“Garment Workers as Bridge Builders: Immigrant Radicalism and the Search for Economic and Social Justice” by Kenneth C. Burt

Reference: Kenneth Burt

When one examines the dynamic Latino-Jewish relations of some sixty years ago in Boyle Heights—an extraordinary multilingual, working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles’ Eastside—one organization stands out above all others: the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. The ILGWU served as a labor organization, a Jewish organization, and a socialist organization. In the years following World War II, the garment union committed itself to empowering its increasingly Latino membership on the job and in the community. Driven by ideology and demographics, the ILGWU served as a bridge builder in the formation and operation of numerous organizations committed to inter-group relations, including the Jewish Labor Committee, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Central Labor Council’s Labor Committee to Combat Intolerance, the Catholic Labor Institute, and the Latino-oriented Community Services Organization. These groups, collectively and individually, played a central role in the struggle for social and economic justice in postwar Los Angeles.1

The ILGWU, Boyle Heights, and Jewish Los Angeles Yiddish-speaking Jews from eastern Europe were an anomaly in a turn-of-thecentury Los Angeles dominated by Protestants and business interests. The first ILGWU local was formed in Los Angeles in 1911, but it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s recognized the right of workers to organize that the union grew. The intervening years were filled with bitter strikes and internal battles between the largely socialist-oriented union and the smaller (but well-organized) number of Communists that first fought to control the union and then set about to supplant it by organizing a dual union in the needle trades. Under the direction of Israel Feinberg, the Los Angeles ILGWU membership rose from 30 to 2,000 between 1930 and 1935, making it one of the larger unions in Southern California. Part of the growth resulted from the 1933 strike by Latina dressmakers.2 By 1938 the ILGWU’s Spanish-speaking branch had a float in the city’s annual Labor Day parade, and Latinas were active within the union.3

The union, like the Boyle Heights neighborhood where many of its members lived, was both Jewish and multicultural. The area became the center of immigrant Jewish life in Los Angeles and the largest Yiddish-speaking community west of Chicago. Ethnicity and politics overlapped as the Heights became a caldron of radical politics in an otherwise conservative city. The bulk of the Jewish population had entered the U.S. through New York, and then traveled across the county, some in search of the clean air that was seen as the antidote for tuberculosis. They bought small homes left vacant by non-Jews who were moving to more desirable neighborhoods. As they left, the Gentiles took most of their institutions with them, including Occidental College, which moved west to its current location.

With some 20,000 Jewish families, the vibrant neighborhood included small shops, union halls, synagogues, and other cultural and political buildings. Three of these buildings were owned by groups within the socialist milieu—the Workmen’s Circle, the largest fraternal organization, on Evergreen Street; the Jewish Socialist Verband on North St. Louis Street; and the Jewish Bakers Union on East Fourth Street. The garment workers, both the ILGWU and the smaller Amalgamated Clothing Workers, had their union halls downtown in the garment district, a ten-minute streetcar ride across the Los Angeles River. The proximity of work and home facilitated a life with a high rate of participation in the unions and community institutions. Jews also interacted with other foreign-born workers in Boyle Heights, including Latinos and Japanese Americans, and a mix of Armenian, Irish, Italian, and Russian Molokans.4

Politically, Jews in Boyle Heights remained a world apart from both the Protestant-dominated city and the more established German Jews. The ILGWU became a leading voice for Jewish workers and made strategic alliances with non-Jewish workers through the AFL Central Labor Council and the Socialist Party. According to Joseph Roos, who would later head the Jewish Community Relations Council, these immigrants from eastern Europe considered the established Jewish leaders—with their influence centered in the emergence of Hollywood or a few downtown law firms—as the “nouveau riche,” “German Jews,” or even “White Jews.”5

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the establishment of the New Deal proved critical to political recalibration of the Jewish community and its trajectory toward the political center. In 1932, the year Roosevelt was elected president, 4,500 voters—the bulk of the community—marked their ballots for a Jewish socialist, Herbert S. Elstein, for the state Assembly against the Democratic candidate. Then in 1934, Jewish socialists followed Pasadena’s muckraking author and Socialist Party leader, Upton Sinclair, into the Democratic Party. After reregistering as a Democrat, he organized the End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement as part of an effort to bring the New Deal to the as yet Republican-controlled state. To the dismay of mainstream Democrats, Sinclair won the party nomination for governor. As part of this new coalition of Jews, EPIC supporters, and the AFL Central Labor Council, Boyle Heights was able to elect a progressive Jewish Democrat, Ben Rosenthal, to the state Assembly.6

Jewish Labor Committee, 1934-1945

That same year, 1934, the ILGWU was instrumental in the formation of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), which emerged on New York’s Lower East Side in response to the rise of Hitler. The founding constituency groups were the garment unions, the largest Jewish-run labor organizations; the Workmen’s Circle, the largest Jewish fraternal organization; and the Jewish Daily Forward, the largest Yiddish-language newspaper. These U.S. institutions had flowed from, and remained in fraternal union with, the General Union of Jewish Workers of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania — also known as the Jewish Labor Bund. This underground organization was a powerful force in the Jewish communities of these countries. It was committed to socialism, unionism, and Jewish culture. Personal relationships within the bund reinforced shared organizational and ideological bonds. For example, David Dubinsky, president of the ILGWU, and Baruch Charney Vladeck, general manager of the Jewish Daily Forward, had spent time together in one of the czar’s prisons.7

The JLC of Los Angeles began to function as a distinct organization in early 1935. It established an office downtown in space it shared with the Jewish Daily Forward in the Stack Building at 228 West Fourth Street. Forward manager Julius Levitt served as the first chairman. Its affiliates included the Forward Association, the Southern California District Council of the Workmen’s Circle, fourteen Workmen’s Circle branches, and the Left Labor Zionists. Labor affiliates included four locals of the ILGWU, Local 278 of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, Local 453 of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union, and Local 48 of the Millinery Workers.8

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Paper Presented at
Latinos and Jews: A Conference on Historical and
Contemporary Connections
Cosponsored by the UC Irvine Center for Research on Latinos in a Global
Society and the American Jewish Committee, at the University of California,
Irvine,
January 23, 2006