Biographies of Jewish Labor Leaders

These biographies introduce unsung Jewish heroes and leaders of the Labor Movement.

David Dubinsky

A Polish immigrant to the United States, David Dubinsky was a union leader by the age of 15. He went on to lead the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and later the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Dubinsky helped found the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) and the American Labor Party.

Sandra Feldman

Born and raised in Coney Island, New York, Sandra Feldman became the first woman to lead the United Federation of Teachers in 1986. She became the president of the American Federation of Teachers in 1997 and devoted her tenure to pushing for reduced class sizes, preschool programs, and higher teacher salaries.

Sophie Melvin Gerson

Sophie Melvin Gerson immigrated to the United States from Ukraine and became an activist in her teenage years. She cut her teeth in union activism with textile workers in North Carolina. Through her involvement with the Communist Party, she also served as a union leader and a relief worker during the Great Depression. In 1951 Gerson was arrested and indicted for her radical views.

Emma Goldman

After fleeing her tyrannical father and an arranged marriage in St. Petersburg, Emma Goldman came to New York at age 15. Inspired to activism by the Haymarket bombing of 1886, Goldman became a lifelong anarchist, feminist, political activist, and public figure. After spending time in federal prison, Goldman was deported from the United States and spent the rest of her life in exile.

Samuel Gompers

Samuel Gompers began working at age 10 in his hometown of London. After immigrating to New York, he quickly became a union leader in the Cigar Makers’ International Union. He helped found the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later became the American Federation of Labor, as well as the International Labor Organization.

Bessie Abramowitz Hillman

Bessie Abramowitz Hillman came to Chicago from Russia at the age of 15 and found a job in a garment factory. She led several protests and strikes as a young worker before being hired as an organizer by the Hull House Women’s Trade Union League. Hillman served as education director for several unions and advocated for cultural programs and social justice issues.

Sidney Hillman

Born in Lithuania, Sidney Hillman left rabbinical school to become a leader in the Bund. He fled after the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 and settled in Chicago, where he met his wife, Bessie Abramowitz. Hillman was president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the leading union of the men’s clothing industry in the U.S. He also held positions in the Roosevelt administration.

Clara Lemlich Shavelson

Clara Lemlich Shavelson began working as soon as her family arrived in New York from Ukraine in 1907. Just two years later, Lemlich helped spark the historic “Uprising of the 20,000.” After her radical politics got her fired from the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage, she took her skills to a new community, organizing wives and mothers around issues like housing, food, and public education. Lemlich was a lifelong organizer and activist.

Sophie Maslow

The daughter of left-wing secular New York Jews, Sophie Maslow began dancing at a young age. Using dance as a revolutionary medium, Maslow choreographed dances for the Martha Graham Company, the Workers’ Dance League, and the New Dance Group. After World War II, Maslow’s work focused on Russian Jewish folk traditions as well as holidays and other aspects of Jewish life.

Pauline Newman

After immigrating to New York in 1901, Pauline Newman worked in the “kindergarten” at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Her love of literature led her to organizing, and she quickly became the first woman general organizer in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Newman organized strikes across the country; her commitment to the rights of workers was lifelong.

Rose Pesotta

A Ukrainian immigrant to New York City, Rose Pesotta helped form the first education department in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). In 1934 she became the first woman to hold a post on the general executive board of the ILGWU and became one of the most successful organizers in the United States. Pesotta was persecuted during the Red Scare of 1919 for her steadfast radical and anarchist beliefs. She became a Zionist late in her life.

Matilda Robbins

By the age of 16, Ukrainian-born Matilda Robbins was supporting herself in New York by working several jobs. She played a supporting role in the 1912 strike in Lawrence, MA and subsequently became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Though she was sometimes frustrated by the union’s limited vision of women’s roles, Robbins worked throughout her life as an organizer, editor, and social worker.

Rose Schneiderman

After working as a salesgirl in New York City, Rose Schneiderman switched to less-respectable but better-paying factory work. Convinced that unions could help the working class, she became a union organizer for the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers’ Union and, later, the Women’s Trade Union League. After the Triangle Fire in March 1911, Schneiderman became a statewide and national advocate for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage.

Randi Weingarten

The daughter of a teacher, Randi Weingarten developed an interest in labor unions and politics from observing her mother. After graduating from law school, she represented the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in several important cases before becoming president of the UFT in 1998 and then of the American Federation of Teachers in 2008. She is also an active member of the Democratic National Committee.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Biographies of Jewish Labor Leaders." (Viewed on May 27, 2024) <>.