It’s Labor Day Weekend, which for some reason in this country is a time to barbeque, shop, and maybe spend one last weekend at the beach. Labor Day has come to mean the end of summer, rather than a day to consider and celebrate the role of workers in building and sustaining this country.
As Jews, labor rights are central to our tradition, and as American Jews, they are central to our history. Jews served as important labor leaders as well as a significant proportion of the rank-and-file in certain industries (e.g. textiles and garment work). The Jewish Labor Committee recently wrote a piece on Jewish involvement in the American Labor movement, naming leaders such as Samuel Gompers, Sidney Hillman, and David Dubinsky. For some reason, they’ve neglected to mention the female Jewish labor leaders, such as Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Pauline Newman, Lillian Wald – women I’ve written about on this blog before.
Most American Jews are lucky that the sweatshop is far from our personal experience – except as we enable them as consumers – and has receded into our (often nostalgic) image of our immigrant roots. So I thought it might be useful to point out a couple of examples of Jewish labor activists whose stories differ from the more familiar labor activism narrative.
Justine Wise Polier, daughter of Rabbi Stephen Wise and Louise Waterman Wise and the first woman Justice in New York, is known mainly for her work as a judge in family court. As a young woman, she was frustrated by the gulf between her economic studies and the experiences of working people. So she decided to supplement her education at Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard by working nights at textile factories in New Jersey, where she advocated for a union. In 1926, while a student at Yale Law School, she was a vocal participant in the great textile strike in the Passaic mills in which she had worked.
Gertrude Weil was a southern activist for women’s rights, civil rights, and labor rights. Sensitive to the link between women’s political and economic disadvantages, in the 1910s and 20s she lead North Carolina’s women’s groups to advocate for a survey of women’s working conditions and to support a strike of women workers in the state’s textile mills. Her work helped bring women workers shorter hours, among other reforms.
Of course, labor activism is not just a topic for the history books. Workers rights and immigrant rights are on the front page of our papers and at the top of the legislative agenda for this year. So this Labor Day, I urge you to think about ways to make this holiday more relevant: how can you support workers’ rights?