Jewish Workers and Trade Unions
Needling capitalism in America.
This article is reprinted from A History of the Jews in America written by Howard Sachar and published by Knopf.
East European Jews arrived in the United States at the very apogee of unrestrained American capitalism. Early working‑class efforts to unionize, to strike, almost invariably failed. Among East European Jews, these initial unionizing ventures proved even more difficult than for other laborers. Most Jews worked in sweatshops, in tenement quarters that were too small to foster a collective, unionist outlook.
As early as 1885, garment workers participated in a brief, spontaneous walkout of some ten thousand cloak and skirt makers. Once they achieved a few minor concessions, however, they drifted away, allowing their union to die, and the improvements gradually were rescinded. Other occasional local strikes flickered out in ensuing years.
Jewish workers appeared "unorganizable," lamented Morris Hillquit [union organizer and intellectual leader of the American Socialist Party] some years later. They were "dull, apathetic, unintelligent." In 1888, at the initiative of Bernard Weinstein, a nineteen‑year‑old shirtmaker and a recent Bundist activist in Russia, Hillquit and several other Lower East Side Jews founded the United Hebrew Trades.
In current terminology, the organization's purpose was one of "consciousness‑raising," simply of fostering union organization within the garment industry and other "Jewish" trades. And indeed, by 1890, the little group managed to establish some twenty‑two unions, including a typographers union, a shirtmakers union, a knee‑pants‑makers union, a cloak‑makers union, a cap‑makers union, a bakers union, even a Yiddish actors union.
Their early idealism doubtless was intense, even messianic, but it was still essentially unfocused. In 1880, the United Hebrew Trades enthusiastically accepted founder and leader of the New York-based Labor Socialist Labor Party Daniel De Leon's request for union participation in a May Day parade. Ostensibly a demonstration for the eight-hour workday, the event signified much more to the nine thousand marching Jews.
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