Two Lives in Labor: Jacob Edelman Part 2

Posted on January 4th, 2017 by

Edited by Avi Y. Decter. Originally published in Generations 2009-2010: 50th Anniversary Double Issue: The Search for Social Justice.

The account of Jacob Edelman’s early years in the labor movement comes from an oral history conducted by Bertha Libauer on November 2, 1975.

Part II: A New Era

Miss part 1: The Voice of Labor?

I left Baltimore and went to New York because in order to get a job in another plant whether it would be Schloss Bros. or Henry Sonneborn & Co. they knew that we were involved in a strike, and they knew we were very much involved and couldn’t get a job. The only thing I could do was to go to New York. New York was already a lot different. New York was the so-called cradle of  “Industrial Civilization.” New York was the reservoir of unionism. I went to the union office there, identified myself, and why I had to leave Baltimore, and I was given a job. New York opened all sorts of avenues for me that I would never have had in Baltimore.

I earned my living of twelve dollars a week in the cutting department, and at that time I worked forty-eight hours instead of fifty-six in Baltimore. And we had recognition of the union, and we had meetings in the union–open without secreting your identity, you had shop stewards in the shops, you had committees if you had a grievance, foremen treated you with much more dignity than what I was accustomed to here, and so it gave me opportunities to do things in addition to working in the plant and maintaining myself. I enrolled in the Cooper Union School of Social Science, and there I took economics.

I spent in New York from the end of 1913 to the beginning of 1916, keeping in touch with my sisters, slipping into Baltimore to see them, going back to New York. They were happy to see how I looked and that I was getting along. I was beginning to hear a lot of music in New York, going to the Metropolitan, symphonies, concerts, etc. New York had what was good for my soul as for the body.

Garment Workers' Strike, July 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Garment Workers’ Strike, July 1915. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Then there came a new era in the labor movement. There was the upsurge in leadership upon the American scene. [Sidney] Hillman became the first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. When that organization came upon the scene, it supplanted the United Garment Workers. It was like civil war within the labor movement as to which would predominate and which would survive. The masses of the people clung to the Amalgamated because that was the new liberal spirit that permeated and influenced the garment industry. It was almost like a sister organization to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which dealt with ladies’ wearing apparel. The leadership was of the same philosophical pattern. They were all people who had come from the other side. They witnessed industrial exploitation, political oppression and came to this country and assumed their position in this free country, that was dearest to their hearts and that was human freedom and human dignity and better working conditions and to establish a sort of Bill of Rights to the people in industry.

Sidney Hillman, c. 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sidney Hillman, c. 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

That’s when I came back to Baltimore. I became involved in the Amalgamated, and before long I was on its staff. I became a leader of the cutters. They had crafts–they had coat makers locals, pants makers locals, finishers locals. The finishers were women buttonhole makers–all women, wonderful crafts-people, who were doing delicate kinds of work. They were segregated into various locals, known as the craft locals. I was, of course, in the cutters craft. There it was a democracy, you were not appointed nor were you anointed a leader. You had to be elected by the people and so democracy was in action on the industrial level, vis-a-vis the labor movement. I was elected a business agent and representative of the cutters craft under the Amalgamated leadership.

The labor movement was engaged in various struggles with the captains of industry. As unions were coming in conflict with industry, they wound up in the courts. Often lock-outs, strikes, injunctions, arrests, convictions–unions needed lawyers. They needed defenders and advocates. The leadership contained in their own right advocacy, but they need legal advocates and you needed legal defenders, people within the labor movement who became involved in litigation with industry.

At that time I found a position in the Amalgamated, I was free to be able to study, attended Hopkins to take classes, attended the YMCA Day School to prepare myself for admission to the University of Maryland, and after that, in 1921 until 1925 I received a law degree as Bachelor of Laws & Letters. I took my examination, passed the bar and became a lawyer, and that’s when I began to represent labor to the exclusion of any other economic interest until this day.

I was naturally identified as representing labor, which was not very fashionable, because most lawyers in the profession were fearful to represent labor’s interests because it was a disadvantage to a lawyer who was naturally a general practitioner and if he undertook to represent a labor union, he would lose [clients], because they were not pro-labor minded, they were business men, they were manufacturers, they were industrialists and they would not have any truck with a lawyer who attempts to represent labor. These upstarts were not satisfied with conditions with the status quo. They were rebelling against the establishment. So if you represented labor, you were a labor lawyer, and there were many lean years when labor did not have the wherewithal to compensate a lawyer. You had to be thoroughly dedicated to that cause, otherwise you couldn’t serve labor.

Founders of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, c.1915. M. Serkin (top row, 2md from left), Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca (4th from left), Sarah Baron (6th from left), David Schnapper (9th from left), Morris Michelson (2nd row, 1st from left), Henry Tuerk (2nd from left), Hyman Blumberg (3rd from left), Paul Lesky (7th from left), Jacob Edelman (8th from left), and Samuel Skolnik (bottom, left).  JMM 1990.91.1

Founders of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, c.1915. M. Serkin (top row, 2md from left), Dorothy Jacobs Bellanca (4th from left), Sarah Baron (6th from left), David Schnapper (9th from left), Morris Michelson (2nd row, 1st from left), Henry Tuerk (2nd from left), Hyman Blumberg (3rd from left), Paul Lesky (7th from left), Jacob Edelman (8th from left), and Samuel Skolnik (bottom, left). JMM 1990.91.1

And then labor came into its own. Then came the terrible depression, the Roosevelt Administration. The tremendous upsurge of the CIO. In this city I was the pioneer, the sole and only lawyer at the bar who represented labor’s interests, who understood labor’s problems and at the same time attained an attitude of an even balance because I was taught by Sidney Hillman, and that I will never forget, a man who was a great scholar, a man who was destined to be a rabbi but came over to the side of the rebels to lead masses to effect their economic social and political well being. He taught those of us that were close to him– “In your dealings with employers you must remember and not forget that if you drag the employer down you drive yourself under and under is lower than down, so make sure that in your dealings with employers you must always have a healthy economic employer who will be able to give you what is reasonable for you to receive.” This is the school of labor relations in my time. By these standards I maintained my professional approach in representing labor’s interests.

As much as can be said that labor [today] can be found unreasonable in its demands, the leadership of American industry has in its history, failed to recognize the rights of labor in their days, so that you have a constant clash and conflict between labor and industry, and also labor and capital. If labor had waited, without establishing itself through its own strength, and through its own might and main to demand and secure certain rights, they would have never been given to labor, and that goes for legislation as well. If you turn the clock back about sixty years ago, there was no such thing as workmen’s compensation. If a person lost his life in the line of duty, the widow and children were helpless. If he lost a limb or an eye or what-not, there was no such thing. What would have been the history of this country without the labor movement?

Continue to Part III: We Will Begin the Campaign (Sarah Barron)


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Exploring New York’s Jewish Heritage

Posted on December 28th, 2016 by

Last week, I took a few days off work to visit several exhibits and to take a walking tour in New York City. I first visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I explored the exhibit “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven.” The exhibit highlighted how Jerusalem was a melting pot of different cultures and religions from Ethiopian Christians and Indian Sufis to Spanish rabbis. I saw objects such as a gold Jewish wedding ring in the form of the Lost Temple of Jerusalem and a page from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah, with Hebrew words “Next year in Jerusalem.”

gold ring shaped like a fancy building

Jewish wedding ring, courtsey of the MET Museum.

I then walked over to the New York Historical Society where I toured the exhibit “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World.” This show chronicled how Jewish settlers came to inhabit and then change the New World all while struggling to hold onto their identity. While it focused on the early Jewish population in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, it did mention Baltimore as well as Rabbi David Einhorn, who was a leader in Reform Judaism and spoke out passionately against slavery during the Civil War. There were several outstanding artifacts such as the 16th century memoir and prayer book of Luis de Carvajal the Younger who was persecuted during the Inquisition as well as a Torah scroll from Shearith Israel which was rescued from a fire set by British soldiers in 1776.

Photo of the entrance to an exhibit, with a text panel on the left and an illuminated world map on the right

First Jewish Americans exhibit, courtsey of NYHS

While I was in New York, I also went on a walking tour of the Lower East Side offered by the Tenement Museum. As our Education team is currently developing a walking tour of Jewish sites in Jonestown, I was curious to see how other Jewish museums deliver their tours. On our hour and a half tour, our guide discussed how immigrants lived in over-crowded tenements and worked long hours in sweatshops struggling to make a living. She mentioned many of the same themes we talk about at the JMM, such as the tension between assimilation and holding onto your traditions. We admired the beautifully restored Eldridge Street Synagogue and strolled up Hester Street which was once full of open air markets and push carts in the early 1900s. We also walked past the sites of Ridley’s Department Store and Loew’s Canal Street Theatre as well as PS 42, where generations of immigrants learned how to be “American.”

A female tour guide holds a black and white image of a street scene. She is standing in the same place the photo is an image of.

Then and Now on Hester Street, courtsey of Tenament Museum

I ended my day attending Shabbat services at Central Synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1872 in the Moorish Revival style and was designed by Henry Fernbach, often cited as the first Jewish architect in America. Central Synagogue lays claim to being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the city. I was awe struck by the glorious sanctuary with its tall central nave and gilded Star of David, which brought to mind architectural elements present in both of our historic synagogues, Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel.

Color photo of the interior of the Central Synagogue building. The room is lit with golden light.

Interior of the Central Synagogue

Throughout my time in New York City, I was able to better appreciate the city’s Jewish heritage and draw connections to my own work at the JMM.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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Weekend in New York

Posted on December 31st, 2015 by

At the Center for Jewish History.

At the Center for Jewish History.

A few weeks ago I visited New York City to see a few exhibits, Broadway shows and of course the holiday decorations around Rockefeller Plaza. My first stop was the Center for Jewish History in lower Manhattan. I had actually never heard of the Center, but was glad that I discovered it. It opened in late 2000 and includes both permanent displays, such as the stunning Luminous Manuscript which is shaped like a Talmud page, and temporary exhibits. I visited several exhibits including one called “Modeling the Synagogue: From Dura to Touro,” which contained ten scale models of history synagogues commissioned by the Yeshiva University Museum ranging from Dura-Europos in 3rd-centurey Syria to Touro Synagogue in 18th century Newport, Rhode Island.

Touro Synagogue model

Touro Synagogue model

I then headed uptown to the Museum of the City of New York.  While there, I saw an exhibit called “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half.” Jacob Riis was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the century who worked tirelessly to improve housing, health care and education, particularly for immigrants. A review in the NY Times rightly points out that with nearly one of every two New Yorkers still struggling to get by, Riis’s exposure of extreme inequalities is still very timely and relevant. The exhibit featured Riis’s photographs as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence. I was most struck by images of children living in squalid conditions in the Lower East Side. I found one Jewish connection in a photograph of Jewish immigrants laboring in a tenement sweatshop on Hester Street. There were also two videos of the popular slide shows that Riis staged around the country showcasing his photographs.

Sweatshop in Hester St, 1889-90

Sweatshop in Hester St, 1889-90

The second exhibit I went to at the Museum of the City of New York was “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival.” This exhibit traced the roots of the Folk Music Revival, its growth in New York and its impact on American culture and politics during the 1960s. It contained photographs, documents, instruments, videos and plenty of songs for headphone listening. Stephen Petrus, one of the exhibit’s curators, spoke earlier this month at JMM about the exhibit. I was excited to see early on in the exhibit a copy of The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg, as a couple of years ago I worked as a Park Ranger at the Carl Sandburg Home in North Carolina. One of my favorite pieces was Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for “Blowing in the Wind.” I also found Odetta’s guitar, a broadside by Phil Ochs on the Cuban Missile Crisis and watched a video clip of my idol Pete Seeger and Judy Collins sing a duet. If you want to visit, I’d hurry, because it closes on Jan. 10th!

Folk City

Folk City

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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