The Torah of Wisconsin – the Bread and Roses edition

Rose Schneiderman was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who lived in New York City at the turn of the last century and campaigned for workers’ rights, better wages and secure safer working conditions. She served in FDR’s brain trust and was a co-founder of the ACLU. During the fight for women’s suffrage, Schneiderman famously wrote, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Warren Jacobson is the president of his local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. He lives in Wisconsin, votes Republican and worked for 18 years as a public school teacher. He does not think that unions are perfect, but he supports the more than 100,000 people who withstood icy ten-degree temperatures last weekend to call Governor Scott Walker to account for his actions.

What do they have in common? 

They are both Jews who, in their time and place — stood by the right of workers to collectively bargain for their common good. Their struggles may be 100 years apart, but they are eerily the same – linked as much by a shared secular history as by the Jewish tradition, text and law that supports the fair treatment of workers as a foundation of a just society. Their “Torah” or “instruction” for us is a precious legacy we should not abandon.

One hundred years ago, an industrial inferno in a New York garment factory claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly young, Jewish immigrant women. The tragedy at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is often described as an “accident,” but the factory had no sprinklers and almost no usable emergency exits. The owners of Triangle, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, kept exit doors locked, ostensibly to prevent employees from taking unauthorized breaks and stealing goods.

The women of the Triangle Factory were not alone.  When their strike against the two largest companies in the industry, Triangle and Leiserson, were disrupted by strikebreakers and by police officers and company-paid thugs who beat picketers, a committee of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union endorsed more drastic action, a strike of all shirtwaist makers in New York. 

After union leaders urged caution, Clara Lemlich, a 23 year-old Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, rose to speak. “I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions,” she said. “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.” The crowd roared its approval, and the chairman of the meeting, the editor of the Forward newspaper, asked the audience to take a Jewish and union oath in affirmation: “If I turn traitor to the vow I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise!”

The strike that ensued – dubbed the Uprising of the 20,000 – lasted 14 weeks. Despite arrests and beatings, the women of the ILGWU stood firm. With the backing of other women activists including Schneiderman, the strikers eventually won concessions from most of the business owners. Triangle was among the holdouts. The company’s failure to treat its workers humanely and engage in collective bargaining had tragic consequences.

A year later, a fire erupted on the eighth floor of the Triangle factory and spread to the floors above.  The tallest ladder from Fire Company 20 reached only to the sixth floor. The firemen later found bodies piled up next to a locked door. Those who were not burnt alive inside the building perished after leaping to their deaths from factory windows. 

Rose Safran, a veteran of the strike, said later about Triangle, “Our bosses won and we went back as an open shop… If the union had won we would have been safe. Two of our demands were for adequate fire escapes and for open doors… But the bosses defeated us and we didn’t get the open doors or the better fire escapes. So our friends are dead.”

The fire, whose 100th anniversary falls March 25, was the impetus for major reforms.  Schneiderman, Lemlich and their colleagues spent their lives advocating and agitating for the rights of workers and women, practicing what we call a Torah of engagement, solidarity and hope. As a Jewish community, we can draw our strength, our inspiration and our instruction for just action from their memory and from our proud traditions that respect and honor human dignity.

Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Journalist Jeffrey Kaye is a member of the Sholem Community and of the Los Angeles Regional Council of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  He is author of the book:  “Moving Millions:  How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration” (Wiley).

“A Flame That Keeps Burning: Marking the Centennial of the Triangle Factory Fire,” a program of drama, poetry, and music will take place on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 10:30 am at the Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven Street, Los Angeles, CA 90066.  The program is presented by the Sholem Community and co-sponsored by the Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Yiddishkayt L.A. and LALaborfest. More info.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis will speak at the Annual Fundraising Gala of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, on Thursday, May 26, 2011, at Sinai Temple.
More info.