THE REMARKABLE CANDIDACY of Bernie Sanders, an unapologetic socialist, inspired tens of thousands of mostly young supporters to join the Democratic Socialists of America over the last year. This renewed energy in the nation’s largest socialist institution has been a reaction to an assault on the civil liberties, human rights, and economic security on ordinary people by right wing and neoliberal politicians and economic elites. This socialist turn in American politics has strong echoes in the revolutionary movements that emerged in Russia among Jews and other marginalized groups, just as they were beginning to emigrate to the United States in the late 19th century. The peculiar philosophy of Yiddish Socialism, or Yiddishism, that Jews carried with them and refined in the American industrial and political contexts, gave rise to a powerful force of labor and socialist movement activists who were essential to the construction of New Deal, Civil Rights, and Great Society reforms in the middle of the twentieth century. Looking at the conditions under which Yiddish Socialism developed, and how its principles served activists so well as they sought to build radical power among workers of many races and ethnicities, reveals lost lessons that can be applied today as a new movement emerges in the early 21st Century. . . .
WHEN WORKERS OF OTHER RACIAL-ETHNIC GROUPS entered the workforce, Yiddish Socialists were ready to appeal to them not just individually, but through their cultures. The presence of a large minority of Italian garment workers was encouraged by factory owners in the hopes of dividing the workforce through suspicion. Solidarity among Jews and Italians was cultivated by Jewish organizers and their Italian allies. Rose Schneiderman, one of the few paid female organizers in any union, began to reach out to Italian community leaders, including Catholic priests, to build support for the union among Italian garment workers who began to enter the industry even before the Uprising of 20,000. Through education and eventually facilities of their own, the ILGWU created spaces for Italians to explore their ethnic heritage in the union context. In 1916 mostly male cloakmakers formed the all Italian Local 48. Three years later, most Italian women could join the Dressmakers Local 89.
By the end of the First World War, the ILGWU had become the 3rd largest union in the American Federation of Labor. But the post-war Red Scare, new aggressive anti-union tactics by garment manufacturers, and bitter conflicts among the fractured left — Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists — throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s weakened the union significantly. Workers were being left behind in the great economic surge of the decade. But Jewish unions began to build their own banks and insurance companies to help themselves and their members. And they built cooperative housing their members could not otherwise afford.
During this period manufacturers began to hire thousands of black and Puerto Rican workers as strikebreakers, hoping to foment interracial and interethnic discord. In a truly exceptional moment in American labor history, rather than blame and combat the interlopers, the ILGWU developed strategies to turn the strikebreakers into union loyalists. Moreso, at times when Communist Jews had formed parallel unions in the garment industry, they similarly appealed to black workers in particular.
Through a permanent Unity House in the Poconos, the Workmen’s Circle Camp Kinderland, both built in the early 1920s, and the Socialist Party Rand School of Social Science, among other institutions, Yiddish Socialists invited Black and Spanish-speaking workers to multicultural events, such as plays, concerts and social dances, where they also trained in union building. They also supported A. Philip Randolph, who attended the Rand School in the 1910s with garment workers, as he built the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Despite their efforts, the Depression that began in late 1929 devastated the ILGWU, which was nearly bankrupt at the beginning of 1933.
In the fall of 1933, over 100,000 dressmakers in New York City, working for mostly mostly Jewish and some Italian manufacturers, responded to a strike call by the ILGWU which numbered less than 30,000 throughout the country. Within weeks over 4,000 black and 2,500 Spanish-speaking members joined the union, most of whom were concentrated in the Local 22 Dressmakers and the smaller Local 91 Children’s Dressmakers unions. For 15 years or more, Fannia Cohn had worked tirelessly on the international level, sometimes alone and sometimes with her own money to design and promote education programs and propagate the Yiddishist theory of constructing a militant multicultural labor movement built on a foundation of class-based racial-ethnic identities. Education was the vehicle, and every activity was geared toward preparing workers to take direct action. Dance and sports, for example, were meant for social bonding, but also to train workers to be physical with one another in public and to build trust, qualities essential for picket line battles. Local 22 manager, Charles “Sasha” Zimmerman, a Russian-born revolutionary who had been active in the IWW and the Communist Party before being expelled, enacted Fannia Cohn’s program to the greatest effect.