Jewish Labor Efforts Endure Over Century


Asking what local radio station journalists, public school teachers, bus drivers and train conductors have in common may sound like the beginning of a bad joke.

But their shared dismay with poor working conditions is far from a punchline.

This month, unionized workers from WHYY Union, Philadelphia schools and SEPTA, among other companies, sat down with their employers around the bargaining table, asking for fair contracts, fair wages and coronavirus protections.

At the helm of some of these efforts are a handful of Jewish leaders, holding onto a century-long Jewish tradition of labor organizing in the United States.

Arthur Steinberg, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, is urging state officials to adopt a mask mandate for students, staff and teachers in state schools.

“The science is very clear that mask mandates are a critical part of a multi-layered mitigation strategy,” Steinberg said.

The desire for increased COVID-19 protections in the classroom is a new demand this year for AFT Pennsylvania, as this is the first school year of managing the pandemic with in-person learning at the outset. It’s become a more politicized issue, making it difficult for the union to gain traction in some counties with its argument, according to Steinberg.

Arthur Steinberg is an older white man with a bald head and glasses wearing a blue polo shirt. He is standing in front of five people in front of a podium giving a speech.
Arthur Steinberg (center, blue shirt) at Overbrook High School rallies for school funding on June 11 with members of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus. | Courtesy of Joseph Corrigan

He is not alone in his efforts to protect Pennsylvania’s workers.

The Philadelphia chapter of the Jewish Labor Committee recently came out in written support of the WHYY Union, which is organizing with the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, promoting its rally in support of fair contracts. The chapter also expressed solidarity with Penn Museum employees, who complained about low wages, workplace harassment and poor job stability.

Michael Hersch, director of the PJLC, said that these employers can be paternalistic in their approach to the workplace.

“The working people are not considered,” Hersch said. “There isn’t transparency, and there’s the notion that, ‘Hey, you’re lucky to be working here,’ rather than a sense of teamwork and collaboration.”

For both Steinberg and Hersch, advocating for workers is baked into their Jewish values.

“Judaism has social justice and social issues embedded in it,” Steinberg said.

Jews have long been part of the labor organizing efforts in the U.S., with Jewish union participation dating back to the 19th century. 

Though most unions weren’t Jewish unions, many had sizable Jewish populations. First-generation immigrants who were tailors in their home countries — and were disproportionately Jewish — joined garment workers unions. 

According to Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history at Temple University and director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, Jews were familiar with collective organizing practices, as they were often minorities fighting for workplace protections in the countries from which they emigrated.

In the 20th century, unions didn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, they informed a cultural infrastructure for Jews.

“It was very much connected to a broad culture of the left,” said Beth S. Wenger, associate dean for graduate studies and the Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. “The United Hebrew Trades, the Workmen’s Circle and the Jewish press — especially the Jewish Daily Forward — all these were very much part of the culture that supported labor and supported unionism.”

Beyond advocating for better working conditions, unions, such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, had labor banks; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union had an education department and offered classes in English, economics and history.

A black and white photo of several people at a protest. They are holding signs in various languages.
Garment workers on strike in New York City in 1913 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Though vestiges of Jewish labor organizing from last century remain, such as The Forward and the Workers Circle, Jewish union culture has dwindled. Many Jews, as they became second- and third-generation immigrants, began to climb class ranks and work jobs where union efforts were less common. 

Berman believes that though Jewish union membership is nowhere near its peak in the early 20th century, the spirit that drove union efforts then persists now.

“The political kinds of proclivities of believing in supporting workers, paying them a living wage, treating workers as whole people … people who deserve access to recreation, people who deserve access to education — at least among a sizable subset of American Jews — did endure even longer than the cultural or social infrastructure.”

Hersch hopes Jewish union participation won’t dissipate completely. The grandson of four Holocaust survivors, Hersch is protective of those in precarious positions of power. 

Though many Jewish people work in industries that do not require labor organization, union involvement is an added layer of protection for a group of people that have historically been ostracized and driven from their homes and jobs, Hersch said.

“It’s important for us not to forget our roots,” he said.

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