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Labor Movement in the United States

by Alice Kessler-Harris

In 1915, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers went on strike. Their objective was the abolition of the sweatshop and home work, and a reduction of the twelve-hour workday.
Courtesy of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives/B'nai B'rith.
In Brief

Jewish American women have played a central role in the American labor movement since the beginning of the twentieth century. As women, they brought to trade unions their sensibilities about the organizing process. The women also encouraged labor to support government regulation to protect women in the workforce, despite consistent pushback from male union members against women’s participation in the labor movement. As Jews who emerged from a left-wing cultural tradition, they nurtured a commitment to social justice, which would develop into what is often called “social unionism.” From their position as an ethnic and religious minority, as well as from their position as women, they helped to shape the direction of the mainstream labor movement.

Early Twentieth-Century Immigration

Jewish mass immigration reached the United States just as the ready-made clothing industry hit its stride at the turn of the century—a circumstance that provided men and women with unprecedented incentives to unionize. In the Old Country, where jobs were scarce, daughters were married off as fast as possible. But many immigrant women had learned to sew in the workshops of Russian and Polish towns, and in America, where families counted on their contributions, they were expected to work.

Girls sometimes immigrated as teenagers, seeking out an uncle or older sister who might help them to find a first job so that some part of their wages could be sent back to Europe. The wages of other young women helped to pay the rent, to buy food and clothing, to bring relatives to America, and to keep brothers in school. When they married, young women normally stopped working in the garment shops. But, much as in the Old Country, they were still expected to contribute to family income, sometimes by taking in clothing to sew at home.

In early twentieth-century New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and other large cities, only the exceptional unmarried woman did not operate a sewing machine in a garment factory for part of her young adult life. Factory or sweatshop work before marriage and the expectation of some form of paid labor afterward fostered a continuing set of ties to the garment industry for this first generation of urban Jewish American women, encouraging a community of understanding around its conditions and continuing support for the ever-changing stream of workers who entered it. Women who worked long hours at extraordinarily low wages, in unsanitary and unsafe working conditions, and faced continual harassment to boot, found succor in their communities and benefited from a class-conscious background.

To be sure, competitive individualism and the desire to make it in America could hinder unionization efforts. But a well-developed ethic of social justice played an equally important role, producing perhaps the most politically aware of all immigrant groups. Socialist newspapers predominated in New York’s Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side. Jews were well represented in the Socialist Party after 1901. Though their unions were weak, Jews were among the best organized of semiskilled immigrants. In the immigrant enclaves of America’s large cities, as in Europe, women benefited from the shared sense that women worked for their families, as they absorbed much of their community’s concern for social justice. This did not deflect the desire of working women to get out of the shops, but it did contribute to the urge to make life in them better.

Women of the ILGWU and the WTUL

Still, even under these circumstances, it could not have been easy for a woman to become politically active. A number of small unions dotted New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. There, where the boss was almost always an immigrant like oneself and sometimes a relative, and where shops were small and vulnerable, unions sprang up and flowered, or withered, as trade picked up and declined. Organized largely by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and members of a socialist umbrella organization called the United Hebrew Trades, they reflected the weakness of a labor movement rooted in an industry of poorly paid workers and undercapitalized ventures.

The men in these unions did not, at first, welcome the women, placing them in a dilemma. In order to improve their working lives, incipient activists found themselves choosing between a conservative trade union movement hostile to women in the workforce and a women’s movement whose members did not work for wages. A young and inexperienced Rose Schneiderman, for example, was turned away from the cap-makers’ union to solicit the signatures of twenty-five of her coworkers before the union would acknowledge them or provide aid.

Schneiderman’s friend Pauline Newman recalled that when she and her friends “organized a group, we immediately called the union so that they would take the members in.” Despite the early devotion of women—despite the fact that women were often baited, beaten, and arrested on picket lines—the ILGWU insisted that women, destined for marriage, were unorganizable. Even those who managed to enter were badly treated. During the 1905 cap-makers’ strike, for example, married men got strike benefits but even women who were supporting widowed mothers and young siblings received nothing.

Discouraged by their union brothers, recognizing their issues as different from those of male workers, women turned to other women for help with their work-related problems. They developed solidarity and loyalty with women workers from other industries and areas, sometimes striking when their sisters were attacked and resisting separation from one another when they were jailed. They also sought and received help from the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization that brought together wealthy upper-middle-class women with women wage earners. To be sure, solidarity was limited by class as well as by ethnic divisions. Jewish women thought they were superior unionists and often treated “American-born” women, as well as Polish and Italian colleagues, as suspiciously as they themselves were treated.

But isolated as they were from the mainstream of the labor movement and divided from other working women who came from less class-conscious backgrounds, Jewish women had little choice but to accept financial help and moral support from wherever it came. There was inevitable tension here. Jewish women had been nurtured in the cradle of socialism. For them, alliances with other women were largely ways of achieving a more just society. Even their middle-class friends viewed labor organization among women as a way of transcending class lines in the service of feminist interests. Early organizers like Newman, Schneiderman, and Clara Lemlich [Shavelson] spent enormous amounts of time and energy reconciling the seemingly divergent interests of the male-dominated skilled labor movement, working women, and middle-class allies.

A major strike of shirtwaist makers, in the winter of 1909–1910, dramatically altered the position of women and their role in the trade union movement. Popularly called the Uprising of the 20,000, the strike began when a tiny local, consisting of about 100 Jewish shirtwaist makers, veterans of a series of small but brutal strikes for better working conditions, called a meeting of workers in the industry. Thousands of women turned out for the November 22 meeting, surprising the reluctant leaders of the ILGWU into supporting a general strike. The event and its aftermath turned out to have significance not only for Jewish women but also for the entire trade union movement.

The young—often teenage—garment workers who walked the picket lines in the cold winter months that followed provided their own organizational strategies, solicited funds, and set goals alien to men. They introduced into the movement qualities of idealism, self-sacrifice, and commitment that appeased skeptical male leaders and stirred what they called “spirit” into a revitalized movement. Refusing to settle for small increases in wages, and even for shorter hours (the bread-and-butter issues that traditional craft unions thought crucial), women demanded union recognition. In the end, most settled for less, but in the process, they inserted into the negotiations a range of issues that translated into dignity, honor, and justice.

The strikers insistently emphasized the discrepancy between the starvation wages and harsh working conditions they endured on the one hand, and their ability to fulfill widespread expectations of future marriage and motherhood on the other. Pressured and unsanitary conditions, they argued, yielded little room for personal needs or safety. Malnourished and exhausted, they could hardly protect their virtue, much less the health and stamina they would require to nurture the next generation. These arguments won the grudging respect of a hostile public and energized young women whose resistance to unionization often came from their expectation of marriage. Moral outrage, not economic pressure, became their trump card, and public support, indignation, and protest was their path to victory.

Relying on moral suasion created bonds among women that courageous and innovative organizers quickly reinforced with new organizing strategies. Women organizers urged individual women who would remain only briefly in the labor force to fight for the women who would follow them. Fired by idealism, women did not hesitate to put themselves in positions where they forced the authorities to violate convention, as when they were beaten by police or thrown into jail with prostitutes.

They welcomed the efforts of their more affluent allies to publicize brutal incidents by joining them on picket lines or sponsoring public meetings. By such extreme measures, women dramatized the injustices of their daily treatment in the shop and factory. Addressing a nation committed to the rhetoric of chivalry, motherhood, and the idealization of the weaker sex, they demonstrated the brutal treatment that daily violated ideas about womanhood inside as well as outside the workplace. These tactics worked. In the big New York strike of 1909–1910, and in a wave of garment workers’ strikes that followed, women members became the heart of a revivified union movement.

Unionized women introduced into their new unions energy and ideas alien to those of male craft unions that aimed to raise wages by restricting the labor supply. They brought notions of self-sacrifice for the future, a recognition of women’s particular needs, and special attention to sanitation and cleanliness, as well as traditional demands for higher wages and shorter hours. They wanted time to attend to family and personal needs: to launder, to cook, to help out at home. They wanted sufficient wages to dress decently and contribute to family support. Above all, they wanted education, opportunities to learn not just about trade union matters but about the world around them. To foster loyalty and solidarity, they pushed for a broader vision of unionism, one that incorporated what union officials called “spirit” but that contemporaries sometimes called “soul.” As Fannia Cohn put the issue, “I do not see how we can get girls to sacrifice themselves unless we discuss something besides trade matters . . . there must be something more than the economic question, there must be idealism.”

The “girls local”—Local 25 of the ILGWU—sponsored dances, concerts, lectures, and entertainments. They suffered the derision of male colleagues who asked, “What do the girls know? Instead of a union, they want to dance.” But the women persisted. In 1916, Fannia Cohn persuaded the ILGWU to create the first education department in an international union, and soon it organized a network of “unity centers” in public schools across New York City. These centers offered night-school classes in literature, music, economics, and public policy. Local 25 also bought an old country house that they turned into a vacation retreat for members, spawning a network of such houses by other locals until the International bought them out in 1921. These innovations, inspired and fought for by women, became the basis of a new social unionism, which garment unions sustained in the threatening atmosphere of the 1920s, which flourished in the 1930s, and which has sparked the imagination of the trade union movement since.

Impact of the ILGWU: Protective Legislation

The pattern established by the women of the ILGWU was expanded and developed by women who worked in the men’s clothing trades. The history of their union can be traced back to a 1910 protest by a small group of Jewish women who worked at the big Hart, Schaffner, and Marx factory in Chicago. After several years of trying to work effectively with more established unions, this group, led by Bessie Abramowitz [Hillman], formed their own union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). Abramowitz later married Sidney Hillman, who became the new union’s president.

By the 1920s, workers in the men’s clothing industry were a heterogeneous group, and women in the Amalgamated faced the challenging task of convincing potential members of the values of social unionism. Under Hillman’s leadership, and supported by an active group of Jewish women who turned the union’s women’s bureau into a lively discussion center, the Amalgamated pioneered such social programs as unemployment insurance for seasonal workers, vacations with pay, and retirement pensions.

What unions could not do, or could do only for their members, Jewish women in the labor movement encouraged others to do for them through protective labor laws. In a period when the labor movement as a whole remained suspicious of government intervention, and the passage of laws on behalf of workers was largely supported by middle-class reformers, Jewish women trade unionists helped to educate the labor movement in the value of legislation.

After the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, they turned to the state for protective laws that would establish industrial safety standards and regulate sanitary conditions. They joined with middle-class men and women in the National Consumers’ League to agitate for legislation that would restrict the numbers of hours women could work; place a floor under their wages; establish standards of cleanliness in workrooms and factories; mandate clean drinking water, washrooms, dressing rooms, and toilets; and provide seats and ventilation at work.

Insisting that the quality of women’s lives was as important as the wages they earned, Jewish women, like Rose Schneiderman, served on state-level investigative commissions and offered testimony that pressured state legislatures into providing new ground rules for women at work. In her capacity as president of the New York Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), Schneiderman not only played an important role in achieving a fifty-four-hour work week for women but also provided an important bridge to help craft unions accept the principle of protective labor legislation for women only. Arguably, at least, these women opened the eyes of male unionists to the positive aspects of government regulation.

Pushback from Male Union Leaders

By the 1920s, probably 40 percent of all unionized women in the country were garment workers—most of them Jews in the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The garment industry remained the only place where Jewish women were organized in large numbers. Yet the male leadership persistently discouraged women’s efforts to expand their voices within unions. Women were recruited, sometimes reluctantly, as dues-paying members, tolerated as shop-level leaders, and occasionally advanced to become business agents and local officers. Only rarely did women of exceptional promise, like Fannia Cohn, Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca, and Rose Pesotta, reach the status of international officers.

Where they could have fostered harmony, cooperation, and a sense of belonging, the garment unions instead mistrusted their female members, creating friction, resentment, and defensiveness among them, reducing their value, and undermining their ability to do good work. As far as the male leaders were concerned, women remained outsiders who threatened to undermine the wages of men and for whom labor legislation, rather than unionization, increasingly seemed the appropriate strategy. As if this were not enough, the social unionist strategies that women had initiated and deeply valued became implicated in the strife-filled politics of the early 1920s.

Deeply divided by efforts of the newly formed Communist Party to seek power inside unions, male leaders identified women’s demands for education and democratic participation as threats, seeing a fundamental conflict between the search for “soul” in the union and their own restrictive solidarity around wage issues. Rather than risk the possibility that the women might ally with Communist Party supporters, they chose to eliminate or take over most of the women’s programs, including their vacation houses, unity centers, and educational initiatives. Women simply dropped out, leaving their unions in droves. A last-ditch effort to restore morale in the ACWA by reestablishing a women’s bureau failed to stanch the flow.

Even as the Jewish labor movement was being wracked by political divisions in the early 1920s, Jewish women began to move outside its confines in order to provide benefits for women workers. Schneiderman increasingly turned to the WTUL, which she urged into the movement for protective labor legislation and which she persuaded to found a school for women workers. Cohn, distressed at new union limits on the broad educational opportunities that had so inspired women, turned to a more ambitious program of labor education. In 1921, she borrowed money to establish Brookwood Labor College, where Rose Pesotta was an early student.

Brookwood inspired another experiment: the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, which became the first of a series of schools to provide residential programs for women, many of them garment workers. Its faculty included economist Theresa Wolfson. Some of these schools, like Brookwood, were open to workers of both sexes, but in the 1920s, women remained their major clientele. In all these experiments, women in the rank and file of unions, especially Jewish women, remained among the most ardent supporters of workers’ education. They kept the flame alive until, in the 1930s, a revivified labor movement once again began to sponsor its own coeducational schools.

The Great Depression

The Depression of the 1930s restored union activism, giving voice to women’s earlier demands for community within unions and institutionalizing many of their visions in the social programs of the New Deal. Not surprisingly, Sidney Hillman and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, with its heavily female membership, played a key role in extending social unionism into the national legislative arena. Like the ILGWU, the Amalgamated had developed a health-care program for its own members in the 1920s. The Amalgamated also initiated old-age pensions and unemployment insurance.

But these had limited scope and rarely covered any but long-term workers. Under the pressure of the Depression, Hillman, abetted by his wife, Bessie Abramowitz, and vice president Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca, agitated for and helped to draft bills for unemployment compensation and fair labor standards. He also played a key role in the development of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which, in the 1930s, promised to harbor the residues of the social unionist tradition. Jewish women unionists reaped some rewards in these days: tied to Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt through the New York Women’s Trade Union League, they entered the federal bureaucracy, where they worked to soften the edges of the new legislative agenda.

Under the impetus of a dramatic upswing in female membership sparked by industrywide strikes in 1933, the trade union movement regained some of its vigorous support for the cultural and recreational programs it had earlier abandoned. Drawing on its earlier tradition, unions sponsored gym classes, athletic teams, dramatic clubs, choral groups, orchestras, and, of course, educational opportunities of all kinds. The ILGWU’s long-running Broadway hit, Pins and Needles, testifies to the value of these programs, both for developing the morale of members and for reaching out into the community to expand understanding and support.

Still, the union movement remained uncomfortable with the leadership style of women. Neither in the garment industry nor in the other unions that Jewish women now began to join were women welcomed as leaders. As the only female vice president of the ILGWU in the 1930s, Rose Pesotta adapted the unorthodox female style that had started a generation earlier to become perhaps its most successful organizer. She created pleasant headquarters, threw parties for members and potential members, and devised style shows, festivals, and dances to attract women to the union.

In Los Angeles, she constructed a picket line of women in gowns to embarrass factory owners attending a charity event. Before Easter, she demanded and got special strike allowances for mothers to buy holiday clothes for their children. Nobody questioned her success: She became the union’s most important troubleshooter, traveling far afield, to places like Puerto Rico, Seattle, Akron, Boston, and Montreal to resolve outstanding disputes. But neither the leaders of the ILGWU nor those of other unions understood these tactics. David Dubinsky regularly berated Pesotta for extravagance and mistrusted techniques that appealed to women’s interest in human welfare as much as their interest in wages.


These issues emerged in other arenas where women began to organize in the heyday of the Depression. Jews had begun to enter school teaching, social work, retail sales, and office work in the 1920s. Though by no means dominant in any of these arenas, Jewish women played prominent roles in the organizational battles of all of them in the 1930s. Sometimes the daughters of unionists and often the heirs of the Jewish tradition of social justice, these women were drawn to the humane vision then offered by the Communist Party. Inevitably, this created conflicts with the traditional bread-and-butter image of many male and non-Jewish unionists. Ann Prosten, who in the 1930s organized office staff for the United Office and Professional Workers Association, spoke for many Jewish union women when she said, “the basic problems of women will not be solved until we have socialism.”

The battles among schoolteachers for union control illustrates the point. Although there were ephemeral teachers’ unions even before World War I, professional identification prevented large numbers, even of Jewish women, from joining. Nor were Jewish women encouraged by the fact that the largely native-born leadership of the two national unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, remained wedded to narrow strategies for improving the status of the teaching profession. Still, by the mid-1920s, in large cities like New York and Chicago, where the administrative and teaching staffs of public schools remained predominantly Irish Catholic, the majority of local union members were Jews, most of them women.

By 1925, Jewish women made up half of the New York Teachers’ Union executive board. The onset of the Depression coincided with the entry of the children of immigrants into the field, and inspired by the spirit of the times, more and more teachers sought the protection of unionism. Jewish women rapidly became the majority of union activists in every major city. Like Rebecca Coolman Simonson, who came from a family of trade unionists and socialists, and who presided over the noncommunist Teachers’ Guild, which split from Teachers’ Union in 1935, these women carried their traditions with them.

But to be a Jewish unionist in an occupation still largely non-Jewish was to be associated with left-wing policies. From the beginning, unionists refused to hew a narrow line, fighting not only for higher salaries but also for a range of socioeconomic programs. In the schools, they wanted better facilities, relief from overcrowding, and child-welfare provisions like free cooked lunches. But they also advocated policies to aid unemployed teachers, to democratize the schools, and to support progressive education. To pay for these programs, they demanded federal and state aid to schools. Organized teachers opposed efforts to remove married women from the classroom. When fascism became an overriding issue, they attempted to stymie racial and religious bigotry by stepping up a long-standing campaign for academic and religious freedom.

If women’s vision of social justice seemed to find a natural ally in the communist vision of the 1930s, the alliance did little to enhance women’s voices. The leadership of the teachers’ unions remained male. Lillian Herstein failed to take over an important Chicago teachers’ local in 1937. In New York, women members opted to support the communist leaders of Teachers’ Union, Local 5, of the American Federation of Teachers, believing that radical ideas harbored the best hope for opening up the union movement, as well as for social change. But more conservative AFT leaders could not tolerate dissent and retaliated by expelling the communist locals from party leadership. Jewish women would not play a major role in the AFT again until the 1960s, when they slowly reentered union leadership positions. By then, their influence was once again important in the local arena where women like New York’s Sandra Feldman rose through the ranks to become president first of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers in 1986 and then of its parent body, the AFT, in 1997.

Status of Women in the Labor Movement Pre-World War II

Nor did Jewish women have much influence on the CIO, which in its early days espoused the rhetoric of radical change. Its leadership remained relentlessly male. A tiny proportion of delegates to its first convention were women, and by 1946, it could boast only twenty women among its six hundred convention delegates. Those who did attend reflected the diversity of the two million women who had joined union ranks in the 1930s. They were Jewish and Catholic, white ethnic and African American. Among them was Ruth Young, a member of the executive board of the United Electrical Workers, and daughter-in-law of Clara Lemlich, who had sparked the Uprising of the 20,000.

Women’s enhanced loyalty to communism undermined long-standing alliances with women’s groups, and particularly with the Women’s Trade Union League. Under Rose Schneiderman’s leadership, the WTUL straddled a delicate line between its traditional support for the AFL and its sympathy for the goals of the new CIO. But neither Schneiderman nor the WTUL’s leaders could tolerate communist influence, and here the WTUL drew a line in the sand. Schneiderman alienated many women (Jews and non-Jews) when she refused to help the militant female members of a United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers local in a bitter 1937 strike. And many more, like Boston’s Rose Norwood, abandoned her as she passively watched the AFL bully local leagues into expelling members from CIO unions. Norwood resigned from the leadership of the Boston WTUL to work for the CIO.

Post-World War II Shift

By the end of World War II, three million women workers belonged to trade unions, and half a million more would join union ranks in the two years that followed. Among union members, Jewish women now formed a tiny minority, their presence minimal even in the unions they had once deeply influenced. Most new recruits joined unions out of necessity, not because they chose to do so. And though, on paper, every national union admitted women, a sex-segregated labor market ensured that most would have precious few women members. Under these circumstances, the role of Jewish women became less distinctive.

As leadership remained either firmly tied to men or passed to a second generation of women, many of them organized in the 1930s, the battleground shifted. Both inside and outside unions, women joined together to extend the limited coverage of New Deal legislation beyond traditional manufacturing sectors to the domestic workers, public sector workers, retail clerks, and part-time employees who had been left out. They fought now for equal pay for equal work and to push back the barriers of occupational segregation. Younger women in the labor movement began to protest the restrictions imposed by the protective labor legislation that Schneiderman had supported all her life. They wanted to guarantee equality with an Equal Rights Amendment. Schneiderman vacillated, finally compromising on night work. Her old friend Pauline Newman refused to budge. Newman’s partner Frieda Segelke Miller pushed for an equal pay bill.

Within unions, the influence of Jewish women eroded as they were expelled or marginalized for their earlier communist sympathies. Some, like Betty Friedan, a staff writer for the United Electrical Workers Union, quit to raise a family when their left-leaning unions came under attack. Yet many, like Friedan herself, abandoned union activism only to find other ways of organizing women. A younger generation of women unionists, including many African Americans, replaced them to battle for an equality that Jewish women had only imagined. Their struggle, begun in the 1950s, prefigured the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Often, they allied themselves with the incipient civil rights movement in an effort to draw attention to race as well as to sex discrimination. Organizing efforts turned to the public sector: Teachers, nurses, and clerical workers were their new targets. The legacy of Jewish women remained merely an echo.

Two events symbolized the change. The first was the death of the Women’s Trade Union League in 1950. The league had been the vehicle of partnership between Jewish immigrant women and the trade union movement. It provided a place where women could develop their skills, draw support and sustenance, and find responses to creative ideas. It served to remind men that women had special needs and interests that the labor movement would need to fill if it were to retain their loyalty. Yet it also maintained the legislative pressure that enabled men to marginalize women in the movement.

The second was the conflict that erupted in 1968 in the Ocean Hill–Brownsville section of New York City. Jewish teachers were faced with a largely African American school district, which had been authorized to modify its public schools to conform to its own sense of priorities. African American community representatives decided to replace some of the teachers with new recruits of their own choosing. The teachers, mostly Jewish women led by a Jewish male, found themselves protecting their union rights against the community rights of African Americans. In the bitter struggle that followed, one irony was lost on the participants. The descendants of the Jewish women who had fought to incorporate their vision of justice and dignity in a reluctant union movement half a century earlier were now using a trade union to prevent another disadvantaged group from fostering its own sense of dignity and community.


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How to cite this page

Kessler-Harris, Alice. "Labor Movement in the United States." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 4, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/labor-movement-in-united-states>.