2 German: United German Trades.

4The Knights of Labor, the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, and its successor, the American Federation of Labor, had all struggled to forge a variety of unions into larger, more effective organizations. The Socialist Labor Party had been founded five years before Weinstein’s arrival. Union workers among German immigrants in New York who had come in previous decades — many of them Socialists — had built the Vereinigte Deutsche Gewerkschaften.2 And the same year that Weinstein immigrated, fourteen unions founded the heavily Socialist Central Labor Union of New York.

  • 3 “Sisters and brothers! Let us organize!”.

5Abraham Cahan, a Socialist from Lithuania, was a few years older than Weinstein, and he greatly influenced him. Both had immigrated the same year, both spoke Russian and Yiddish, and they shared a secular Jewish cultural outlook. They decided to use Yiddish rather than Russian to educate Jewish workers. In August that year Weinstein wrote handbills announcing a meeting about Socialism to be held in Yiddish, which exhorted workers, “Shvester un brider! Lomir zikh organiziren!3 He distributed them all over the East Side; that slogan was to be his signature motto at innumerable labor meetings and demonstrations. When Cahan gave that first speech on Socialism in America in Yiddish, the audience was electrified.

  • 4 The fire on March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed 146 garment workers, (...)

6Weinstein changed jobs several times and got married. But he never gave up the grinding, frustrating work of organizing unions and promoting Socialism. The obstacles were many. Most of the “green” immigrants on the East Side were unsophisticated and apolitical. They had to be convinced that unions could help them alleviate their poverty and misery. For almost fifty years Weinstein led countless strikes; walked the picket line; rallied strikers with his speeches; investigated sweatshops and factories; enlisted the aid of reformers; and repeatedly testified at government hearings on working conditions, including the New York State commission that followed the horrendous Triangle Fire.4

  • 5 Russian: Russian Workers’ Union.
  • 6 Yiddish: Russian-Jewish Workers’ Association.
  • 7 Yiddish: Jewish Workers’ Association.
  • 8 Yiddish: The New Times.

7He spoke for the Socialist Labor Party and wrote pamphlets. He was a founder of the Russki rabotchi soyuz5 in 1884, its successors the Rusishyidish arbeter ferayn6 in 1885 (and volunteered to be its librarian), and the Yidisher arbeter ferayn.7 He worked on the Ferayn’s campaign to elect Henry George mayor of New York. He organized the Yiddish-speaking Branch 8 of the Socialist Labor Party, and wrote for Di naye tsayt.8 In 1888 he ran for the New York State Assembly on the Socialist Labor Party slate.

  • 9 Yiddish: United Hebrew Trades.

8Morris Hillquit immigrated from Riga in 1884 and soon joined the SLP. Weinstein and Hillquit shared a vision of uniting all the Jewish unions under a single umbrella. Inspired and supported by the United German Trades, they founded the Fereynigte yidishe geverkshaftn9 in 1888, starting with the Jewish Typographical Union, the Jewish Choristers’Union, and the Jewish Actors’ Union. Weinstein devoted himself to the UHT, and was elected its first Secretary. Within four years almost fifty unions belonged to it. He was elected Secretary two more times, and by 1922 the UHT had organized 200,000 workers.

  • 10 Yiddish: Worker’s Newspaper.
  • 11 Yiddish: The Evening Page.

9Weinstein was keenly aware that the newspapers — in both their reporting and editorials — overwhelmingly reflected the interests of their owners and advertisers, not of the working class. In 1890 he helped organize the Arbeter tsaytung10 with the support of the UHT and the SLP. He sold the paper in the streets and peddled it house to house. He wrote for it and translated Russian articles into Yiddish. The paper was both a voice for Socialism and a showplace for Yiddish writers. Weinstein also wrote for Dos Abend-blat,11 an offshoot of the Arbeter tsaytung.

  • 12 Yiddish: Forward.
  • 13 Indeed Weinstein’s love of the theater prompted him to contribute an essay, ‘Di ershte yorn fun yi (...)

10Eventually, bitter dissension within the Socialist Labor Party led Weinstein and others to switch to the Social Democracy of America, which had been started by Eugene V. Debs in 1897. Those dissidents founded the Yiddish-language Forverts.12 The masthead proclaimed its name in Yiddish and English, as well as that of its namesake in German — Forwärts, the newspaper of Germany’s Social-Democrats. Weinstein was a member of its first executive board, and a contributor from its earliest years. In addition to pieces on labor issues, he wrote about Jewish folksingers in Odessa; Yiddish plays produced in Odessa and New York; and the Yiddish actors, choristers, and variety theaters in New York.13

  • 14 Yiddish: New York Yiddish People’s Newspaper.
  • 15 German: New York People’s Newspaper.
  • 16 Yiddish: Workers’ World.
  • 17 Yiddish: Spirit of the Times.
  • 18 Yiddish: Alarm.
  • 19 Yiddish: Jewish Socialist Association.

11He also wrote for the Niu-yorker yidishe folkstsaytung,14 which was modeled on the United German Trades’ New Yorker Volkszeitung.15 Along with many other Social-Democrats, Weinstein joined the new Socialist Party in 1901. He ran as a Socialist for Alderman in 1903 and for the New York State Senate in 1910. He wrote for the Arbeter velt16 in 1904; for Tsayt-gayst17 — a weekly journal published by the Forverts — in 1907; and repeatedly for Veker,18 the publication of the Yidisher sotsyalistishe farband.19The New York Times reported that Weinstein distributed food to the families of striking garment workers in 1913. The Bakers’ Union donated bread, and Weinstein helped push the wagon through the streets.

  • 20 German: German Trade Union.

12When Karl Legien of the Social Democratic Party in Germany — and the head of the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund20 — visited America in 1911 to lend moral support to labor unions, Weinstein was one of those chosen by the United Hebrew Trades to greet his ship in Hoboken. He did so, carrying the red flag of the UHT. But throughout his life, despite repeated provocations, Weinstein steadfastly refused to support those who would turn to violence to obtain results.

  • 21 Yiddish: Workmen’s Circle.

13Instead, Weinstein supported efforts by the Jewish unions to provide the communal support that the immigrants had enjoyed in Europe, especially those who no longer looked to synagogues for it or were dissatisfied with their hometown societies, the landsmanshaftn. He supported the construction of decent, affordable, nonprofit housing cooperatives for workers, and he was a founder of the Arbeter ring,21 which organized a free-loan association, health and unemployment insurance, cemetery benefits, Yiddish theater, musical groups, choruses, classes in Yiddish culture, and summer camps for children. He lived his final years in the Bronx in the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, whose construction he had championed.

  • 22 The History of the Labor Movement in America, Russia, and England (New York: Fareynigte yidishe gev (...)
  • 23 Forty Years in the Jewish Labor Movement (New York: Farlag Veker, 1924).
  • 24 The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories (New York: Fareynigte yidishe geverkshf (...)
  • 25 Sketches of Working-Class Jewish Life America (New York: Arbeter Ring, 1935).

14Weinstein collaborated with Hertz Burgin in writing Di Geshikhte fun der arbeter bavegung in Amerike, Rusland, un England.22 In 1924 he published Fertsig yor in der yidisher arbeter bavegung,23 followed by Di yidishe yunyons in Amerike: bleter geshikhte un erinerungen.24 He collaborated with Naftali Gross and the illustrator Kozlowski for his final book, Bilder fun yidishn arbeter-lebn in Amerike,25 which was aimed at younger readers and written for the Arbeter ring Education Department.

15Weinstein was fluent in English. But he chose to write The Jewish Unions in America and all his other books in Yiddish, which was still the vernacular language of most Jewish workers in New York, as well as that of about 11,000,000 people worldwide. Yiddish books, newspapers, scholarly journals, and political pamphlets proliferated in both Europe and America. There were Yiddish records, theaters, and radio shows, and there would soon be Yiddish talking pictures. As Weinstein’s subtitle indicates, The Jewish Unions in America is a mixture of history and memoir. He was not an historian, and he sometimes fails to cite his source when he quotes other people, history books, official reports, newspapers, and statistics. Furthermore he himself often cautions the reader that his memory is fallible. His book is the openly partisan work of a passionate idealist.

16At the same time Weinstein does not gloss over the weaknesses of the labor movement: the workers who abandoned their unions as soon as they won a strike; the heated debates over when to continue a strike and when to accept a contract; the difficult decision of unions to join — or quit — the Knights of Labor or the American Federation of Labor; the damage done by competing unions within the same trade; the clashes over whether to support the mainstream political parties; the conflicts with anarchists; the corruption scandals; the schisms within the Socialist Labor Party, followed by mass defections to the Social Democracy of America; and the internecine feud by the Communists in the 1920s that nearly destroyed the Socialist Party and the labor movement.

17But Weinstein emphasizes that underlying all these disappointments and setbacks was a free-market system that breeds exploitation and inequality and pits workers against workers, both here and across borders. By its nature capitalism drove owners to constantly recruit the poorest immigrants; to move their businesses to other cities, other states, other countries; to fire union workers; to brutalize strikers; and to wield political power to thwart minimum wage laws and safety regulations. In 1911 UHT workers helped organize the protest against the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that had caused the death of 146 garment workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women. In 2013 the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed 1,129 garment workers, most of them women. The Jewish Unions in America is both a testament to the struggles of Jewish workers a hundred years ago and a reminder that working people are still struggling today to live decent lives.

Bibliographie

Further Readings

‘B. Weinstein, Led Labor Movement’. The New York Times obituary, April 26, 1946, 21.

‘Distribute Relief to Needy Strikers. Line of Garment Workers in Want of Food Extends for Blocks in Division Street’. The New York Times, February 24, 1913, 7.

‘United Hebrew Trades Aids Miners’. The New York Times, July 12, 1922, 3.

Diner, Hasia R. Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

Dolber, Brian. Media and Culture in the US Jewish Labor Movement: Sweating for Democracy in the Interwar Era (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017).

Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in the USA: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement (New York: Ktav, 1969).

Foner, Philip Sheldon. History of the Labor Movement in the United States (New York: International Publishers, 1947–1981).

Frankel, Jonathan. Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews 1862–1917 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Goldberg, Gordon J. Meyer London: A Biography of the Socialist New York Congressman 1871–1926 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013).

Huyssen, David. Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890–1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2014).

Kagan, Berl, ed. Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literatur [Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature] (New York: CYCO, 1960), vol. 3, 389–93.

Katz, Daniel. All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

Kosak, Hadassa. Cultures of Opposition: Jewish Immigrant Workers, New York City 1881–1905 (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000).

Levin, Nora. While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements 1871–1917 (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1977).

Marrin, Albert. Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and its Legacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).

Mendelsohn, Ezra, ed. Essential Papers on Jews and the Left (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

Michels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Michels, Tony, ed. Jewish Radicals: A Documentary History (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

Parmet, Robert D. The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

Rischin, Moses, ed. Grandma Never Lived in America: The New Journalism of Abraham Cahan (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1985).

Sher, Z. B. Weinstein, eyner fun di grinder un boyer fun der yidisher arbeter bavegung [B. Weinstein, One of the Founders and Builders of the Jewish Labor Movement]. Forverts obituary, April 26, 1946.

Shulman, Elias and Simon Weber, ed. Leksikon fun forverts shrayber zint 1897 [Biographical Dictionary of Forverts Writers Since 1897] (New York: Forward Association, 1987).

Soyer, Daniel. A Coat of Many Colors: Immigration, Globalism, and Reform in the New York Garment Industry (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

Soyer, Daniel. Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880–1939 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Tcherikower, Elias. Trans. Aaron Antonovsky. The Early Jewish Labor Movement in the United States (New York: YIVO, 1961).

Zylbercwajg, Zalmen, with the assistance of Jacob Mestel, Leksikon fun yidishn teater [Dictionary of the Yiddish Theater] (New York: Ferlag Elisheva, 1931) vol. 1, 692–93.

Notes

1 Hebrew: The Eternal People.

2 German: United German Trades.

3 “Sisters and brothers! Let us organize!”.

4 The fire on March 25, 1911, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant women.

5 Russian: Russian Workers’ Union.

6 Yiddish: Russian-Jewish Workers’ Association.

7 Yiddish: Jewish Workers’ Association.

8 Yiddish: The New Times.

9 Yiddish: United Hebrew Trades.

10 Yiddish: Worker’s Newspaper.

11 Yiddish: The Evening Page.

12 Yiddish: Forward.

13 Indeed Weinstein’s love of the theater prompted him to contribute an essay, ‘Di ershte yorn fun yidishn teater in Odes un in New York’ [The First Years of Yiddish Theater in Odessa and New York], in J. (Yankev) Shatzky, ed. Arkhiv far der geshikhte fun yidishn teater un drame [Archive for the History of Yiddish Theater and Drama] (Vilna and New York: YIVO Esther-Rokhl Kaminsky Theater Museum, 1930), 243–54.

14 Yiddish: New York Yiddish People’s Newspaper.

15 German: New York People’s Newspaper.

16 Yiddish: Workers’ World.

17 Yiddish: Spirit of the Times.

18 Yiddish: Alarm.

19 Yiddish: Jewish Socialist Association.

20 German: German Trade Union.

21 Yiddish: Workmen’s Circle.

22 The History of the Labor Movement in America, Russia, and England (New York: Fareynigte yidishe geverkshaftn, 1915).

23 Forty Years in the Jewish Labor Movement (New York: Farlag Veker, 1924).

24 The Jewish Unions in America: Pages of History and Memories (New York: Fareynigte yidishe geverkshftn, 1929), https://ia600209.us.archive.org/6/items/nybc207405/nybc207405.pdf

25 Sketches of Working-Class Jewish Life America (New York: Arbeter Ring, 1935).

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