Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
All Together DifferentYiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism$

Daniel Katz

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814748367

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814748367.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM NYU Press SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.nyu.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of NYU Press Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in NYSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 08 April 2020



(p.1) Introduction
All Together Different

Daniel Katz

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory chapter provides an overview of the book's main themes. This book highlights an alternative vision of unionism that coexisted in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) along with, and for a while held sway over, the more moderate vision that eventually eclipsed it. It describes the expression of a form of multiculturalism in the United States called mutual culturalism, which can be seen in a movement of union building in the ILGWU that began in the first decade of the twentieth century, climaxed in the 1930s, and had a far-reaching influence on American social and political culture. It argues for a rehabilitation of multiculturalism to counter the prevalent assumption that ethnic affiliations are inherently incompatible with militant class consciousness.

Keywords:   International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, ILGWU, Jewish radicals, labor movement, multiculturalism, multicultural unionism, militant class consciousness

One April morning in 1999, I sat in Maida Springer-Kemp’s Pittsburgh kitchen to talk about her early days as a union activist in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). She served me tea, sat down erect, and began to speak with a highly formal diction. At eighty-nine, her memory was sharp, and she had a warm sense of humor. She delighted in reminiscing about her comrades in the ILGWU and the labor movement she helped to build.1 But nothing seemed to give her as much pleasure as her realization that I had no idea what she was saying when she sprinkled her stories with Yiddish phrases. For example, in recalling the hostility that erupted during grievance meetings, she remembered one party or the other uttering the curse “Er zol vaksen vi a tsibeleh, mit dem kop in drerd.” I looked at her, puzzled. She giggled and translated for me: “He should grow like an onion, with his head in the ground!”2

Springer-Kemp immigrated to Harlem with her Panamanian mother and West Indian father in 1917, when she was seven years old. She got her first job in the garment industry in the winter of 1926–1927 and joined the ILGWU in 1933, when it was still a weak remnant of a once powerful union. A few months later, Springer-Kemp was instrumental in organizing the most critical strike in the union’s history, in which thousands of Black and Spanish-speaking workers joined for the first time. She stayed active in Local 22’s educational department in the 1930s, and during World War II she accepted a job in another local union as education director. She picked up Yiddish phrases in these years through intimate proximity to Jewish co-workers in the shop and while participating in classroom, social, cultural, and recreational activities sponsored by union educational departments. When her local’s membership swelled with monolingual Yiddish-speaking refugees after World War II, she took advantage of union-sponsored Yiddish classes to be able to converse with her members. Through formal language training and informal conversations, Springer-Kemp learned a great deal about her fellow unionists’ view of the world and how they lived in it.

(p.2) The union offered Yiddish language instruction, as it did Italian, Spanish, and, later, Chinese classes, in order to demonstrate its respect for ethnic cultures and to help families communicate across generations. But union leaders also recognized the cross-cultural awareness that members developed in programs geared to ethnic groups other than their own. The ILGWU’s public celebration of ethnic culture extended to all major racial-ethnic groups in the union as a vehicle to build trust within and among them. When Springer-Kemp joined the union in 1933 as a Spanish speaker and a Black woman, she had numerous opportunities to explore and express the foods, music idioms, languages, and histories of her family. In those venues, members from many backgrounds frequently participated. In time, Springer-Kemp came to see herself as African American after marrying African American men, raising a child, and living most of her adult life in African American communities. While developing her own racial-ethnic identity, she learned to embrace the differences between union members for the sheer joy of it and as a strategic means to a political end.

Springer-Kemp’s facility with Yiddish is but one illustration of the multiculturalism that permeated the Jewish labor and socialist movements from the first decade of the twentieth century through the 1930s. Working-class immigrant Jews who formed the ILGWU employed creative strategies to attend to the many gendered, political, generational, religious, and language cultures among their members. In the most highly developed period of racial-ethnic cultural exchange in the ILGWU, from late 1933 to late 1937, tens of thousands of garment workers in several key local unions participated in an extraordinary experiment in multicultural unionism.

The centrality of ethnicity to the formation and operation of unions from 1900 to the late 1930s was not limited to the ILGWU or the Jewish needle trades.3 What may have been unusual in the Jewish socialist and labor movements was the extent to which Jews were self-conscious about the importance of other ethnic cultures in a multiethnic and interracial movement. Long before multicultural movements emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the ILGWU broadcasted the critical significance of its many constituent racial-ethnic groups. The union used the collage “A Union of Many Cultures” in a variety of local and International publications into the late 1930s to reflect the membership’s racial as well as cultural diversity.

Jews sought to establish cultural activities and institutions among their own radical coethnics and to encourage those activities and institutions among workers of other ethnic groups as well. Through formal classes, athletic and artistic activities, vacation retreats, and dances, these garment (p.3)


Figure I.1. The ILGWU used this collage frequently in the mid-1930s. After the August 1933 strike, Local 22 boasted that it represented workers from thirty-two “nationalities” including Jewish, Italian, Spanish, and Negro.

(Ryllis Alexander and Omar Pancoast Goslin, Growing Up: 21 Years of Education with the I.L.G.W.U., 1917–1938 [New York: H. Wolff, 1938])

workers and their kin wove a chain-mail organization equipped to respond to a complex and rapidly changing industry. In so doing, they pushed the boundaries of interracial socialization and demonstrated an alternative model of unionism that inspired union building throughout the 1930s.

Calling this approach social unionism, they implemented it through the most comprehensive worker-education program in American history to (p.4) that point. Through broadly conceived educational activities, union leaders encouraged workers to explore and express their distinct ethnic and racial identities within the context of a militant union movement.4 In this way, diverse groups of members developed trust in one another and a fierce loyalty to their union. Social unionism was a radical vision of social organization, a prescription for the political role of unions as well as an organizing strategy. Above all, it was an expression of union culture that intersected with a larger movement for social change. Architects of social unionism saw the union as a mechanism to bring workers, families, and working-class communities into the labor movement through cultural as well as political activism.5 When it worked, social unionism appealed not only to the material needs of members but to their political hopes and their social and creative desires.

The ILGWU is a fascinating study both for its important position in the American labor movement and because its leaders and activists were connected with the full breadth of social and political movements in the early and mid-twentieth century. Since the 1910s, the ILGWU was a great progenitor of programs and ideas for the American labor movement, and the ideals of social unionism influenced the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and, through it, the New Deal order.6 As one of the principal founders of the CIO, the ILGWU helped lead the labor movement in organizing the vast army of industrial workers in dozens of industries.7 A close look at the people who led the revival of the ILGWU in the 1930s and at the methods they employed reveals an intriguing connection to revolutionary ideas and experiments among Jewish radicals over the preceding forty years. This book puts the spotlight on an alternative vision of unionism that coexisted in the ILGWU along with, and for a while held sway over, the more moderate vision that eventually eclipsed it.

This study highlights a distinct formulation of multiculturalism among Russian Jewish immigrants over half a century. Russian Jewish socialists shared a Jewish national imagination that grew out of their place as permanent foreigners in the Russian Empire. Czarist regimes imposed Russian language and culture on institutions of power and authority throughout the regions under their control. Jews were only the most subdued and marginalized of the scores of national and ethnic groups in the Russian Empire. Socialist movements that opposed the czar, typically led by students, scholars, and artists, formed among many of those national groups. Most radicals worked among their coethnics on the basis of a shared history rooted in territory, countries, or kingdoms that were once autonomous and a source of national cultural pride. But Jews in Russia were among the few ethnic (p.5) groups, and the largest, to be without any home territory in the empire. As minorities in every region in which they lived, Jews were doubly oppressed by the institutions of the Russian Empire and by locally dominant populations. Jews responded in a multiplicity of ways, but the largest movement was a peculiar form of socialism based on the lives and idiom of the Jewish folk, which began to develop in Russia in the early 1880s, just at the moment when Jews began to emigrate from Russia in massive numbers.8

Inspired by Yiddish socialism, Jewish intellectuals labored to recover and elevate their own Yiddish culture and envisioned a class-based revolution in which all workers would be rooted in venerated ethnic folk cultures. Their own revolutionary Jewish identity was tied to the construction of a multicultural movement that encouraged the revolutionary identities of workers from all ethnic groups. The clearest expression of this form of multiculturalism in the United States, which I call mutual culturalism, can be seen in a movement of union building in the ILGWU that began in the first decade of the twentieth century, climaxed in the 1930s, and had a far-reaching influence on American social and political culture.

In the United States, ideas and movements for multiculturalism began in the 1910s as social critics grappled with the ramifications of massive immigration, acculturation and assimilation, world war, and nationalism. Randolph Bourne, writing in 1916, was appalled at the ravages of the Great War and blamed European nationalism, which he saw manifest in the United States as well. Americanization efforts failed because they sought to impose Anglo-American culture on other ethnic cultures. He envisioned a “new cosmopolitan idea” in which American nationalism would embrace the “federation of ethnic cultures” that already existed. A radical notion among Anglo-Saxon elites such as himself, Bourne’s cosmopolitanism was nevertheless bounded by class and race. He expressly considered only European cultures, and only those “finer forms” of “music, verse, the essay, philosophy.”9 Writing in the 1910s and 1920s, Horace Kallen, who coined the term cultural pluralism, argued for the rights of immigrant cultures to resist assimilation.10 In a 1915 article for the Nation, Kallen blamed nationalism for the world war and argued that, since even the working classes had each supported its own nation, the war underscored the weakness of class relative to nationalism. However, Kallen differentiated between negative nationalism based on hate and positive nationalism based on cultural pride and argued for an embrace of diversity within a dominant, though not unitary, American culture. Neither of these models of multiculturalism directly confronts the relationship between class formation and ethnic identity. In all ethnically heterogeneous (p.6) societies, there are strong correlations between race and ethnicity on the one hand and class, status, and privilege on the other. Writing more recently, James R. Barrett does discuss the prevalent relationships among ethnic groups of workers who create working-class cultures within their ethnic groups, which he calls “ethno-cultural class formation.”11 But the mutual culturalism of Yiddish socialism was predicated on two assumptions that went further than what Barrett has identified: first, in capitalist societies, ethnic identity is a constituent of class; and second, socialism demands mutually venerated ethnic cultures.

Mutual culturalism shares with cultural pluralism a respect for distinct ethnic cultures—including language, religion, and family relationships—and a willingness to tolerate the practice of those cultural forms in society and its institutions. However, mutual culturalism considers ethnic cultural differences in the context of class and the power relations within groups and between the dominant and subordinate ethnic groups. Under state regimes underpinned by capitalism, subordinate ethnic groups struggle for economic and political inclusion as well as cultural expression. For mutual culturalists, the struggle to assert cultural identity is a class struggle as well. The ability for subordinate ethnic groups to coexist is critical to the struggle for social justice and should be encouraged as a central component of movement building. Ethnic cultural coexistence cannot be accomplished through expressions of sympathy or humanitarianism alone but requires a principle of strategic mutual struggle. Among Yiddish socialists, a mutual effort to support the multiplicity of workers’ ethnic cultural ties was essential for revolution because it strengthened workers’ own ethnic struggle against the dominant culture and made them feel secure that the revolutionary movement was not similarly bent on suppressing their differences. Because the capitalists against whom Jews in Russia and the United States struggled were most often Jewish as well, Yiddish socialism was a class-based ethnic identity.

How did revolutionary Jews imagine and to what extent did they succeed in building a multicultural labor movement in the 1930s? An exploration of these questions offers important insights into the relationship between class and what Benedict Anderson would call the “imagined community” of Jewish nationalists.12 Not all ILGWU members shared the revolutionary ideas and ethics of Yiddish socialism. But many groups and individuals demanding inclusion readily embraced that worldview. After Jewish immigrant women from the Russian Empire muscled their way into the male-dominated ILGWU, important leaders among them accessed Yiddish socialist ideas and designed educational programs to attract and retain other marginalized (p.7) workers in the Lower East Side needle trades. These women tapped the revolutionary ideology of Yiddish socialism that framed their ethnic identity to guide them in their relations with workers of other racial-ethnic cultural groups. Just as important, they tapped the extensive resources of the Jewish socialist and labor movements, of which the ILGWU was an integral part.

Separate and interdependent at the same time, various institutions centered in the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan cultivated activists, advocates, and leaders. Jews were attracted to the whole panoply of radical movements, including anarchism and, later, communism, and they formed rival institutions. The ideological divide on the Left was very real, but Jewish communists and socialists maintained common tenets that are often overlooked. The Yiddishist methods of transmitting socialist ideas through the experience of ethnic culture were so powerful that they transcended the escalating political schisms in the Jewish socialist movement during the 1920s. Over the course of three decades, Yiddish socialists in the ILGWU and in scores of unions and organizations associated with the Socialist and Communist parties, among other left groups, resisted pressures to conform to a moderate American standard of behavior and thought. Yiddish socialists consistently reached out to make common cause with other racial-ethnic minority groups. In this period, Jewish unionists self-consciously considered and reconsidered their ethnic identities, social visions, and relationships to the American nation.

This book argues for a rehabilitation of multiculturalism to counter the prevalent assumption that ethnic affiliations are inherently incompatible with militant class consciousness. Gary Gerstle and Lizabeth Cohen have contributed to an emerging scholarly debate about the limits of multiculturalism.13 In both of their studies, the immigrant ethnic community was dominated by cultural, economic, and political elites that stifled working-class militancy. Workers could only become class conscious when ethnicity was tempered and interpreted through exposure to popular culture. According to these authors, unintended consequences in elements of the dominant mass culture, not the multiple ethnic communities from which workers came, were responsible for the success of industrial organizations. By reclaiming a moment when multiculturalism was indistinguishable from the formation of class consciousness and militant union building, I complicate the relationship between ethnicity and class and uncover both the multicultural roots of labor and the labor roots of multiculturalism.

This strategy of multicultural unionism was extraordinarily successful in the 1930s. The character of the ILGWU and conditions in the ladies’ garment (p.8) industry combined to create a fertile bed in which this kind of social and political experimentation could be cultivated. The ILGWU was formed in 1900 with the amalgamation of four previously independent unions representing mostly skilled workers. For the next thirty-five years, local union officers typically resisted the encroachment on their autonomy by International union leaders, who waged a recurring battle to centralize authority. As the union grew to incorporate semiskilled and unskilled workers, a flexible but contentious structure resulted. Members’ suspicions of a strong central leadership were coupled with an unpredictable industry dominated by thousands of small, transient manufacturing shops and populated with equally transient union members. At times, shop-level activists, local union leaders, joint board officers, and International union officials all vied with one another for authority through various union functions. Until union power was concentrated firmly on the International level in the late 1930s, individual leaders or small groups were relatively free to innovate with or without cooperation from other groups in the union. Indeed, over a critical period of four years, from 1933 to 1937, local unions could create educational programs without waiting for permission or catering them to more moderate tastes.

Before the Supreme Court in 1937 upheld the Wagner Act, which established the first real mechanism on the federal level to regulate and enforce labor-management contracts in multiple private-sector industries, the union depended on the militancy and activism of union members on the shop floor.14 Even moderate union leaders, concerned as much with organizational hierarchy and personal authority as with broad social ideals, welcomed any mechanism to foster union loyalty among members. Most union members were young women who sat on the margins of power in their families and communities. Many women craved opportunities to create, lead, and express themselves through these programs. By the mid-1930s, the union confronted the reality of thousands of new members from ethnic and racial groups that had little or no previous representation in the union. Success depended on a strategy that acknowledged that fact. Finally, Jewish leaders with direct links to Yiddish socialism in the first two decades of the twentieth century were well placed on the local and International levels of the union to address changes in the demographics of the garment-industry workforce, and programs that celebrated ethnic and racial difference were familiar options.

Within the ILGWU’s diffuse structure, many educational programs both in local unions and the International offices became centers of influence for social unionists and among the greatest sources of the union’s power. These (p.9) centers created conditions under which workers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds forged social bonds in the 1930s. The union marshaled its members through the social and cultural venues it constructed, and it flexed its muscles on the picket line, in the elite cultural venues of the country and in electoral and public-policy campaigns. These exercises of power gave the ILGWU the leverage necessary to build relationships with liberal politicians and to help effect lasting changes.

The rivalry among left factions in the American labor movement at times contributed to greater autonomy for local unions in the ILGWU, often manifested through the proliferation of educational programs. While moderate union leaders may have benefited greatly from the power generated by the turbines of local educational programs, they were often deeply ambivalent about them.15 Through the 1920s and into the mid-1930s, the International union supported local union programs in part to counter competition from the Communist Party, but educational programing was often the most radicalized part of the ILGWU. In any case, social bonding in local union programs that attracted shopmates was extremely effective. This feeling of camaraderie, simultaneously reinforcing and stretching across racial and ethnic lines, demonstrated the political power inherent in what we now call multiculturalism.

The argument presented here depends on our understanding of how Russian Jewish socialists defined and used the concepts of culture, nationality, and race. Yiddishists tended to understand all groups in categories of ethnic association.16 The experience and sensibilities of most immigrant Russian Jews fed a conception of race and nationality that diverged from the constructions forged through federal law and popular culture.17 Before World War II, they used the terms nationality and, alternatively but interchangeably, culture to describe all ethnic, racial, language, and national groups. They used race less frequently, sometimes when referring to Black people but also interchangeably with culture and nationality, as in “the Jewish race.” Though Black, Jewish, and other union leaders spoke about “the Negro race,” most often ILGWU leaders placed “Negroes” under the categories of nationality and culture. As late as 1938, Jewish leaders in the ILGWU were counting nationalities in a way that anticipated a late-twentieth-century understanding of ethnicity. A 1934 census of the Dressmakers’ Local 22, for example, listed Jewish, Italian, Negro, and Spanish under the category of “nationality.”18 In the census, there was neither a Caucasian nor an Asian category. Along with the major groups, the union identified, for example, German, French, and Irish as well as Hindus, Japanese, and Malayan. (p.10)

Table I.1 Census of the Membership of the Dressmakers’ Union Local 22, ILGWU, October 1, 1934

According to Nationalities












































































According to Sex









The ILGWU’s use of the terms nationality and culture fit the revolutionary Russian Jewish worldview in two respects. First, Yiddishists saw culture in the Russian Empire, most often characterized by language rather than territory, as the foundation of nationality. Western European constructs of racial difference did not resonate with Yiddishists’ experience of nationality in the Russian Empire, which comprised nearly one hundred ethnic groups spanning northern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and western, central, and eastern Asia. Second, Russian Jews experienced their culture and their developing nationality as outsiders and minorities within an oppressive dominant culture. Jews, while still in Russia and soon after immigrating (p.11) to the United States, made explicit comparisons between their conditions in czarist Russia and those of Blacks in the American South, referring to lynchings and other white persecution as “pogroms,” the Russian-derived Yiddish word that referred to state-sanctioned terror.19 Many Jews identified themselves as a group in a category equivalent to that of Blacks, who were similarly positioned socially.

Throughout this book, I often link the categories of race and ethnicity, reflecting, in part, how my subjects viewed themselves and each other. I use ethnicity to mean the expression of or identification with distinct group cultures that are marked by common language, food, or geographic origin; religious (p.12) or secular rituals; art, literature, and folklore; and family and gender relations. Ethnicity is, as Kathleen Neils Conzen, David A. Gerber, and colleagues write, “a process of construction or invention which incorporates, adapts, and amplifies preexisting communal solidarities, cultural attributes, and historical memories.”20 Ethnic identities among diasporic people are almost always in a state of flux, especially as people move away from the geographic origin of their cultures. Movement in place and time can weaken some markers of ethnic culture, such as language, or strengthen others, such as identification with the region or nation of family origin, and as David Hollinger points out, individuals may adopt very different cultures, for example, through marriage.21

Race has been used to mean many of the same things as ethnicity, particularly before World War II. Before sociologists and politicians settled on five major racial classifications, race often followed specific nationality, language, religious, and geographic designations.22 And cultural characteristics have always been applied to categories of race.23 In the United States, race has often determined the choices people made and the choices that were made for them, such as where they could live or work and the eligibility of marriage partners. For migrants and immigrants, those choices contributed to the shape of their ethnic identities. Jewish ILGWU activists in the mid-1930s conflated racial, national, and language categories, reflecting both a radical politics of multiculturalism and what David Roediger and James Barrett call their “inbetweenness.”24 Russian Jews in 1930s America were still heavily accented. Within their families and communities, the second generation had not yet overtaken their parents in social, political, or economic prominence. As a people, Russian Jews in the United States had not yet been assimilated and accepted as white by the dominant culture. In confronting racial injustice by embracing ethnic cultural diversity, these social unionists implicitly acknowledged that race and ethnicity existed as overlapping, if not entirely synonymous, social categories.

Men and women on the margins of the Russian Empire created Yiddish socialism. In New York, Jewish women who found themselves on the margins of their unions accessed Yiddish socialist ideas and conveyed them to racial-ethnic groups of workers who also sat at the margins: Italians first, then Blacks and Puerto Ricans. While some male leaders were sensitive to multiculturalism, women in local unions dominated by militant Jewish women were largely responsible for the institutions and programs of social unionism created in the 1910s and 1920s. Historians have been drawn to the militant feminism of union members during the Progressive Era, especially (p.13) in the ILGWU. Through women’s initiatives, the ILGWU was one of the first unions to establish union health centers, vacation retreats, and educational departments for its members. Some of these studies end in the 1920s at a low point in women’s participation and influence in organized labor.25 Others pick up the story of labor feminism in the 1940s.26 But as Annelise Orleck and Elizabeth Faue have demonstrated, feminist women played key roles in the resurgence of the ILGWU and the broader labor movement in the 1930s.27

Women leaders in the local and International union departments, and in other institutions of the labor movement, marshaled the ranks of the ILGWU and built the structures to maintain militancy. In so doing, they flouted the virulent stereotype that linked working-class manliness and labor militancy.28 They acted because of their position in the labor force, because of the presence of key leaders in shops and the union, and because they had the support of larger ethnic and political communities. Through education, they created and expanded union venues in which they could experiment with political, social, and cultural ideas. Their youth and their relatively brief time in the workforce contributed to their impatience. But other factors mitigated against women’s power. Men, particularly those with more skills, stayed much longer in the workforce and earned higher wages. Through their longevity, men held most leadership positions in the union despite their small numbers. Until the 1930s, women typically worked in the garment shops until they married and began raising children. This pattern began to change during the Great Depression as women stayed in the workforce longer and, increasingly, after they married.29 But men tended to guard their positions of power jealously and begrudged women leadership posts. The few women who reached high levels of International union authority did so at great personal sacrifice.30

This story opens an inquiry into the role of social unionism, as a strategy and as a set of principles rooted in radical ideology, propagated by strong women, and in building a militant union among a multicultural group of workers. The book traces developments across the country but is largely centered in New York City, which was the largest single port of entry for immigrants, including the Jews and Italians discussed in this book. It is also the single largest African American and Caribbean community in the United States outside the South, as well as the largest destination for Puerto Rican migrants. For many of these people, garment manufacturing was a gateway industry. In 1932, 80 percent of all dresses were manufactured in New York. Throughout the 1930s, New York City and the dress industry remained the heart of the ladies’ garment industry, the third-largest-grossing industry in New York State. By 1940 the entire ladies’ (p.14) garment industry employed 365,442 people nationwide. Even as manufacturing began a steady migration outside New York, the union’s 240,000 members remained concentrated in or near the city. In 1940, 142,589 members belonged to New York City locals, and over 32,000 members belonged to locals in nearby suburbs and small cities.31

This book begins by considering the ideological and political origins of revolutionary Jews, with a particular emphasis on the roles of women in the first wave of immigration from Russia to the United States. The climax of the story is reached at the golden moment of social unionism in the 1930s. The educational programs in the ILGWU, particularly those in New York City’s Local 22 in the mid-1930s, were an intersection of ideology and cultural practice with routes that extended from Russia, Italy, the American Deep South, the British West Indies, and the Spanish Caribbean.

Social unionism in the ILGWU was spawned and shaped in part by Yiddishism, but it was not interchangeable with Yiddishism. It was a strategy embedded in union members’ participation in a twentieth-century American labor movement, and it was put into practice by women of multiple racial-ethnic backgrounds. As workers intermingled, their ethnic cultures changed; in some cases, such as among non–Puerto Rican Hispanics, non-Russian Jews, and British West Indian Blacks, they blended into broader ethnic cultures. But these workers did not choose, nor did the ILGWU leadership immediately encourage them, to subordinate their distinctive cultures to a dominant American monoculture. Rather, union leaders encouraged members to identify with one of many ethnic cultural groups.

The phenomenon of social unionism in the ILGWU in the mid-1930s exposes a wide range of issues historians have grappled with: the roots of contemporary multiculturalism, the genesis of the modern labor movement, race relations, the origins of the New Deal, the character of American radical thought, and women’s roles in all these developments. From 1933 to 1937, the ILGWU built a remarkably stable and coherent movement that linked a socialist vision, respect for ethnic and racial cultural difference, and a militant labor movement. Unfortunately, the phenomenon did not last. The male leaders of the International union steadily abandoned their multicultural appeal as they became increasingly linked to the highest echelons of political power in the United States, competition from the Communist Party subsided, and the United States moved closer to war.

This book is divided into three parts. In part 1, I trace the ideological origins of social unionism from the revolutionary philosophies of Jews in the late-nineteenth-century Russian Empire to the fragmented radical-left milieu (p.15) in New York City of the 1920s and early 1930s. In chapter 1, I discuss the peculiarities of European Jewish nationalisms—both Yiddishism and Zionism—that influenced dominant and subordinate currents of Jewish American thinking in the twentieth century. I follow the immigration of Russian Jews who came to New York in the 1880s and 1890s and founded mutually supporting institutions on Yiddishist principles. In chapter 2, I explain how the experiences of young Jewish women, many of whom fled Russia after the failed 1905 revolution, forged a particularly militant sensibility that led to the surge of union building at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century and through the second. I also explore how the evolving ILGWU union structure provoked competition between local union autonomy and International authority. The tensions generated by these struggles played out along gender lines and involved control over educational and social institutions. Chapters 3 and 4 explore the elements of Yiddishism that underpinned the ideology of Jewish radicalism through World War I and survived the crisis on the Left that was precipitated by the Russian Revolution. I place the educational programs of the ILGWU in the context of the rivalry between radical groups and discuss the significance of women and non-Jews, especially Italians and Blacks, in the battles that took place through the 1920s.

In part 2, I highlight the multicultural phenomenon in the ILGWU during the period 1933–1937. I argue that social unionism as a strategy allowed the ILGWU to hold on to a vastly expanded membership that was more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before. The educational activities of the union functioned as a training ground for rank-and-file leaders and imbued the mostly female membership with a militant union consciousness. In addition, the educational program stabilized the union, allowing its leaders to pursue a newly empowered position in industry and politics. Chapter 5 reveals the complexities of social unionism in the mid-1930s, particularly in the Dressmakers’ Local 22. Activities that cultivated and celebrated ethnic and racial differences embodied a vision of unionism and a future society that helped to make the ILGWU a powerful economic and political force. In chapter 6, I look at how multiculturalism intersected with different sectors of power critical to the ILGWU, especially the roles of gender, race, and citizenship in the contexts of the broader Jewish Left, interpersonal politics, contests between sectors of power in the union, and differing visions of state reformation.

In part 3, I explain the decline of social unionism in the ILGWU after 1936 in the context of the union’s changing political ideology. Chapter 7 discusses how ILGWU leaders began to assign new meaning to the union’s cultural activities as they devoted an enormous portion of educational resources of (p.16) the union to the Broadway production Pins and Needles. I argue that the revue, created at the height of the Popular Front, demonstrates the aspirations of union leaders struggling to come to terms with their new role in the welfare state and as players in helping to shape foreign policy. For ILGWU leaders, Pins and Needles became a venue to express their position as political and cultural insiders. The show points to the union’s weakening commitment to diverse ethnic and racial cultures and isolates the moment when the ILGWU leadership began to accept a dominant American culture.


(1.) See Yevette Richards, Maida Springer: Pan-Africanist and International Labor Leader (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).

(3.) See James R. Barrett, “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880–1930,” Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (1992): 996–1020. Other groups of workers infused labor-union movements with an ethnically specific radicalism well into the 1930s. For example, militant Irish Republic Army members who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s infused the leadership and activist core of the movement to organize transport workers in New York City during the 1930s. See Joshua Benjamin Freeman, In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933–1966 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). For French and Belgian radicals in New England, see Gary Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). For examples of Socialist Party language federations and socialist labor culture, see Elizabeth Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 50.

(4.) For a discussion of the ILGWU education programs and race relations, see Hasia Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915–1935 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 199–230. Whereas I argue the centrality of Yiddish socialism, Diner rejects the significance of socialism to explain union leaders’ motivations in reaching out to Blacks and other union members.

(5.) For a brief discussion and a more narrow definition of social unionism, see Susan Stone Wong, “From Soul to Strawberries: The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and Workers’ Education, 1914–1950,” in Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers’ Education for Women, 1914–1984, ed. Joyce L. Kornbluh and Mary Frederickson (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 43.

(6.) Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle call this the “dominant order of ideas, public policies, and political alliances” of the New Deal. Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle, introduction to The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980, ed. Steven Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), ix.

(7.) Walter Galenson, The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 3–4, 32. The three key AFL unions that founded the CIO in 1935, the ILGWU, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), shared (p.242) common concerns about building a multiethnic, interracial industrial union movement. Ideas about how to build that movement flowed between these unions. The ACWA, which represented men’s garment workers, was a sister union to the ILGWU. New York City–based Russian Jewish immigrants populated and led the ACWA as well. Sidney Hillman was an officer in the ILGWU before taking the reins as president of the ACWA. See Steven Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (New York: Free Press, 1991), 78–90. The UMWA, like the ILGWU, had been searching for ways to organize and retain the membership of Black workers. See Herbert George Gutman, “The Negro and the United Mine Workers of America: The Career and Letters of Richard L. Davis and Something of Their Meaning,” in Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History, 121–208 (New York: Vintage Books, 1976); Joe William Trotter, Jr., Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915–1932 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 111–15; Daniel Letwin, The Challenge of Interracial Unionism: Alabama Coal Miners, 1878–1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Brian Kelly, Race, Class, and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–1921 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001). In the 1920s, UMWA leaders availed themselves of educational programs created by Fannia Cohn, director of education for the ILGWU. One prominent UMWA district used materials and credited personnel from the Workers Education Bureau, cofounded by Cohn, with successful educational work throughout central Pennsylvania beginning in 1924. Paul W. Fuller, “Miners’ Educational Work,” American Federationist, March 1926, 324–26.

(8.) As Tony Michels has shown, much of the inspiration and literature for the Yiddishist movement in Russia came from Russian Jews living in the diaspora, particularly in New York in the 1880s and 1890s. In turn, Yiddishists who shaped the revolutionary movements in Russia in the late 1890s and early 1900s formed successive waves of immigrants who transformed the Jewish socialist and labor movements in New York and elsewhere. Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 67.

(9.) Randolph Bourne, “Trans-national America,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1916; David A. Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 94–97.

(10.) Horace Kallen coined the term “cultural pluralism” in Culture and Democracy in the United States: Studies in the Group Psychology of the American People (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924), but he had begun to develop his ideas in “Democracy versus the Melting Pot,” Nation 100 (February 19 and 25, 1915).

(11.) James R. Barrett, “Americanization from the Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880–1930,” Journal of American History 79, no. 3 (December 1992): 996–1020.

(12.) Benedict Anderson’s work is helpful in understanding how Jews came to see themselves and at times to behave as a nation, not only in Russia but also as Russian Jews in the United States. Anderson proposes that “nationalism has to be understood by aligning it, not with self-consciously held political ideologies, but with the large cultural systems that preceded it, out of which—as well as against which—it came to being.” Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1991), 12. (p.243)

(13.) Gerstle, Working-Class Americanism; Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

(14.) The notion of “militancy” was and is fluid. For union members in the ILGWU from the first decade of the twentieth century through the 1930s, militancy meant a desire and willingness to engage in a range of activities that put them in danger of losing their jobs, incurring bodily harm, or going to jail. Women also risked public humiliation and censure and strained family or social relations. Militant activities included organizing drives, strikes, boycotts, leafleting, street-corner oratory, mass meetings, and pickets. Union activists also engaged in militant social activities, including some instances of interracial dancing. Militants often knowingly violated the law if they felt an action was just or strategically beneficial. While adherence to a revolutionary philosophy helped to indicate a member’s level of militancy, there were always militant union members who were simply engaged in the struggle of the moment.

(15.) For a discussion of the role of labor culture in a militant union movement and the political tensions between the International and local unions within the ILGWU, see Elizabeth Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle: Women, Men, and the Labor Movement in Minneapolis, 1915–1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 126–31, 137–39. Faue demonstrates a clear connection between women’s union activism in Minneapolis, local union autonomy, and the vibrant working-class culture emanating from the communities in which workers lived.

(16.) Yiddishists did not use the term ethnicity, which only came into scholarly vogue in the 1940s and 1950s. David R. Roediger, Working towards Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White; The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 21–27; Werner Sollors, The Invention of Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), xiii.

(17.) As Mae Ngai notes, the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act served to change the dominant notion of race from largely physiognomic (outward appearances that people attribute to race) to physiognomic and nationality based. The law defined racial categories and set immigration quotas or restrictions for nonwhite groups and created an additional category of white European ethnicities ranked by nationality. Through that act, the state interpreted ethnicity as a category in which less desirable white Europeans could be transformed through assimilation, certainly in a generation or two, while nonwhite people would remain in a subordinate social status generation after generation. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 7–9, 21–55.

(18.) ILGWU Local 22, “Census of the Membership of the Dressmakers Union Local #22, I.L.G.W.U. as of October 1, [1934],” Cornell University, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, ILGWU Records, collection 5780/36, box 1.

(20.) Kathleen Neils Conzen, David A. Gerber, Ewa Morawska, George E. Pozzetta, and Rudolph J. Vecoli, “The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the USA,” Journal of American Ethnic History 12 (Fall 1992): 4–5.

(22.) Roediger, Working towards Whiteness, 35–37. David Hollinger names five racial-ethnic categories in the United States: African American, Asian American, Euro American, Indigenous, and Latino.

(23.) On the portrayal of Blacks through minstrelsy, see David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1999), 122–127. On post–World War II cultural elements of race, see Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 153–55.

(24.) James R. Barrett and David Roediger, “Inbetween Peoples: Race, Nationality, and the ‘New Immigrant’ Working Class,” Journal of American Ethnic History 16 (1997): 3–34.

(25.) See, for example, Nancy Schrom Dye, As Equals and as Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement, and the Women’s Trade Union League of New York (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980); Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890–1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985); Meredith Tax, The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880–1917 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980); Nancy MacLean, “The Culture of Resistance: Female Institutional Building in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, 1905–1925” (Michigan Occasional Papers in Women’s Studies 21, Winter 1982).

(26.) Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003); Nancy F. Gabin, Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935–1975 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).

(27.) Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle. See also Karen Pastorello, A Power among Them: Bessie Abromowitz Hillman and the Making of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Jennifer Guglielmo, “Negotiating Gender, Race, and Coalition: Italian Women and Working-Class Politics in New York City, 1880–1945” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 2003).

(28.) On the ideology and iconography of gender and labor struggle in the 1930s, see Faue, Community of Suffering and Struggle, 69–99.

(29.) Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 254.

(30.) See Alice Kessler-Harris, “Problems of Coalition-Building: Women and Trade Unions in the 1920s,” in Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of U.S. Women’s Labor History, ed. Ruth Milkman, 110–38 (New York: Routledge, 1985); Alice Kessler-Harris, “Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and Their Union,” Labor History 17, no. 1 (1976): 5–23.

(31.) ILGWU, “Report of the General Executive Board to the Twenty-First Convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, May 2, 1932, Philadelphia,” 19; ILGWU, “Report of the General Executive Board to the Twenty-Fourth Convention of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, May 27, 1940, New York,” 25, addendum D.