Jewish Women Who Were Local Labor Organizers (plus video)

“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 and encouraged labor to support government regulation to protect women in the workforce. 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.“   –Alice Kessler Harris

EA8B49B7-A69E-4E18-9AFE-939439FFE426Matilda Rabinowitz (1887-1963)

Matilda Rabinowitz (born Tatania Gitel Rabinowitz in 1887 in Ukrainia) emigrated to New York at the age of thirteen. Soon her family moved to Stamford and later to Bridgeport.  She worked in shirtwaist and corset factories, millinery and department stores, in a private nursery and as a nursing home aide. Other working class factory girls labored long hours for low pay in dangerous jobs without ever having the opportunity to challenge their lot in life, but Rabinowitz was different.  She identified the capitalist system as the source of women workers’ suffering, and she decided to take action.

By the time she was in her early twenties, Rabinowitz  had joined the socialist movement. She took a job with the Connecticut Industrial Commission and moved to Hartford, interviewing factory workers about their conditions.  During this time she considered going to college, but the union movement proved to have a stronger pull on her. Rabinowitz’s growing desire for justice led her first to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which she soon discovered cared little about the plight of unskilled working women.  The AFL’s indifference pushed her toward the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the only union at the time that welcomed women, immigrant workers on an equal basis.

In November, 1913, private detective Harry Hardy traveled from Boston to the borough of Shelton, Connecticut with a mission: kidnap Matilda Rabinowitz. He brought with him other employees of the Sherman Detective Agency, ready to break the strike of more than 1,000 weavers and mill workers at the Sidney Blumenthal & Company, a strike organized by the Wobblies and led by Rabinowitz. The plot leaked to the press; it didn’t disrupt the strike, but it showed how afraid the local authorities were of the young organizer.

The strike was finally defeated, thanks to a ”perfect storm” of outside replacement workers, delivered by other unions and a government employment agency, along with the violence of New York-based thugs whose tactics ended up causing the death of an infant child of a striking couple.

Rabinowitz later made an extraordinary journey across Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, South Carolina, working in IWW strikes at silk mills, automobile factories, steel mills and cigar factories.  In each of these union drives, she was the only woman organizer. Although she was consistently described in the press as “frail,” “diminutive,” and “of girlish appearance,” no one could deny that she worked with great energy and the power of her conviction. Matilda Rabinowitz continued as a union activist for the rest of her life until her death in 1963.

5E2CD691-B0D6-445F-AA9A-7235F4070493Emma Goldman (1888-1940)

It was as a Connecticut garment worker in 1888 that Emma Goldman studied anarchist thought. She was a Lithuanian immigrant working in a New Haven corset factory at the time. In 1890 she briefly started a dressmaking cooperative in that city and established herself as an organizer among the German, Russian and Jewish immigrants.

By 1897, her reputation as an activist and theorist had been established, and soon after Emma Goldman was touring throughout New England, across the country and in Europe. She was also jailed a number of times for “inciting to riot,” supporting the distribution of birth control, and opposing the first world war.

She was considered one of the “most dangerous” women in America” according to J. Edgar Hoover when she spoke in Hartford on February 12, 1913. “Red Emma” Goldman talked about love and marriage, a subject that was as revolutionary as the anarchist theory she is known for today.

Goldman published “Marriage and Love” in 1911. The pamphlet analyzed how the social institution of marriage maintains capitalism. Derided as an advocate of “free love” for her view against compulsory monogamy, Goldman wrote “Free love? As if love is anything but free– it can live in no other atmosphere. In freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely.” Marriage, on the other hand she wrote, “incapacitates [a woman] for life’s struggle, annihilates her social consciousness, paralyzes her imagination.”

The fact that Emma Goldman spoke to anyone in Hartford should not be underestimated. She was probably kicked out of more U.S. cities than any other human being. The New Haven police admitted her into a lecture hall in 1909, but they kept out all the people who came to see her.

More than 500 women and men crowded into Hartford’s Columbia Hall in February 1913 to hear this woman and her dangerous ideas. Goldman was accompanied by her lifelong companion and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman.  She told the enthusiastic Hartford audience that “in love only comes the divine union between men and women, and the sanction of the church or law cannot make it a bit more sacred or holy.”

From Burlington Vermont, where the mayor stopped her from a public appearance, to El Paso Texas to address a largely Mexican-American crowd (where she was allowed to speak in English but not in Spanish) Emma spent several decades in standoffs with police and government authorities fighting to express her ideas.

Emma Goldman was deported to Russia by the federal government in 1919 during the first Red Scare, orchestrated by the federal government to rid the country of radical thinkers and organizers. She continued to write and agitate for her ideals until her 1940 death in Canada.

F62D514C-02F2-42D2-B0C4-6751C9C708BCRebecca Weiner (1911)

On March 20, 1911, five days before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City, Hartford tailors took to the streets for better wages and safer working conditions.

Their strike was triggered by the firing of Rebecca Weiner, a young organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Rebecca had been organizing a union of the alteration tailors at the Sage Allen department store. When owner Norman Allen found out, Rebecca was sacked.

Twenty tailors walked out in protest. Allen shipped the strikers’ unfinished work to G. Fox and Company, Brown Thomson, and other downtown stores. The 200 tailors of those establishments refused to help break the strike and were locked out of their jobs.

Rebecca Weiner did not just target the economic and safety conditions of the tailors; her organizing exposed the socially proscribed options that young working women faced. Rebecca knew that Hartford garment workers worked 57 hours a week, long hours which produced wages that were half of what similar work paid in New York.

The six-day-a-week schedule meant there was almost no time for a personal life outside of the workplace. Women workers were often prey for a male supervisor who had the power to fine them or withhold wages if they resisted his sexual advances.

A federal Department of Labor study had already found that nearly half the prostitutes surveyed had previously worked in factories and shops before turning tricks. “No working girl can ply her honest calling for less than $6 a week,” Rebecca reported in the ILGWU newspaper, “and be safe from the temptation and defilement to which she is exposed in the polluting atmosphere that environs her struggle for decent living.”

Sage Allen’s owner Norman Allen was a formidable foe, determined to beat Rebecca Weiner’s efforts. Not only was he a wealthy capitalist, Allen served as the head of the State Businessmen’s Association and as a Hartford Police Commissioner. This combination of legal, political, and economic muscle was too much for the tailors in 1911 and their campaign failed.

But thanks to the growing social awareness and determination of women garment workers, over the next few years the ILGWU organized and won a number of other Hartford shops.

 But thanks to the growing social awareness and determination of women garment workers, over the next few years the ILGWU organized and won a number of other Hartford shops.

3ED339BE-FB3F-4C0F-B2E4-36F63595E532Feigel Levine (1941)

March, 1941: It was an extraordinary sight. Women in prison uniforms marched back and forth in front of the Kolodney & Meyers Company. Heading up this parade was a uniformed “prison guard,” wearing sunglasses and carrying a police baton. The “prisoners” carried signs reading “Don’t be chained to your machine for less than you deserve,” and “Join the ILGWU.”

Feigel  Levine, 21, portrayed the guard, and had staged this colorful protest to draw attention to the ILGWU’s re-appearance. The young organizer was later arrested for driving a sound truck up and down Capitol Avenue in front of Kolodney’s business.

On April 22, Kolodney workers were on strike. Hartford garment workers had been trying to organize Kolodney’s shops since 1919. Now there were 500 workers employed at his Hartford and New Britain plants, and on this first day, hundreds of strikers were looking like an army without guns, dressed in smart strike uniforms with overseas caps that read ILGWU, and “Kolodney Striker” sashes over their shoulders.

When it looked like Kolodney planned to weather the strike after two months– and even lose profits to keep the union out– the ILGWU announced that the New York business “Lady Youth Dresses” would soon be opened near his plant. This new company would compete with Kolodney. All the strikers, the new employer announced, were welcomed to take jobs at this union-friendly business. And they did, effectively ending the strike.

Ralph Kolodney was jailed in 1957 for tax fraud, and was required to pay the government $2.8 million in back taxes and penalties. The feds seized the property where his garment factory had been located.

18BE1FE7-AF8C-4BD9-BB82-0BD718027410Merrilee Milstein (1947-2008)

An activist for social and economic justice since high school, Merrilee Milstein became a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (now UNITE HERE) in 1968 while working as a banquet waitress. From 1972 to 1994 she served as a vice president of New England Health Care Employees 1199. She was an organizer and political director, and led the state sector of the union. In 1982 she served as chair of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.

For more than 35 years, Milstein helped organize thousands of workers, led strikes and was arrested more than 90 times. She played a major role in building labor and community coalitions in Connecticut and New England. 

Speaking to workers, Milstein offered encouragement and acknowledged their will to fight: “You are so united and so strong,” she often said. “Your solidarity really is impressive to watch. I know you will win.”

She was a founding member and secretary-treasurer of Legislative Electoral Action Project (LEAP), and served on the executive committee of Northeast Action. In 1991, she was the coordinator of the March to Rebuild America with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Milstein was appointed deputy regional director of the AFL-CIO in 1996. She led efforts to build local and state power with central labor councils and state federations in the Northeast. She was District of Columbia coordinator for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in 2003, and coordinated Labor 2004 in New Hampshire.

“Merrilee loved action and provided leadership to countless labor battles,” said Joe Alvarez of the AFL-CIO. “ In every campaign she was looking not just for a win, but what you build along the way.”

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