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Labor Day

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?

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More on: Labor, Unions, Law, Labor Day
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{Disclaimer: I work at the Jewish Labor Committee, and coauthored the JLCÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Labor Day 2006 piece that discusses Jewish involvement in the American Labor movement.}

Regretably, it did not mention the many prominent as well as unsung female Jewish labor activists, including Rose Schneiderman, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Pauline Newman, Lillian Wald Ì¢‰âÂå_ Their ranks ARE represented, however, in our Readings on the American Jewish Labor Movement

By the way, we also have another bibliography on Traditional Jewish texts on Labor and Worker Rights

Even thoÌ¢‰â‰㢠itÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s either a little late or a bit early to explore ways to make the U.S. holiday of Labor Day more relevant, here are a few ideas:

Ìâåá Read up a bit on the Jewish labor movement [see reading lists, above]; Ìâåá Use notecards of the New York Labor History Association that feature photographs as well as brief biorgaphies of Rose Schneiderman, Bessie Abramowitz Hillman and Clara Lemlich Shavelson; they are available for 50c apiece from the New York Labor History Association [c/o Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, 70 Washington Square South Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ 10th Floor, New York, NY 10012]; Ìâåá Try and march in your local Labor Day Parade in 2007 Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ and if there isnÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t one, try and organize one!; Ìâåá Consider forming a reading circle with the Jewish Labor Committee Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ while we are based in New York, we have offices or lay-led groups in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, and groups of members elsewhere.

As to JRÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s other important question, how can you support workersÌ¢‰â‰㢠rights, there are many ways, from sending letters of protest to joining picket lines [we can keep you up-to-date on a range of international, national and local campaigns where workers need your help], to making sure your congregation or other Jewish organization uses goods and services produced by union labor unless such is not available [we can help], make sure your simkhas and other events are held in unionized facilities [ditto] Ì¢‰âÂå_

By the way, links to unions, labor-related organizations and news sources can be found on the lower right of our website here

>> Arieh Lebowitz >> Communications Director >> Jewish Labor Committee http://www.jewishlabor.org/ >> 25 East 21st Street >> New York, NY 10010 >> ariehnyc@prodigy.net

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Labor Day." 3 September 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 20, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/labor-day>.

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