All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists. Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism.
This is a study of a group of visionary activist women members of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and their campaign to build a union based on principles of social, racial and ethnic equality. Katz traces the roots of their commitment to the legacy of the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party and, specifically, to the Jewish brand of cultural nationalism as advocated by the Bund. These ideologies, which linked socialist visions with distinct national culture and identity, inspired Jewish men and women who subsequently immigrated to the U.S. after the failed Russian revolution of 1905. In the U.S., the immigrant activists adopted a principled support for racial and ethnic equality and struggled for the establishment of democratic labor organizations.
The women who found employment in the garment industry soon stood out as passionate proponents of educational activism, aspiring to inculcate the principles and the practice of ethnic and racial identity as an essential building block in the struggle for social justice. However, the male ILGWU leadership, which aspired to construct a cohesive union and maintain control over its locals, doubted the efficacy of the ethnic, language-based, independent, militant rank-and-file of the locals. This view was demonstrated in one case when, following a strike in 1913, the leadership signed a much criticized agreement with manufacturers without approval by the membership. As a result, Italian women protested in their thousands and demanded a separate local. When this demand was denied, over a thousand workers left the ILGWU and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known for its acceptance and support of cultural diversity as well as for its militancy. As Katz points out, it was only in 1919, following the failure of the industrial agreement known as the Protocol of Peace, that the ILGWU granted a charter to the Italian Dressmakers' Local. Thus, Jewish women organizers aspiring for a democratic union built on diversity and inclusivity were bound to come into conflict with the cautious male leaders.
Nevertheless, in 1918 the ILGWU leadership appointed Fannia Cohn, one of the organizers steeped in the principles of socialism and ethnic equality, as executive secretary in charge of education. Active in educational projects since 1913, Cohn believed that only fully integrated educational programs and social activities would bring about the sustained comradeship of a multiethnic union. Following her appointment, Cohn, with the support of some like-minded men in leading positions, launched union-wide educational as well as recreational activities, including courses on a variety of subjects ranging from union organizing to political science and also programs with a view to promoting women's leadership.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, years of declining membership, Cohn continued her efforts to build a democratic union from her base in the shirtwaist makers' local. Multiethnic and multiracial organizing were her priorities, as was political education and a program of social activities for members and their families. Despite the fierce rivalry between communists and socialists, though they all advocated democratic multiculturalism, and despite ILGWU leadership's attempts to curb the militancy of locals whose rank-and-file were linked to communism, multicultural education continued to flourish thanks to the relative autonomy at the local level.
The trend of steady decline in membership in the late 1920s was reversed following the strike of 60,000 dressmakers in 1933, which resulted in a remarkable influx of new members. Energized by this outcome, Cohn's educational campaign was adopted by dressmakers' Local 22 under the leadership of Will Herberg and Sasha Zimmerman, who brought to the project wide-ranging experience of left-wing schools and organizing. A believer in the role of an ongoing educational effort, Herberg set up eight new educational centers in various neighborhoods with the purpose of cementing the union loyalty of newly-recruited African American and Spanish-speaking members. Soon classes and lectures, some with emphasis on the history of minorities, as well as multiracial and multiethnic social activities such as highly popular dances, festivals, and athletic activities, many designed by members themselves, became hallmarks of the union. Moreover, black and Puerto Rican women were promoted to committees and leadership roles. The social and cultural activities of mixed racial and ethnic groups created bonds of solidarity, as affirmed on one occasion when thousands of delegates walked out of a hotel which refused to accommodate black members during the Chicago ILGWU convention in 1934.
The dramatic revival of the union and the growing ethnic and racial diversity of its membership during the 1930s set the union's male-dominated hierarchical structure on a collision course with the women's education project and shop-floor militancy. According to Katz, labor legislation of the New Deal and the union's vastly increased membership prompted ILGWU president David Dubinsky to press for an increasingly centralized structure designed to consolidate his power and to secure the union's alliances with the capitalist state. Top-down control of union affairs resulted in the demotion or elimination of the instigators of the rank-and-file radicalism and substituted men in place of women activists in charge of educational programs. Thus, 1937-1940 signaled the end of a vision of a union built upon full citizenship rights for all its members regardless of ethnicity, race, or gender. As war and patriotism further muted dissent and militancy, the balance was tipped decidedly in favor of loyalty and Americanism and away from grass-roots, cross-ethnic multiculturalism.
After WWII the changing ethnic composition of ILGWU further accentuated the chasm between the membership and the union's leadership. Despite the increasing numbers of Puerto Rican workers, African American, Jewish and Italian leadership refused to grant requests for Spanish-speaking locals and continued to dominate the union hierarchy. Daniel Katz's scholarly account deserves full credit for his portrayal of a different historic moment when women played a crucial role in the space allotted to them by forging a community that crossed racial and ethnic boundaries while also empowering themselves in struggles against oppression.
Stern College, Yeshiva University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Jews in America: From New Amsterdam to the Yiddish Stage.|
|Next Article:||Hadassah: American Women Zionists and the Rebirth of Israel.|