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From the American Scene: Labor Organizer: New Style

Behind organized labor’s rise to power in the 30′s were vast economic movements and tides, government laws, and mass pressures. But, also, there were the organizers.

The organizers of the 30′s were not, by and large, professionals. When section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act suddenly gave unions the signal for large-scale organization, the need overwhelmed their normal staffs. The call went out over the left-wing grapevine and organizers simply appeared. Members of a new kind of preaching fraternity, they were akin to missionaries; dedicants who thought of themselves as sacrificing ease and comfort and the promise of brilliant, worldly careers for their mission. (Some really did, most—quite humanly—liked to think they did.) And among them in significant number were Jews, whether more or less than there “should have been,” I do not know. Jewish organizers as emissaries to non-Jewish workers were a new story and, in some sections of rock-ribbed New England and the reputedly even grimmer Deep South, strange apparitions—or at least so it was feared. As it turned out, they were not, nor were they, for the most part, so considered.

As a matter of fact, the top leadership of the unions had little time in the early and middle 30′s to worry about an organizer’s Jewishness. The tide was at flood and men were needed to channel it. There was only one criterion: Could he do the job or could he be trained to do the job? Beyond that, no questions. There were other reasons also. The New Deal was a new and holy crusade. It went beyond economics. Its adherents and crusaders were deeply conscious of the basic American credos. What did a man’s origin matter when they were choosing missionaries of the new gospel? Later, when the going got a little tougher, when the unions could afford the luxury of “statesmanship,” then the problem of the Jewish organizer in the non-Jewish territory sometimes wrinkled leadership’s brow.

One familiar stereotype of the Jewish organizer pictures him in the Peglerized manner: the swarthy, stocky, aggressive fellow with a ring on his little finger and clothes in the latest 42nd-Street fashion: the creases too sharp, the pattern too loud. He organizes by persuasion that sounds like threats, or by force, using both against workers and employers indiscriminately.

A second popular picture follows an older pattern. In this, the organizer appears as tall, cadaverous, ill-dressed, hatless. The bulging, misshapen pockets of his coat are filled with inflammatory literature. His cheeks are sunken and his eyes bum, recalling the Talmudic student with a passion for the Law and a poor kest. He organizes without regard for economic law, spouting worn, red phrases that inflame the listening workers.

Both pictures are untrue; the real “Jewish organizers”—or the organizers who are Jews—are not even a synthesis of these types. There is no single prototype of the Jewish organizer, just as there is no composite non-Jewish organizer. On the other hand, the representative of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, AFL, rarely looks like the organizer for the Carpenters Brotherhood, AFL; and, admittedly, he is more nearly like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ man, CIO, than the ACWA organizer resembles the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ man, CIO.

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For the past hundred years in American labor history, there have been paid representatives: organizers, business agents, walking delegates. Because of ability, ambition, rhetoric, or deep conviction, fellow workers were chosen by their fellow members out of the union ranks to take care of the business of the organization, generally involving hazardous, ill-paid jobs. Occasionally a radical intellectual would come to a union and offer help. This help was usually refused or, if accepted, it was suspect.

With the growth of unions among the Jewish needle-trades workers after 1880, some intellectuals did rise to leadership. But these were men whose academic education was from Europe and who had been forced into the sweatshops in America. To their shopmates they were fellow workers. There were exceptions to the rule, such as Benjamin Schlesinger, who moved into the leadership of the ILGWU from the manager’s office of the Jewish Daily Forward. But most union officials came from the shops.

The intellectuals got their chance to offer their services to a suspicious labor movement after 1933, when Section 7a of the N.I.R.A., the Norris-LaGuardia Act, the Wagner Act, and sympathetic administrations gave specific legal sanction to unions and courage to the workers. The officials of the local organizations were competent at their jobs, but most of them were not fitted for organizing work in the field. When the CIO went out to organize steel, autos, rubber, and textiles, men who had spent most of their lives taking care of miners’ locals and suit shops found themselves sent into strange areas to captain drives in strange trades. They were good, tough plan-makers, but they needed young, adaptable, quick-thinking organizers to execute their plans.

Both the AFL’s and the CIO’s need for organizers was met by a group of young men and women who came from the colleges, radical youth organizations like the Young Peoples’ Socialist League, and even theological seminaries. (Communists came, too, but they had to go through a tortuous maze of peripheral organizations, their politics hidden, their names strangely Aryan. In fact, the appearance of a job-seeker who announced his name as Eric Lancaster or John Nelson Knight was taken as a sign that the comrades were trying to install a “plant.” The progressive unions, the so-called left-wing Jewish unions—there were almost no Communist-controlled unions prior to 1935—were more conscious and more careful of Communist infiltration than were the other old-line AFL unions. They had painfully learned their lesson during the splitting attempts of the Communist party in the late 1920′s.)

The new organizers were liberals and radicals, afire with the righteousness of their cause, swearing by such men as Eugene Victor Debs. Their education was superior to that of their leaders and employers, but they tried to belittle it. Coming out of school when the economic system appeared to have collapsed, they looked for jobs that didn’t exist in factories that had been closed since 1930. Thirty dollars a week was a dream of affluent security, and the WPA salary for college graduates, twenty-one dollars, was a windfall. They looked for ways of becoming useful to their fellow men, for an outlet for their energies, for a means of showing revolt, for something to which to belong. They found all this in allegiance to the reborn labor movement.

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The job of organizer was perfect. Intellectually, it satisfied their economic and political views. Physically, it appealed to their desire to move about and to their natural gregariousness. Romantically, it was a dream, the kind of soldiering that was acceptable to the universal pacifism of the day.

The union jobs were not easy to get, but they were around. In many cases it was necessary to serve an apprenticeship as a volunteer in a big city organizing campaign. Leaflets had to be given out, picket signs carried, mimeograph machines turned. In some cities and with some unions, active service with the Socialist party labor commitee was sufficient recommendation. And, of course, labor leaders had sons, nephews, friends; that was a good way, too.

It was not long before the idea of the union movement as a career, a profession—in competition with the time-honored careers of doctor, dentist, lawyer—began to make itself felt. To be sure, while the union was romantic and intellectually satisfying, there was perhaps equal romance and satisfaction—and certainly more security—in the Hippocratic Oath, the bar, in education. But medicine and law required graduate study, money was hard to come by, and admission to professional and graduate schools perhaps harder, especially for Jews. And teaching positions were closed to newcomers because budgets were low. So many who in more normal years might have turned to other careers turned to the unions. Being a new idea, the notion of the labor movement as a profession was opposed by many of the old-timers among officials and by men in the shops, but the forward-looking top leadership welcomed the newcomers. They saw merit in a new kind of union functionary, a functionary with a trained mind and with access to the books and sciences used by the boss.

Jobs were easiest to get, for the newcomers, in the needle-trades unions, the ILGWU, the Amalgamated, etc. The history and traditions of these organizations, their close ties with radical parties, made them more acceptable. And their headquarters were in New York. After serving an apprenticeship in the needle-trades campaigns many organizers left for the great mass-production unions further west. During the height of the drives in steel and autos and textiles many captains were men who had got their first cards signed in a Pennsylvania shirt town or outside a runaway pants-shop in upper New York. The roster of ILGWU and Amalgamated organizers from 1933 to 1940 has on it many names now closely connected with a score of other national unions. The Jews among the organizers followed this path as well as the non-Jews. They went into radio and autos and steel and textiles. If there was any divergence from a general pattern, it might be in the number of Jews who came back to the New York-based unions for their steady, later-years jobs.

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The new organizer went into the field: the small towns of New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and the Midwest, wherever a factory boss ruled as a local patriarch, wherever a New York garment shop had migrated to take advantage of cheap labor. Some were hailed as deliverers, some were left strictly alone, some were beaten and jailed. Technically untrained in organizing, yet, as always with missionaries, not knowledge of the Book but their inward fire, brought converts. The long-term, cautious approach—getting a job in a factory, becoming known, finding friends and like-thinkers—was not possible. Factory jobs were scarce, and they didn’t know the trade anyway. They had to attack from the outside.

Some unions planted one or two organizers in a town and let them work there until they organized the shop or were thrown out of town. Others, knowing that the secret of the strangers would soon get known anyway, boldly opened offices and announced that they were there to stay. In some cases the organizers moved about in crews of five or six, entered a town like a whirlwind, did their work in six weeks or so, and swept on to the next victim, leaving the technical details to the local director.

To many of the workers in these small towns—as against their more sophisticated brothers in the cities—a Jew was, by and large, a creature of legend, known only through by-words, curses, and stories. Of course, two Jews were known in these towns: one was the storekeeper, the other was the boss (the bosses of most garment shops were Jews). It would have been a simple shortcut for the organizers to ease their jobs by injecting a little anti-Semitism into their campaigns. It has happened. But to the new missionaries from the radical movements—even those who were not Jewish—this was an issue that had to be met squarely, and could not be glossed over or avoided.

Psychologically, even when the Jewish organizer could have hidden his Jewishness, he would not dream of denying it. For these unionists felt themselves not only builders of a dues-collecting machine, but teachers of a new way of life. That new way included political, social, and economic equality, and the confraternity of races. They frankly admitted their Jewishness, while at the same time proclaiming their bond, not with their boss co-religionists, but with the Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Greek Catholic workers.

The myth of organized Jewdom—organized against all Christians—is one of the great plagues that beset the organizer. To argue against this recurrent and widespread fable often seemed specious and trivial, but it had to be done.

Once, in a mill town in Vermont, a newly-organized union was closing its meeting. Everything had gone well, and the organizer was using the period immediately after the meeting as an educational bull session. This time he had brought the conversation around to races. One of the men mentioned Jews. He was a good man, not young, highly respected, and a potential leader of the union.

“They’re all organized,” he said. “They got connections. They always take care of their own.” He listed qualities that would be very welcome in the workers, but were only proof of conspiracy in the Jews.

The organizer, a Jew, drew him out. “How do you mean that, and how do you know that it is so? Where have you yourself seen it?”

“Well, if they break a law in this town they get away with it.”

The organizer persisted: “What laws, any laws? Murder, robbery?”

“If they break a traffic law they never have to pay a fine; they get the ticket fixed.”

Again the organizer tried to make it specific. “You mean any Jew?”

The townsman insisted, “Yes, any Jew.”

The union man had to face it. “Do you mean that if I went through a red light I wouldn’t have to pay any fine?”

The answer started fast but slowed immediately. “Why you’re n. . . .”

His face grew red. Realization came, and it was a shock. He was honestly embarrassed. He had seen a Jew face to face, had made great decisions with him, and not over the counter or across the barrier of the boss’s desk.

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This worker, in common with most, had never seen a Jew outside of certain usual “Jewish” trades. The idea that a Jew can honestly lead a union against a Jewish boss comes hard to these people. It violates a pattern of thought so long accepted as to have assumed axiomatic truth. For even when the possibility of honest dealing is accepted verbally there is often a hidden suspicion.

For some workers, one of the ostensible “proofs” of this conspiracy of the Jews lay in the record of the Jewish communities during the depression. In most towns there were no Jews on the relief rolls. With communities small enough and average incomes high enough, those needing help could be taken care of by official Jewish charities or by unofficial grants from richer men. To Jews it appeared unseemly to allow any Jew to have recourse to public relief. Offhand, this seems a most commendable attitude. But to the workers of these towns, many of whom were on relief during the 30′s, it was a mark of difference, a proof that Jews were solidly organized for their own welfare, and that this organization had inherent evil designs against Christendom. The organizer found these suspicions hard to answer. He could either say it wasn’t so and repeat it often enough to hope for belief, or he could boast about the number of his friends who in the big cities did have to go on relief. The economic reasoning that would show that where there was a Jewish worker population the percentage of Jews on relief was as great as that of non-Jews was open to too many asides. The organizer who boldly said, “Well, it’s a good thing to take care of your own,” was both brave and rare.

In one Pennsylvania steel town with the usual Jewish community of shopkeepers, the workers were troubled by an abnormality: one Jew worked in the mill. One day, in conversation, someone said to him, “You must be a bad Jew.”

It shocked him a bit at first. He knew that he didn’t keep Shabbas and had violated the Passover, but what was that to them?

“Why do you say that?” he asked.

“Because you work in the mill. If you were a good Jew the other Jews would see to it that you had a store or some business like all the rest.”

That answer had in it the whole mythology of the Jew as known to the small town American. It is the answer that the organizer has to combat.

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The organizer’s problems go beyond his relations with the workers he is trying to organize. Myth or no, he has to live, and that means seeing people, talking to them, having some social contacts outside of work. For the Jewish organizer it often meant seeking out the Jews, not necessarily for reasons of racial kinship or religious solace, but because social entry was easiest there. He could go to the Jewish center or to the synagogue and meet the people. He could talk to a Jewish storekeeper and find his way to the weekly pinochle game. Organizing is a lonely task, and finding people like the people back home who would accept him eased his loneliness.

If the union job is going to take months rather than weeks, the union expects the organizer to move his wife out with him. (Of course, many of the organizers were women.) In the early days of Wagner Act organizing, when many of the field men were “weekend” organizers—working hard during the week and rushing for the big city Friday afternoon—weekends stretched and the work week narrowed. So the unions urged moving the organizers’ families to the scene. That made social contact with the townspeople even more necessary. The first and easiest contact was with the Jews. But, unfortunately, the Jews were not the workers in town.

In one fair-sized town in Western Massachusetts, the union had sent in a man to organize two garment shops, and his wife followed after a few weeks. When the social possibilities of the town library and movies were exhausted, they sought people to talk to. They had one contact in that town, a Jewish insurance man. He know the garment workers through his business, and he knew the town’s politics and people. Through him, and after a formal visit to the Jewish center, they were invited to the homes of the younger married couples of the Jewish community.

Ninety per cent or more of the 400 families in that close-knit community were in business, ranging from corner tailor and grocer shops to the local department store and garment factories. They were good people, and some were liberal, but they didn’t want an organizer in their town, especially a Jewish organizer who might upset the precarious racial balance. It was part of the union’s plan that the boss have no knowledge of the early organizational work. So, for two reasons, the organizer and his wife were not introduced as such.

The union man’s wife was invited to the weekly session of Mah Jongg. Politely, but with keen interest, she was asked, “And what does your husband do?”

Field organizers’ wives are diplomats. This one answered disarmingly, “Oh, he’s working at insurance with Mr. Levine.” Mr. Levine was the insurance man. (After all, she could rationalize, he was an insurance man, trying to sell the garment workers insurance against wage cuts, unfair firing, etc.)

Another time it was impossible to use the insurance man story, and there was some double talk about labor and departments and laws. The townsman went away with the idea that he had been talking to a representative of the Federal Department of Labor.

Dissimulation wasn’t pleasant, but the other choices were worse. They could hole up in their apartment and forego any contact with the only townspeople they could meet, or they could boldly state their business, endanger their mission, and still meet no one. A stranger Jew could either mingle with other Jews or spend months in loneliness. It’s just tougher when the stranger is an organizer and the town Jews are factory owners.

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There were also more dramatic patterns of relations with Jewish townsfolk. In one Maine town, where textile workers were out on strike, local Jewish dignitaries spoke to the man the union had sent in to run the strike—he was also Jewish—and delicately suggested that it would be very bad for Jews in that town if they were coupled with a destructive strike.

But in this case, and perhaps in others, the presence of the Jewish union man helped rather than hurt group relations. For when a Jewish-owned bus line began bringing in scabs, the anti-Semitic murmurs of the workers were stilled by the fact that their own leader was a Jew. Their false picture of reality, in which Jews and villains were equated, was corrected, at least to the extent of realizing that there were Jewish organizers as well as Jewish businessmen.

If the organizer hit a town in which the owner was not Jewish, he was really in for it. It was always easy for the boss to raise the cry of “Jewish red.” The fact that the organizer often was a conscious and intense anti-Communist didn’t help. An organizer was a red per se, and if he was a Jew, the redness was twice compounded. The answer to this was hard work, sometimes dangerously hard work, for there was never enough time to change the thought processes of the community. First they had to be organized; after that an educational job might be done.

Relations with the church posed another major problem. In many communities, especially in the South, liberal churchmen fight a magnificent battle against anti-Semitism and starvation wages. This fight helps the organizer and the union. In the north many of the workers are Catholic. In New England, a majority are French, Polish, Irish, and Portuguese Catholics. Below the Hudson there are many East Europeans, members of the Greek Orthodox Church. A good organizer tries to enlist the support of the Roman or Greek priest or, if his support cannot be won, tries to get him to remain neutral. Catholic organizers find this comparatively easy. They can go to mass, speak to the priest as a communicant, start off with at least one point of contact, one evidence of likeness. The Jew cannot do this. If he shows too much interest in and friendliness for the church he is suspect. If he shows opposition he is hated. If the local priest speaks against him, he cannot even quote papal encyclicals or Father Haas and Bishop Sheil. They don’t like Catholic quotations from his mouth. “The devil can quote Scripture. . . .” The best counter is to prime a good Catholic contact with the proper literature and leave it in the hands of a joint God.

Where the priest is with the organizer, the battle is half won. The organization of the stockyard workers and steel workers in the Chicago area was due, in part, to the great work of the Catholic clergy in the “Behind the Yards” movement. Other areas—Buffalo, for instance—benefited in the same way from the advanced social thinking of the Roman and Greek religious leaders. But in the early days there was no way of prejudging the reactions of the ministers and priests. It was a toss-up—and prayer didn’t seem to help.

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As the 30′s ran out, the great organizing campaigns came to an end. Field organizers were still needed to clean up the small stuff, to keep up the constant attack upon the open shops, but the big outfits were in the union fold. The organizers started to think of the next step. They became practical. Wives were getting tired of living out of suitcases, and children began to appear. In the unions that had started from nothing, the auto workers, the textile workers, the steel workers, there was plenty of room at the top, and deserved promotions were granted. But in the unions with an established hierarchy, however fluid, there was little opportunity.

Some large industrial and commercial organizations headed by Jews are known to have Jewish quotas and even anti-Semitic hiring practices. A touch of this, with good rationalizations of course, can be found in some Jewish-headed unions. Not that they are against hiring Jews for the near-top jobs, but as for Jews in the field—suddenly they become conscious of the special problems. As organizer with several years of successful work in Pennsylvania or Connecticut would be told that it was easier for a Gentile to negotiate the contracts and manage the locals. The organizer, still a disciple of the new religion, still thinking of the spread of the new gospel, had to agree that it probably was easier for a Gentile. The officials in the national office became conscious of the values of “front.” It was nice to have smart, college-trained assistants. It was nicer to have a smart, college-trained, Gentile assistant.

The normal promotional steps that the organizers expected to follow were: organizer, business agent, manager, area director, vice-president (no one seriously expected the presidency). Some of the boys started to climb, and some left for pursuits they would normally have followed but for the depression. Many went into the government as labor specialists. Many found another outlet: the specialist departments, the jobs as technical aides. And it is here, if one is interested in looking for Jews in the labor movement, that many of them are today. Except in the case of unions with large numbers of Jewish members, they are not union leaders, policy-makers, elected officials.

In the old AFL unions the national officers were staffed only by the elected officials and the office help. There was an attorney on retainer, but he was used only for trouble. The business of the union was limited to getting raises and lower hours; economics was for the professors. The new unions of the CIO, politically progressive and dealing with stronger companies, found it useful to employ technicians: economists, research men, publicity directors, educators, industrial engineers. They found it useful because of their wider views of our economy and of their union’s place in it, and because they visualized social goals beyond the imagination of the leadership of, say, the carpenters’ union. Negotiating an agreement that might change the basic price of steel or textiles or oil is not the same as bargaining a raise out of a boss painter or a moving-picture theater owner.

Many of the organizers went into these new jobs happily. They saw fruitful careers ahead within the labor movement, careers that would make use of their earlier academic training plus their new knowledge of factories and workers. Some went back to college to get higher degrees with which to confound the employers’ experts. The hated time-study man soon found that the union had men who could use a stop watch and slide rule as well as he, and to the workers’ advantage. Publicity became important, and every union needed a practitioner of that black art.

These unions are democratic. Their leaders must stand for election at frequent intervals, and it is not always possible to come to the election convention with a new raise and a recently won strike. Demagoguery has to be kept out, and the union’s stand on issues has to be explained to and understood by the membership. Here, too, is a new field: education—education in trade unionism and its traditions, education in economics and politics, and education in seemingly extraneous subjects that nevertheless help bind the member closer to his organization.

Organizers with degrees in education became educational directors; organizers with engineering degrees went back to the slide rule and became management engineering experts; organizers who had known the city rooms of dailies became trade-union editors; and organizers who probably never should have left the analysis charts went back to the research stacks.

But still enough remain as organizers today, and enough young men and women out of college come into organizing from political conviction, to keep the old tradition and problems alive.

At the moment, the number of applicants for trade-union jobs, graduates not only of the New York and state universities but of the “ivy colleges,” run far ahead of available openings. Union work has become one of the desirable professions among this college-bred Jewish generation.

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Today the Jewish organizers are meeting their problems, half-licked and half-avoided in the North, in the South. The drive to lift the buying power and productive capacity of the Southern worker and to wipe out the low-wage competitive advantage of his employer is being fought bitterly. The Ku Klux Klan, under many new names, is being subsidized to fight the employers’ battles, and its greatest weapon is the persistent xenophobia of the small town. The stranger is the enemy. If the stranger has some mark of strangeness upon him, in appearance, in speech, in name, then he is much more easily fought. Most of the organizers in the new drive are Southerners, and a few are Jewish, but the tag of Jew and red will be put upon them all. They will have to meet this problem with the same ingenuity and the same counterattacks they used in the North, and with new ones. But they’ll meet it. They always have.

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