Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.