Two Lives in Labor: Jacob Edelman Part 1

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

Part I: The Voice of Labor

Jacob Edelman (1896-1984) was born in Ukraine and came to Baltimore in 1912, where he joined two older sisters. Within a short time, he went to work as an apprentice cutter at Greif & Brothers. Jacob became active in efforts to unionize, and he was soon blacklisted by Baltimore clothing manufacturers.

Moving to New York, Jacob continued his education at Cooper Union. He returned to Baltimore and again found work in the textile trade. He attended law school at night, graduating in 1925. He immediately opened a practice as a labor lawyer, representing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and other unions. In 1935, he was named a federal labor referee and served for four years.

In 1939, Edelman ran for City Council, where he served until 1971, winning fame for his vocal support for labor and for the rights of minorities. When an anti-discrimination bill failed in 1958, Edelman declared that “a day of infamy in the annals of the council which made Baltimore appear to the world as a bigoted hamlet instead of a great city.” After retiring from the council, he served for eight years as chairman of the Maryland Human Rights Commission.

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

Ad for United Garment Workers of America. JMM 1990.92.1
Ad for United Garment Workers of America. JMM 1990.92.1

When I told my mother I wanted to leave for America, she was very much opposed to the idea. I pleaded with my mother to let me join my two sisters, Sarah and Frieda, whom I loved very dearly. My mother didn’t want me to go – she said America is a great land, but it is only good for people who are craftsmen, such as carpenters, tailors, shoe makers, etc. “What would you do there, you are a child of the book—you are your father’s child and he is no longer here.” I told my mother there were opportunities there where I could find gainful employment—I told her I would not give up my studies and I would not forsake the family tradition or the memory of my father, and that I would try to follow and reach out since education is free as it is not in Russia. I told her I would not get lost and that I would not betray the family tradition.

I landed in Locust Point, February 2, 1912, where I was met and embraced by my two sisters. Each sister wanted me to be with her—they were not wealthy but their husbands provided for their families and I was well taken care of. I was fortunate to find myself under the guidance of two wonderful sisters, who were interested in seeing my advancement in keeping with family tradition and education. Of course, I had to go to work.

On Monday morning, two days after my arrival, I was taken to School #93, at Baltimore and Aisquith, and ushered into the principal’s office—I did not speak English but spoke German very well. This was a German-English School, that’s why they took me there. The principal sized me up, spoke in German, I told him what I had—history, some sciences, math, etc. Yet I didn’t know one word of English—he didn’t know what to do with me. He decided to put me in the sixth grade. I was sixteen going on seventeen years old. I was quite a young man, as tall as I am now, a little thinner. He presented me to the teacher, a Miss Ella. She spoke German very well.

Miss Ella was an angel, she was unmarried, she was a lady in her forties, and she took me under her guidance. She lived on South Broadway, and every day after school, I carried her books and my books and we went together to her home. After a slight repast, we sat down and studied, and she tutored me privately, free, of course in order to prepare me in English, which was so important. I became acquainted with English literature and became an avid reader in literature. I skipped from the sixth to the seventh to the eighth and in June I received a certificate. At that time we didn’t have junior high schools. Grammar school was from the first to the eighth grade. The girls went to Eastern High School and the boys to City College.

Jacob Edelman. JMM 1994.21.14
Jacob Edelman. JMM 1994.21.14

Without going any further I went to get a job. My job was in the clothing industry with Greif & Bros., and later I worked for Sonneborn’s. Of course I knew nothing about clothing or tailoring. I was put in the cutting department and it was there I learned to be a cutter. It wasn’t easy on me because I knew it was only a transitory business in my life–that I was not going to be a cutter the rest of my life–so I didn’t take it too seriously. My earnings were six dollars per week and again I lived with one sister or the other—I walked to save the nickel car fare, my sisters didn’t take any board from me, and saved a little money, and even sent twenty-five dollars from time to time to my mother.

A strike broke out at Greif & Bros. after I was there about a year—in 1913. The strike electrified me—here was a struggle of various ethnic groups, Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, Bohemians, Jews, and some Americans, all unified together [who] went out on strike against conditions that existed in the plant.

The conditions were the worse kind of exploitation that you could possibly describe. People worked fifty-six hours a week. That was the regular work week, but if you were needed for later, you had to work later and there was no such thing as premium pay. There was no such thing as proper rest rooms, decent facilities, or water fountains, there was a little tin cup with a little chain, and you could dip in and take a drink and that was for everybody. There would be as many as 600-700 people working on one loft. Work began at 7:30 and we worked until 6 p.m. and there was no such thing as unionism. The supervision was always on the alert to find out whether anybody at the machine with another person was talking.

The Greif firm was owned by a German Jewish family, but they were up in the way high top echelon of executive leadership and knew very little about what was going on in the pants shop, in the cloak shop, the canvas department, in the stock room. They didn’t know what was going on there – they had hired executives and the top executive was Sam Brechman – he was a Simon Legree if there ever was one in American history. He exemplified him in every respect.

Henry Sonneborn Company workers, c. 1915. JMM 1991.39.2
Henry Sonneborn Company workers, c. 1915. JMM 1991.39.2

As a result of the deplorable conditions that existed in what is commonly referred to as the sweat shops, the people rebelled against them. They found a way to communicate with each other even though the Italians couldn’t speak English and the Jews couldn’t speak English and the rest couldn’t speak English, but they were communicating – they understood each other and they resolved to go out on strike. There was a union known as the United Garment Workers, but the union, itself, was far from being dedicated to the cause of liberating workers from industrial exploitation. [The leadership] was not interested in the improvement of conditions of the immigrant workers who came from eastern and southern Europe. Indeed, they held most of these people in utter contempt. They referred to the Italians as the “wops and the Genies,” the Jews were the “Kikes,” and the rest were known as “square heads.”

Then came the cutters. They were in the main Irish and Germans. There were very few Jews in the cutting craft. The cutting craft was called the aristocracy in the industry. Sometimes they were referred to as the “silk stocking men,” although their conditions were not something to write home about. They were earning in those days sixteen dollars and eighteen dollars per week as against immigrant people who were making from six to ten dollars per week.

The clothing industry at that time was undergoing a complete revolutionary change from that of a tailor making a whole suit [to]180 different operations that were broken down in separate little sections which made up a suit. Each person learned how to do a section – back pocket in the pants, a side pocket, little watch pocket, serging, side seams, back seams, etc. Everything was sectionalized and broken up into little operations and each operation carried a piece-rate to it – these were not time workers. When you punched in the time you got in, you were not guaranteed what you would earn; it depended on how many pieces you made, and each piece represented a quarter of a cent and it depended on how many pieces you produced that day which showed how much you made, multiplied by the piece rate.

Striking garment workers, NYC, c. 1915-1920. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Striking garment workers, NYC, c. 1915-1920. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

They went out on strike. Now when the strike broke out, it lasted for twenty-six weeks, and there was no such thing as strike benefits. The people that were involved in this strike, they were striking more for human dignity than they were for more pennies. They were less interested in asking for more money than to ask for recognition, to have a voice, to have a grievance procedure, to have some machinery established so that the foreman in a particular department could not make a devastating statement. A beautiful Jewish girl sitting at her machine, if she appealed to him physically, and in order for her to keep her job, he suggested that she become his bed-partner any particular night when he wanted her company. These are the conditions that existed, so that the people rebelled at this kind of a system that had indignity rather than human dignity. I was witness to these things. The strike was lost after twenty-six weeks.

They were told there was no point in striking any more, that they better go back to work. Now how did these people live during the twenty-six weeks – how did they sustain themselves? There was the Jewish Charities for the Jewish people, as for the other ethnic people, they had relatives, they had families, there were soup kitchens. There were some brave people in this city. Dr. Kinsolving was a great clergyman, who organized a defense committee, Elizabeth Gilman, the daughter of Dr. Daniel Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University. She was a leader in the Socialist movement in this community. Socially conscious people who set up a system of help; material help to the people involved in the strike. When the strike was over, a number of people were black-listed and were not permitted back to the plant. . . . I happened to be one of them. I found out that to me this was a great symbol of liberation because the strike gave me an opportunity to make speeches–I became very articulate. When the strike was over, a number of people including myself were refused admittance into the plant, on that particular Monday morning when everybody was told they could go back to work, Mr. Wexler and his retinue were standing at the entrance on Redwood Street (then German Street), and he said “You are out.” I was among those who were out.

 Continue to Part II: A New Era

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