10 Things You Should Know About Rose Pesotta

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Top 10 Jewish Women in Labor History
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The Top 10 Jewish Women in Labor History is a JWA blog series on Jewesses with Attitude created in honor of Women's History Month and the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Waist Factory fire. Click here to see the full Top 10 list.
  1. Rakhel Peisoty, who later changed her name to Rose Pesotta, was born in 1896 in a Ukrainian railroad town that was then part of the Russian Empire. Even as a child, she had the passionate convictions that would guide her later life as a labor activist and anarchist. Rose’s older sister, who belonged to an underground anarchist group, encouraged her to read the works of social revolutionaries. Rose attended a school for girls that taught a standard Russian curriculum, while offering secret lessons in Jewish history and Hebrew.

  2. In 1913, two years after the Triangle Waist Factory fire, Rose immigrated to the United States and joined her sister who was already living in New York City. Rose later recalled that she had one main reason for leaving home—to escape an arranged marriage to a local boy from the shtetl.

  3. Upon her arrival in New York, Rose went to work in a series of shirtwaist factories. She joined Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) where her energetic personality and strong ideals made an immediate impression. In 1915, she helped to found the ILGWU’s first education department. In 1920, she was elected to the Executive Board of Local 25. Rose also returned to her own education, attending the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Workers and the Brookwood Labor College. By the late 1920s, she was working as a paid organizer for the ILGWU.

  4. At first, Rose’s job focused on organizing workers for the ILGWU in New York City, but eventually she spread her efforts across North America. In 1933, she traveled to Los Angeles where she mobilized a largely Mexican labor force, confronting anti-picketing injunctions, paid thugs, and communist opposition. Her utilization of Spanish-language media, including radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements, set a new standard for effective labor organizing strategy.

  5. Rose’s success in California helped her win election as vice-president of the ILGWU in 1934. In her new position, she continued her efforts to organize workers across the country — in Puerto Rico, Detroit, Montreal, Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, and Salt Lake City. She served on the General Executive Board of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and was involved in major strikes in Akron, Ohio and Flint, Michigan, during the 1930s.

  6. In 1944, critical of the limited status of women within the CIO, Rose Pesotta resigned from the Executive Board, stating that, “One woman vice-president could not adequately represent the women who now make up 85 percent of the International’s membership of 305,000.”

  7. The following year, she wrote Bread upon the Waters, the first of her two memoirs. She worked briefly for the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League and the American Trade Union Council for Histadrut, Israel’s federation of trade unions. To earn money, she returned to the ILGWU, not as a high ranking officer, but as a “plain rank and file member.”

  8. For a person so effective as an organizer and a member of the governing bodies of two large unions, it may seem surprising that Rose was also an unwavering anarchist, who believed strongly in people’s inherent goodness and right to personal freedom from formal community controls and conventions.

  9. In her second memoir, Days of Our Lives (1958), Rose credited Jewish culture, particularly its tradition of independent thought and questioning of authority, as the basis of her anarchist beliefs. Although she was not religiously observant, she found that her Jewish identity was strengthened in the aftermath of the Holocaust and through the struggles of the state of Israel.

  10. In 1965, Pesotta was diagnosed with cancer. She resigned from her job in order to move to Florida to “recuperate in the sun.” She died in a Miami hospital later that year.

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