Look for the Union Label

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, December 1, 2011

With the din from the Occupy Wall Street encampments fading in the early winter chill, it's time to step back and consider the phenomenon as part of the broader history of the anti-capitalist struggle in America.  One of OWS's most famous revolutionary socialist predecessors was the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, whose story is told by Daniel Katz in his new book All Together Different.  In Katz's view, the Yiddish socialists who founded the ILGWU were both building a socialist trade union movement and trying to create what he calls a "mutual culturalism"—an early form of multiculturalism.  In their time, these attempts may have been heroic; in ours, they are poignant.

After the 1861 emancipation of the Russian serfs, Jews living in the Pale of Settlement were again marginalized, a landless "nation" with a tenuous position in the vast polyglot Russian empire.  In response, Yiddish socialism, a secular nationalist movement, set out to create a separate identity for Jews based on their Yiddish language and culture.  Katz's account does little justice to the complexity of the relationships between Yiddish socialism and the era's other intellectual and social movements, Jewish and non-Jewish; but it will have to do.  Once Yiddish socialism was exported to America around the turn of the 20th century, it began to merge with notions about autonomous "national" cultures, anti-nationalism, and anti-assimilationism.  New York City, the center of the garment trade and of Jewish immigration, was the testing ground for these ideas.

The ILGWU, formed in 1900 with mostly Jewish women at its helm, set out to unionize blacks, Italians, Hispanics, and other workers on an equal footing.  The young Russian women who headed ILGWU locals and educational departments, like Fannia Cohn, were true believers in class struggle.  They turned the Jewish socialist ideal of autonomous "national" cultures into the educational and social policies of the union, which offered extensive classes and cultural activities in the name of building revolutionary socialist solidarity in the struggle against capitalism. In contrast, the men who came to dominate the leadership of the International were less devoted, more willing to compromise with capital and government, more individually than collectively oriented, and more personally ambitious.  To Katz's credit, he makes the contrast clear and focuses on the women.

While union programs respected cultural pluralism, Yiddish was the language in which revolutionary socialist ideals were promulgated among Jews.  But at the moment when an Americanized generation was coming of age, the Immigration Act of 1924 cut off the flow of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.  Meanwhile, other complications arose: a rapid influx of black women into the needle trades, competition from Communist unions and, ironically, new labor elites—and cleavages—that arose from the union's success in educating workers.  As the union became more varied, splits and schisms occurred over ideology and power.  In the mid-1920's, the union was shattered by strikes and street battles involving management, Communists, and gangsters.  Men like David Dubinsky ultimately picked up the pieces, pushed back the Communists, allied with other industrial unions and, over the course of the 1930's, aligned the labor movement with the New Deal.  Women were progressively marginalized.

Labor-sponsored cultural events of the 1930s—the well-known musical revue Pins and Needles and less-famous shows like Steel, Stevedore, and Black Pit—turned into a microcosm of these changes. On Broadway, off-Broadway, and in national touring companies, Pins and Needles used union members who had studied drama, dance, and music in union educational programs to convey labor's anti-capitalist message.  But cast members began to fight over solos and professional actors and singers grabbed at the leading roles.  Black cast members were excluded from a command performance at the White House and Jews were told to play down their Jewishness.  Pins and Needles became a kind of ironic parable for the ILGWU and the labor movement, as ambition, greed, and the search for respectability worked against class consciousness and revolutionary socialism.

Like the traditional Judaism that it replaced for some, Yiddish socialism would have a hard time maintaining the allegiance of its educated, upwardly mobile children.  Katz laments the role played by the Second World War in empowering the "dominant culture" and ending "mutual culturalism."  But what future was there for an anti-capitalist alliance embracing both class consciousness and distinct ethnic cultures?  Could it have mobilized America to fight a global war against fascism?  Not likely.  Could it have brought about racial equality sooner than the "dominant culture" ultimately did, or kept women in the labor force after World War II rather than sending them home to wait another generation for full economic participation?  In theory—but how revolutionary socialism would have managed these things in practice, especially during a Cold War, is far from clear.

Sixty years later, the implosion of the labor unions is unmistakable; but it is as much self-inflicted as it is the result of external events like wars, corporate avarice, or globalization.  Unions are supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, complete with anti-capitalist rhetoric and a call for "economic justice"; but they have become conventional participants in the American economic system.  Public workers' unions have become self-interested electoral groups, dependent on taxes and bonds from which bankers profit; other unions collude openly with government and capital, as in the General Motors bailout, and have benefited from crony capitalism no less than the banks.

As for multiculturalism, it has become a system of racial grievances and grifting, hierarchies of victims, apologies and reparations, where Jews are extra-"white."  This is not "mutual culturalism" but a zero-sum game of winners and losers.

The lessons of the ILGWU, militant unions, and revolutionary socialism are thus not straightforward.  Do the current problems of the unions and of multiculturalism stem from the defeat of a labor ideal?  Or are they unintended consequences of this ideal, or even its logical outcome?  And what does Yiddish socialism offer Jews today besides vague memories of someone else's Old Country?  Perhaps the ILGWU story teaches that, as with much of history, even what is useful in the moment can eventually become a cautionary tale.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

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