March 25th marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire which killed 146 garment workers, predominantly young Jewish women who were immigrants from Europe. As Rabbi Jill Jacobs recently pointed out, this tragic event not only galvanized the nation into demanding tougher workplace safety laws. It also promoted the cause of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, as well as the labor union movement in general, in which American Jews played a very prominent role. This centenary coincides with the ongoing turmoil in Wisconsin and elsewhere, where state workers and Republican officials are clashing over collective bargaining rights.
The history of American Jews' involvement in the labor movement emerges clearly in reports from the older editions of the American Jewish Year Book. For example, in the 1923 report "A Survey of the Year 5682," Harry S. Linfield reports the news from the Third Internationale. He discusses the status of Poland's Jewish workers' cooperatives and Jewish labor unions, reporting on the participation of Jews in strikes in Lodz and in the United States, and mentions national conventions in America organized by Arbeter Ring (The Workmen's Circle), together with several predominantly Jewish unions.
Another source of relevant material is the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, known in an earlier incarnation as Jewish Social Service Quarterly. In 1945, Bernard Segal wrote in favor of "Collective Bargaining in Social Work," noting that salaries for social agency workers were low compared both to private industry and to civil service. In a fascinating 1946 article, Irving Salert of the Jewish Labor Committee argued that the trade union movement was a powerful weapon against antisemitism: "Scratch a Jew-baiter and you will find a labor-baiter. List the names of the financial backers and promoters of the organized anti-Semitic movement and you have the names of the most outspoken enemies of the American labor movement."
The notion of a natural alliance between the Jewish community and the labor movement finds support in a 1947 roundtable between union and management leaders from the field of Jewish social services, where participants from both sides acknowledged that the unionization of the field was a positive step.
In the same issue, labor leader Joseph H. Levy wrote to warn that the Taft-Hartley Act threatened the labor movement along with the heavily unionized Jewish social services field. He called the Jewish social work field to task in 1948, criticizing Jewish case work agencies for discrimination against "Negroes," and calling on Jewish agencies to deal more effectively and smoothly with social work unions.
Mrs. Louis Langman's 1949 "Statement of Labor-Management Relationships" endorses unions' goals, but finds fault with union tactics and the union movement's profit-driven perspective. She writes that social work is a "mature and dignified profession... Let us stop trying to fit the square peg of the industrial union procedures into the round hole of the social service agency." The same issue of the journal contains an article by George Kirstein, whose experience representing management in negotiations with unions taught him that, "In industry, each businessman confides, 'My business is different than any other.'" Kirstein advocates the creation of a code of ethics to guide both management and labor when disputes arise. An example of Kirstein's vision coming to fruition can be observed fifteen years later, when the Metropolitan Association of Jewish Center Workers of New York adopted the code of behavior described by Charles S. Levy.
In 1966, Manheim S. Shapiro examined labor issues in light of Jewish law and traditional texts. He writes that, "Jewish tradition imposes overriding obligations to consider the needs of the deprived above all else and to establish machinery to equalize the relative strength of employee and employer."
Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, writing for CLAL in 1998, went further, citing the Talmud (Bava Kama 116b) and Tanakh (Leviticus 25:55) to justify workers withholding labor as a legitimate bargaining tactic. He further cited a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to argue that "scab" labor (the use of strikebreakers) is forbidden outright by Torah law.
More recently, in 2009, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis adopted a Statement on Labor, urging congregations to employ union labor when possible and hold all events in union-friendly venues, among other pro-union policies.
We have many more documents on this and other topics at bjpa.org. Let us know what you find most valuable by keeping in touch via Facebook and Twitter.
With best wishes,
Prof. Steven M. Cohen
Director, Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner