Jewish Workers and Trade Unions

Needling capitalism in America.

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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a few minor conces­sions, however, they drifted away, allowing their union to die, and the improvements gradually were rescinded.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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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.