Rose Schneiderman, the labor organizer who taught Eleanor Roosevelt everything she “knew about trade unionism,” was born in Russian Poland, April 6, 1882.(1) Her Orthodox Jewish family was close but exceedingly poor, despite both her parents’ employment as tailors. Her mother insisted that Rachel (who would later change her name to Rose) attend school and enrolled her in a traditional Hebrew school and, when she turned six, in a Russian public school.
The family emigrated to the United States in 1890 and made the Lower East Side of New York City their home. Two years later, Samuel Schneiderman died of meningitis, leaving his family in a dire economic condition. Deborah, his widow, took in borders and sewed for neighbors; despite her efforts, however, the family descended into poverty and was forced to rely on charity to help pay the rent and grocery bill. A thirteen-year-old Rose dropped out of school after the ninth grade to help support the family by working as a department store sales clerk. Three years later, despite her mother’s objections, Rose left sales for a better paying (but more dangerous) job in the garment industry. By 1903, she organized her first union shop, the Jewish Socialist United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers’ Union, where she quickly developed a reputation as an effective leader after she organized a successful strike opposing an open-shop policy.
By 1907, Schneiderman devoted most of her time to the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), which she later called “the most important influence on my life.” Within a year, she was elected vice-president of the New York chapter, and thanks to a stipend provided by a member, she was able to work full-time organizing for the WTUL. After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, she helped established the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and lead its 1913 strike. Determined to outlaw sweatshop labor, she told New Yorkers “I would be a traitor to those poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. . . . Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred.”(2)
Although she was a committed trade unionist, Schneiderman grew increasingly frustrated trying to get male union members to address women’s labor issues. By the late 1910s, the WTUL was her major focus. As president of both the New York and national WTUL, she concentrated her efforts to lobby for minimum wage and eight-hour-day legislation. In 1921, she helped organize the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers. In 1922, Eleanor Roosevelt joined the WTUL and the two women began a lifelong friendship. Schneiderman tutored ER on the issues confronting women workers, the challenges facing the trade union movement, and the problems inherent in labor-management relations. ER responded to Schneiderman’s tutorial by chairing the WTUL finance committee, donating the proceeds from her 1932-1933 radio broadcasts to the WTUL, and promoting WTUL in her columns and speeches. As Schneiderman recalled in her autobiography, ER overcame the trappings of privilege to become “a born trade unionist.”(3)
ER, and FDR, enjoyed Schneiderman’s company and often invited her to their homes in New York City, Hyde Park, and, after FDR became governor, Albany. In 1933, FDR named Schneiderman to the advisory board of the National Recovery Administration, a position she held until the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935. For those two years, she represented labor’s voice on the board, working to see that wage and hour provisions of the NRA codes treated workers fairly. In 1935, she returned to both the New York and the national WTULs, whose presidencies she held until the New York WTUL ceased operations in 1950 and the national WTUL disbanded in 1955. From 1937 to 1943, Schneiderman, balancing her WTUL work with state politics, served as secretary to the New York State Department of Labor. Ninety-year old Schneiderman died in New York in 1972 at the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged.
- Rose Schneiderman and Luch Goldthwaite, All for One (New York: P.S. Eriksson, 1967), 251.
- Carol Hurd Green, ed. Notable American Women: The Modern Period (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 631.
- Rose Schneiderman and Luch Goldthwaite, All for One, 257.
Green, Carol Hurd, ed. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 631-633.
Schneiderman, Rose and Luch Goldthwaite. All for One. New York: P.S. Eriksson, 1967, 251-258.