Although for many people Labor Day is the three-day weekend that’s the unofficial end of summer, that misses its true significance. Labor Day is a tribute to the backbone of America, its workers. While there is significantly less fanfare than in the past, there are still local parades and events to recognize the importance of American workers. For the Jewish community, Labor Day is an opportunity to celebrate the centrality of Jews in the labor movement. Because of their pioneering work to organize and fight for better conditions for working people, Americans enjoyed a higher standard of living than the rest of the world for many decades.
Jews have been a part of the labor movement since the Industrial Revolution. Over two million Jewish immigrants came to the United States between 1880 and 1924, and unlike most immigrants from Eastern Europe who were peasants, many of the Jewish immigrants were artisans and skilled laborers. Settling in New York City and other nearby urban hubs, they gravitated towards “Jewish trades” such as kosher butchering, baking, or printing, but many others went to work in the garment industry and other handicraft industries.
Once a large enough number of Jews found themselves working in these industries under horrible, dangerous conditions, they began to form organizations such as the Propaganda Union in 1882, the Russian Labor Union in 1884, and the Yidisher Arbeter Farayn (Jewish Workers Union) in 1885. The Jewish Workers Union developed into the most important institution in the American Jewish labor movement, The United Hebrew Trades (UHT). By 1917, over 150,000 workers affiliated with UHT.
These labor unions began to struggle to bring about change within the garment trades, which employed thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. The notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had been on strike for months against dangerous working conditions when a fire broke out in 1911 killing 146 workers. The majority of those killed were young Jewish and Italian women who had been trapped in the burning building because the fire escapes were blocked.
By the 1930s, the two most powerful unions in New York City were led by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Along with other unions, they fought to provide their workers with reasonable working hours, safe working conditions, retirement security, and other benefits. The Jewish people were essential in making strides for fair wages and hours. Even today, when the labor movement is less powerful, Jewish men and women are in leadership positions, struggling to give working people a better life. Think about them when you’re flipping burgers at your backyard cookout or enjoying that last beach day. Happy Labor Day!