The Jewish Roots of Labor Day

In honor of Labor Day and the recent anniversary of the sweatshop workers strike, we are reposting this article originally written by Eva Brune.

On September 4 in 1894, more than 12,000 New York State tailors – 4,000 from New York City alone — went on strike to protest the sweatshop conditions in which they had to work. They had specific demands related to their rights as workers, but they were also following a long legacy of activism in Jewish labor. Not only did their efforts serve to improve their daily lives, but they serve as the foundation for many labor laws today. And if you enjoyed a Monday off this week for Labor Day, you have these strikers (and many others!) to thank.

The September 4th strikers, many of them Jewish from the Lower East Side, were demanding “[a limit of]ten hours a day, from 7 am – 6 pm, with an hour off at noon, a weekly minimum wage, and a weekly pay-day.” (The Outlook Magazine, 9/15/1894). At the time, garment workers were treated inhumanely. They worked long hours with no breaks and few days off. And they were earning just $4 per week – a meager wage even in those days. There was a hierarchy within the garment industry  – some jobs, those typically done by men, were treated with more respect by employers than the “lower” tasks often assigned to women. But no matter where laborers stood on that hierarchy, there was a chasm between their quality of life and that of their wealthy employers demanding punishing hours and conditions.

So they set out to strike for better treatment. They were patient; the strike lasted through the fall and winter of 1894. An article published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on August 31, 1894, recorded plans for the upcoming strikes:

“The meeting last night was held in Bauer’s Union Saenger Hall, on the corner of Ewen and Meserole Streets, and was composed of the members of Local Unions No. 27, 66, and 83, of the United Garment Workers’ Union of America. There were about three hundred and fifty men present and fifty more women and girls, all of whom were members of the union. The proceedings were conducted entirely in the dialect spoken among the Dutchtown tailors, which is sometimes known as Jehudls, prounced Yahooda… two speeches had been made beside the opening address of the chairman, whose name was Isaac Walman. The orators were Morlx Alexander and Louis Grossman…Alexander said that they were victims of the worst form of industrial slavery in the country.  He spoke of the hardship of necessity that women and children should have to work, and told how there was absolutely no let up, but from daylight to long after dark the buzz of the machines and the clanking thud of the smoothing irons could be heard throughout the district where the sweat shops abound. He seemed to find an echo in the minds of his hearers, and they applauded him liberally….Then a secret ballot was taken on the question of striking, little pieces of paper being being distributed on which were written either “Yes” or “No” in the Jehudls dialect…when this vote was taken and counted, it was found that out of 375 votes cast only 30 were recorded against the proposition…It is thought the tailors in New York, Jersey City and Philadelphia will follow suit….An object lesson of one of the evils the tailors are striking against as furnished last night by Mr. Young. He said that actually half the members of the union could not attend last night’s meeting because they were still at work on their day’s task.  It was then 10 o’clock and he said they went to work at daylight.”

Headline from the New York Times article on the strike.

A September 7, 1894 article in the New York Times stated “The strikers’ demands have been acceded to…They will in future receive wages ranging from $9 to $15 a week for ten hours’ work a day…The proposition was submitted to the striking tailors, who refused to confer with the bosses on the ground that the latter owed them a week’s wages.  Their answer was that if the bosses wanted to confer with them they could better do so after signing the proposed contract.  This angered the bosses, who refused to have anything more to do with the strikers.” The matter was then taken up with the Civil Court.

The tailors’ strike of 1894 was not an isolated event. At the time, the United States was in an economic depression and workers were striking throughout the country for better working conditions. According to Dr. Janet Currie (University of California) and Dr. Joseph Ferrie (Northwestern University) in their paper, ‘The Law and Labor Strife in the U.S., 1881-1894,’ more than 12,000 labor disputes took place between 1881 and 1894.

Many Jewish immigrants arrived in this country with experience – not just as tailors in Eastern Europe but as labor organizers. Even before they arrived in America, Jewish weavers orchestrated a strike in Bialystok, Poland in 1887. Today that strike is considered the beginning of the organized Jewish labor movement in the Pale of Settlement. They brought that legacy with them to New York. There were several large strikes of Jewish tailors in 1886. And in 1889 – 5 years before the Sept. 4th, 1894 tailors strike – more than 10,000 Jewish tailors went on strike for the first time in London. Newspapers like the Jewish Daily Forward recorded these activities, and the large Jewish socialist community of the Lower East Side actively campaigned to improve worker conditions.

A Lower East Side garment shop. Early camera technology required a camera shutter to be open much longer than today – causing any moving object in view to appear as a blur.

The sweatshops of the Lower East Side were particularly brutal. Sweatshop owners exploited workers by suppressing wages, demanding long hours, and keeping terrible working conditions – sometimes to disastrous consequence. In a wonderfully insightful article – “Jews in the American Labor Movement: Past, Present and Future” by Bennett Muraskin – stories of the Jewish labor movement are numerous. For example, during the winter of 1909-1910, more than 20,000 Jewish and Italian “shirtwaist” workers in NYC conducted a general strike against sweatshop conditions. Interestingly, the employers were heavily German Jewish with Eastern European Jewish workers.  This strike was supported by Gentile women from the Women’s Trade Union League, and even the wives of the German manufacturers sided with the striking workers. The strike was successful.

Many individual labor strikes were similarly successful at this time. They had a cumulative effect, too. Labor activists had been advocating for a holiday for workers as early as 1882. But as the movement gained steam, individual cities and states designated a holiday to celebrate the labor force. Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1894. It is no coincidence that happened the same year as our 12,000-person strike.

One of the stories we share on our building tours at the Museum at Eldridge Street is the organized boycott of kosher butchers – another successful strike result by immigrants. The struggle for labor rights would have intimately affected many of Eldridge Street’s early congregants. And the kosher meat boycott and riots brought the struggle tour doorstep. Last weekend, the entire country took a day off in commemoration of our labor force. It’s important to remember how hard-fought that commemoration was.

Eva Brune is the Museum’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement.

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