Daniel E. Bender, Sweated Work, Weak Bodies. Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Languages of Labor.
FOR MORE THAN a century, successive generations of authors have penned, typed, and word-processed innumerable works, in Yiddish and English, about the immigrant Jewish labour movement in the American garment industry. Daniel Bender's new book is the latest contribution to this voluminous historiography. Bender analyses "the United States's first anti-sweatshop campaign," (3) focusing on Jewish ladies' garment workers in New York City and the union they created, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union [ILGWU].
Different generations of historians have addressed the American Jewish labour movement from a myriad of theoretical and political perspectives. Bender employs the theoretical methodology of the linguistic turn, in its feminist variant. The anti-sweatshop campaigns of the 1990s shape his political perspective. Bender maintains that Jewish women forced their way into an inherently male-chauvinist anti-sweatshop campaign, which consequently collapsed under "the burden of language." (182) Bender's employment of the lens of gender enables valuable insights into the complex dynamics of garment unionism. But these insights, ironically, are warped by the burden of
Bender's linguistic methodology. Bender's most important contribution is to break--or at least to re-excavate--historical ground. He is virtually the first historian in generations to dare to tread the polemical minefield of the Communist-backed garment insurgency of the 1920s. This insurgency was a key episode in American labour, Jewish, and radical history. It was the missing link between the pre-1917 socialist Jewish labour movement and Jewish Great Depression radicalism, heavily influenced by the American Communist Party. Jewish "red diaper babies" were a dominant component of the New Left of the sixties. Many post-sixties historians, like Bender, themselves stem from a Jewish radical family background. Perhaps precisely because of this, they have tended to avoid this subject. The Socialist-Communist "Civil War" in the New York garment industry embodied everything America's New Left found distasteful about the Old Left.
As veterans of the sixties settled into academia, the 1909 "Uprising of the 20,000" New York shirtwaist makers, the first mass strike of women workers in American history, became a favourite topic in the field of women's history. But feminist labour historians also shied away from addressing the aftermath, again perhaps precisely because of its gendered aspect. A feminist interpretation of the "Civil War" might compel them to hail the Communists and denounce the Socialists.
Recent anti-sweatshop campaigns have facilitated a "return of the repressed." The sweatshop discourse of Progressive era America returned to the general social vocabulary during the Clinton administration. Immigrant garment unionism is no longer merely a lost nostalgic moment of American Jewish history. It is once again a contemporary concern. This inspired Bender to re-examine and re-analyse the often-told story of immigrant Jewish garment unionism.
According to Bender, the anti-sweatshop coalition that Jewish garment unionism embodied was created in a linguistic process. Its sweatshop discourse arose through a negotiated compromise between the race discourse of Anglo-Saxon policymakers and factory inspectors, and the class discourse of the immigrants themselves. The central trope of white middle-class sweatshop discourse in the 1890s was Jewish racial inferiority. Middle-class men feared that Jewish "comfort in filth" (37) would endanger the health of middle-class women buying clothing made by Jewish immigrants. The immigrants themselves explained the misery of the sweatshop in class terms. They saw their oppression as inscribed on their weakened Jewish bodies. This seemingly irreconcilable opposition was resolved through male Eastern European Jewish immigrants and Anglo-Saxon reformers discovering a common enemy--Jewish women in the workplace. A "calm, rational vocabulary of scientific reform," (78) centred on workshop sanitation and the elimination of gender disorder, replaced potentially explosive languages of class and race conflict.
The role of mediator was played by middle-class German Jews. They helped create a Progressive cross-class coalition. They also persuaded their Eastern European co-religionists that they too could enjoy American prosperity by driving women out of the workplace and becoming male breadwinners. They further persuaded their Aryan class brothers that Eastern European Jews could be profitably uplifted in the American racial hierarchy. Through Americanization, and in particular the imposition of American gender norms, the Jewish immigrant garment worker could be trained to accept the "manual work which falls his lot." (39) As Bender neglects to point out, German Jews played a major role in the garment industry in this period. They owned the large, modern garment factories suffering from competition from dirty, cramped East-European-owned sweatshops.
Jewish women garment workers did not passively accept exclusion from the workplace. Led by the middle- and upper-class white women of the Women's Trade Union League [WTUL], they crashed their way into this anti-sweatshop cross-class coalition through mass strike action. They accepted a temporary status in the workplace, ending with marriage, as the price of admission. But the strikes were "aimed as much at male workers and unionists as at employers." (101) The underlying issue of the strike was the sexual harassment of women to drive them out of the workplace, or at least to establish a male monopoly over high-paid "skilled" labour.
The success of the strikes created something new in the American labour movement--mass organizations of women workers. Neither the top union officers nor the upper-class female social reformers of the WTUL quite knew how to control them. But when women workers sought leadership roles in the union, they were blocked by their own acceptance of the sweatshop "language of labour," founded on gender distinction. They were compelled to adopt "contemporary languages of class, not gender, in particular, Communism." (103) But this new vocabulary undermined the cross-class foundations of the anti-sweatshop coalition, and merely ended up bringing male Communists briefly to power.
Bender's gendered re-casting of the history of Jewish garment unionism has logical elegance, and sheds flesh light on dark corners of American labour history. But he has to play a bit fast and loose with the facts to make his schema work. Firstly, his version has a major chronological defect. According to Bender, the foundation of the ILGWU in 1900 was the "culmination" of the male Jewish immigrant struggle for unionization. (11) The "Uprising of the 20,000" enabled Jewish women workers to force their way into the male-dominated anti-sweatshop coalition that the ILGWU embodied. Unfortunately for this schema, until 1909 the ILGWU was a feeble shell of an organization, perpetually on the brink of collapse. The "Uprising" preceded and inspired the 1910 "Great Revolt" of the male cloakmakers that transformed New York's garment industry and created the "anti-sweatshop coalition" Bender describes.
Secondly, Bender's focus on the role of sexual harassment in delimiting gender boundaries in the garment industry is powerful but misapplied. Bender views the idea of skill as a social construction. America's women's clothing industry is an ideal test case for this theory, because before the Jewish immigrant wave, it had been a female industry. But technological revolutions made craft skill much less important, and physical strength much more. This made it possible for men to seize control of well-paid jobs from women, as Wendy Gambler notes in The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930 (Urbana and Chicago 1997). Bender fails to recognize the key role played by physical strength because his analysis suffers under the "burden of language." According to the terms of sweatshop discourse, "sweated work" created "weak bodies." Therefore, "male garment workers could not rely on notions of muscular masculinity to claim dominance.... Instead, male Jewish workers grounded masculinity in sexual relations on the shop floor." (109)
Bender convincingly describes how sexual harassment was used to create a gender monopoly over "skilled jobs" in the cloak trade, just as in other industries physical violence was used to create ethnic job monopolies. But he overlooks the obvious fact that the "Uprising" took place in the shirtwaist trade, not the cloak trade. In shirtwaist only the new long cutter's knife, which Bender concedes required "little training but tremendous strength," (207 n. 47) was a male monopoly. Well-paid, skilled women workers led the organizing process, as evident in Susan Glenn, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labour in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca and London 1990).
Bender's evidence that rebellion against sexual harassment was an important component of the Uprising is an important part of the story. But his own narrative demonstrates that this rebellion was primarily directed at supervisors, not fellow male workers. (113-14) Women leaders either downplayed the issue of sexual harassment or cast it as something committed by foremen, not by class-conscious male union comrades. Bender ascribes this to the "burden of language." He fails to see it as a conscious tactical choice. For working women to defeat their primary enemy, the alliance between male bosses and male employees against women had to be broken down, not reinforced. Was direct confrontation with male workers really the best way to do this? Indeed, was not casting the issue as one of class consciousness and union solidarity the ideal way to do this?
Thirdly, according to Bender, the Uprising was directed by "elite and maternalist WTUL activists." (119) The core strike activists, including Clara Lemlich the leader, were indeed WTUL members. But they were also veterans of the Russian Jewish socialist underground, members of the New York Socialist Party, and officials of ILGWU Local 25. Their backgrounds are traced in Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965 (Chapel Hill & London 1995). Bender is once again blinded by "the burden of language." Since the WTUL controlled the strike's "discourse"--i.e., its PR--Bender believes it ran the strike. Sometimes the medium is merely the massage, not the message.
Lastly and most importantly, Bender casts the Communist-led rank-and-file rebellion against the ILGWU's Socialist officialdom purely and simply as a continuation of earlier revolts against male dominance. Misdirected into a Communist language of class empowerment, this feminist rebellion destroyed the cross-class anti-sweatshop coalition that was the prize being fought over. Bender deserves credit for directing attention to the role of gender, which was indeed a key axis of conflict. But his monocausal interpretation of the "Civil War" in garment runs aground on the rocks of long-established historical fact.
Bender depicts the "Protocol of Peace" emerging from the 1910 "Great Revolt" as the embodiment of a cross-class coalition generally accepted by male Jewish garment workers as the solution to the sweatshop problem. In fact, the ILGWU was ravaged for years by internal conflict centered in the male-dominated cloak trade. This conflict was temporarily resolved on the eve of World War I through the demise of the Protocol and the replacement of the previous apolitical ILGWU leadership by a new team explicitly identified with New York Jewish Socialism. The Communist rebellion against the Socialists arose from an alliance between the revolutionary idealism of women workers with the cloakmakers' rebellion against cross-class coalitionism. The high point of the rebellion was the 1926 Communist-led male cloakmakers' strike, an event that fits rather poorly into Bender's schema.
Moreover, it should be remembered that if the real goal of the rebellion was to place female faces in high places, as Bender maintains, then this goal was achieved. The male leaders of the insurgency defected, were purged, or drifted into deep obscurity. Bender barely mentions its central female leader, Rose Wortis. After World War II, she was rewarded for her party loyalty by being placed at the head of the garment workers' union of her native Poland. Juliet Stuart Poyntz, the theoretician of ILGWU health care initiatives for women, (145-149) became the theoretician of the garment insurgents' efforts to seize control of union office. After criticism by Party leaders for "trade union opportunism" she rehabilitated herself, allegedly, by becoming a key player in Soviet intelligence operations in America, and disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Clara Lemlich, the original leader, consciously accepted the temporary status in the garment workplace that Bender treats as a compromise with male dominion. She married, dropped out of politics, raised children, and then joined the American Communist Party and became its organizer of working-class housewives. She became the poster girl for the classic Stalinist slogan of"building the family as a fighting unit for socialism"--and also for CPUSA leader Earl Browder's slogan of "Communism as twentieth-century Americanism."
In fairness to Bender, it needs to be remembered that factual errors and misrepresentations are traditional for historians of this supremely politically charged chapter of American history. Bender is far from the worst offender. All previous accounts have been written by factional partisans with axes to grind. Why should feminist historians act any differently? Bender has provided a real service simply by reopening this can of worms. The "New Deal" alliance between the Roosevelt administration and the CIO, which shaped American trade unionism as it currently exists, was molded on the template of the "special relationship" between New York Governors Al Smith and FDR and "Jewish socialist" needle trades bureaucrats. If the "Protocol of Peace" was the "dress rehearsal for the New Deal," then the "Civil War" was the dress rehearsal for the post-World War II red purge. And the ILGWU's contemporary descendant, the linchpin of the "anti-sweatshop campaign" of the 1990s, cannot be understood outside of this context.
Bender's "discourse analysis" of Jewish garment unionism is seriously flawed by much too much attention to the Americanizing discourse of ILGWU officialdom. He unfortunately has a tin ear for the Yiddish-cultural discourse of the immigrants themselves. It is strange that a study of sweatshop language virtually ignores the "sweatshop poets" of the 1890s, who set the parameters of Jewish immigrant culture from their workbenches. Bender reduces this rich, complex cultural experience to the sentimental sweatshop victimization discourse of Morris Rosenfeld.
Bender adorns the cover with a striking artistic depiction of what he sees as the central trope of Jewish immigrant class consciousness. It depicts a weak, victimized Jewish worker drained of his lifeblood by a sweatshop vampire. Bender maintains that the "Bolshevism" of female dissidence represented a "new language of class power that contrasted with earlier languages of class ... that cast workers, not as the vanguard of revolution, but as victims of vampire bosses." (157) Bender fails to realize that the "capitalist bloodsucker" was the fundamental trope of Russian labour radicalism, from the Jewish Pale to the Donbass coal mines.
The single gravest problem with Bender's version of ILGWU history is his disregard of its roots in the revolutionary Jewish underground of Tsarist Russia. Classic accounts of the history of the Jewish labour movement usually ascribed the explosion of mass garment strikes during the Progressive era to the flood of Jewish emigres, radicalized by the Revolution and trained in trade unionism by the "Jewish Bund," which revitalized the movement in the aftermath of 1905. The Bund does not even appear in Bender's index.
In the epilogue, Bender attempts to draw lessons for contemporary anti-sweatshop campaigns from the ILGWU experience. But Bender accepts the cross-class-coalition framework of both the original version and the modern edition of anti-sweatshop coalitions. He does note the danger that contemporary sweatshop discourse could drown out the voices of the actual workers.
University of California, Berkeley
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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