|The United Hebrew Trades joined Ladies Waist and Pressers Union in this funeral parade for Triangle Shirtwaist Fire victims.|
It was the beginning of the height of unrestricted European immigration. Tens of thousands of Jews, mostly impoverished and from Eastern Europe instead of the highly educated and assimilated German, Dutch, and French Jews who had established thriving and successful communities, sailed passed the Goddess of Liberty still under construction. They tumbled into crowed, filthy tenements and sought whatever work they could find. Much of that work was in the needle trades in a garment industry largely owned by that already present Jewish elite.
As early as 1885 10,000 cloak and skirt makers walked out in a spontaneous strike protesting low piece rates, long hours and abominable conditions. They actually managed to win some concessions from surprised employers who had assumed that “racial solidarity” would make their workers immune to striking them.
But the workers failed to create any union organization and were soon squabbling among themselves on lines of regional or national origin, craft hierarchy, gender, and fiercely competing anarchist and socialist ideologies. The gains they had won quickly slipped away.
Two young immigrants became convinced of the need to create and sustain a distinctive Jewish union labor movement. On October 9, 1888 Bernard Weinstein, a nineteen‑year‑old shirt maker and a recent Bundist activist in Russia and Moishe Hillkowitz, from Rigga, Latvia and a sometimes garment worker and rapidly rising start in the Socialist Labor Party joined with others to found the United Hebrew Trades as an umbrella organization for craft unions in the garment and other industries. Weinstein represented the SLP’s Yiddish Branch 8 and Hillkowitz, who would soon change his name to Morris Hillquist, Russian Branch 17.
The SLP was then America’s only national socialist party. It was under the sway of the brilliant, but ideologically rigid Daniel DeLeon who advocated a two pronged approach of militant craft unionism and electoral action. He also strongly supported the use of ethnic federations to spread socialism and build on common identity. The United Hebrew Trades fit perfectly into his ideological template.
But the infant American Federation of Labor was also trying to organize craft unions, regardless of ethnic identification. The two approaches were soon battling it out for supremacy in the garment industry—an industry in which contracts and steady job shop representation was already hard to come by. In addition, there was a strong anarchist presence in the Jewish community which advocated direct action and the propaganda of the deed—violence directed at employers and the exploiting classes.
Hillquist was an avid disputant in both controversies. He was the leading opponent of the anarchists, arguing that violence would alienate Americans from the cause of labor. His forum for this battle was the pages of the Arbeter zeitung, the Party’s Yiddish Language paper despite the fact that as a native German and Russian speaker, he personally knew little Yiddish.
The rise of the AFL craft unions in the ‘90’s presented a more difficult problem. Many of the UHT affiliated unions dually affiliated with the AFL DeLeon decided to take even greater control over the movement by the creation of the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance as a left wing alternative to the non-ideological pragmatism of Samuel Gompers. Disputes between the two wings of the New York labor movement were mutually bitter.
Hillquist, who had gone on to get his law degree from New York University was originally an obedient champion of the UHT becoming an affiliate of the STLA. But he would become increasingly disillusioned. When UHT union dually affiliated with the AFL refused to obey DeLeon’s directives to sever connections, they quit the STLA in 1897 and set up a rival Federated Hebrew Trades of Greater New York. Hillquist and others found themselves in sympathy.
Soon he alienated with the SLP, which under DeLeon’s drive for ideological purity was in steep decline, and became attracted with the new Social Democratic Party led by Milwaukee politician Victor Berger and former American Railway Union president Eugene V. Debs. In 1899 Hillquist and others led a formal break between the UHT and the STLA which in turn led to the re-absorption of the splinter Federated Hebrew Trades.
The same year Hillquist led a convention which split a major portion of trade union supporters formally from the SLP. In 1900 he led that faction into a merger with the Social Democrats creating a new, broad based Socialist Party.
In the new century the role of the UHT shifted. Although a few small unions remained directly affiliated with it and outside the AFL, the organization shifted to becoming more of a support arm of the craft union movement. It provided ideological education, a lively Yiddish press and pamphlet program, social cohesion, and a fundraising base for direct organizing by AFL unions.
Despite this change the UHT continued to thrive. In 1900 it was a driving force behind the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, an umbrella that allowed the old craft distinctions to continue in various segments of the industry but provided broader solidarity and support. Together the UHT and ILGWU supported the often bloody and contentious strikes that eventually led to the stable organization of most of the garment industry.
By 1910 co-founder Weinstein could report that the UHT was associated with 106 representing 150,000 working men and women. By any stretch of the imagination that made them a force to be reckoned with.
The UHT and the union it supported were defiantly radical in the generally conservative AFL. And they were also the chief avenue for women to come into the craft and trade union movement and even assume leadership roles.
After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 the UHT provided a lot of the ideological muscle as well as the dollars to support the stepped up organizing drives by the ILGWU and other garment industry unions, swelling the ranks of shops under contract. When the UHT held its 25th anniversary celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1914 Gompers himself had to swallow his pride to address the meeting jammed with radicals. He was joined on the platform with the lawyer-hero of the far left, Clarence Darrow.
Despite these successes, there were setbacks. In 1915 eight members of the UHT executive board were indicted by the District Attorney for allegedly hiring gangster Benjamin “Dopey Benny” Fein to intimidate reluctant employers. Fein and other sluggers ran gangs for hire to the highest bidder, labor or management.
More stressful than a little labor racketeering, however, were growing bitter ideological fractures in the Jewish labor movement. Remnant supporters of anarchism, and DeLeonism continued to fight the Social Democrats. Then the Socialist Party itself began to fracture between conservative and left wing factions.
Hillquist, by this time out of the daily affairs of the UHT, but still hugely influential as the lawyer for the ILGWU and a top leader of the Socialist Party, was in the thick of the battle. He ardently opposed the left wing of the Party which was coalescing around the syndicalism of the Industrial Workers of the World represented on the SP executive board by IWW General Secretary Treasurer William D. “Big Bill” Haywood. He opposed industrial unionism as an alternative to craft unionism, but railed mostly about the “inflammatory” revolutionary rhetoric of the IWW, it disdain of electoral political action, and its refusal to make union demands secondary to Socialist political gains. Despite the fact that probably a majority of UHT members were sympathetic to the left of the party, Hillquist engineered Haywood’s 1914 removal from the SP Executive Board and the subsequent departure of most of the left wing from the Party.
During the First World War the UHT was generally pacifistic and opposed to the draft. That caused the suppression of some its publication and the periodicals of associated organizations and their banishment from the mails. Hillquist, himself a pacifist, made brief common cause with the left again and defended many of the publications, trying to get their mailing status restored.
After the war the SP fractured over support of the Bolshevik revolution between the moderate social democrats and two far left factions--the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party of America. Membership in the UHT included vocal supporters and caucuses of all of these positions as well as older tendencies. Later, significant support would arise for the new Trotskyite movement. Internal battle for control of the UHT and of the ILGWU and other craft unions were constant and fierce, although they only occasionally interfered with strike solidarity on a practical level.
With the Great Depression and the launching of the New Deal, many UHT leaders advocated abandoning electoral loyalty to the SP or the united Communist Party, USA and shifting electoral support to the Democrats. They helped thousands abandon old loyalties to become among the Democrats staunchest, if most radical, supporters.
To facilitate this shift, in 1934 the UHT joined with other unions and Jewish organizations to create the new Jewish Labor Committee, which largely focused on raising money for Democrats and lobbying for pro-labor and worker safety reforms on the state and local level. The UHT remained, however, a separate organization and reported membership 250,000 in its affiliates at its 50th Anniversary in 1938.
Shortly after the Second World War top UHT members and organizers for the ILGWU came under twin investigations for ties to the Communist Party and labor racketeering. At the same time, technological changes and competition from foreign producers was slashing jobs in the New York garment industry. Second and third generation Jews, elevated to middle class income levels by the very success of the labor movement and highly educated, largely refused to follow their parents into the garment factories and were eventually replaced with new immigrants. Then the factories themselves began to disappear, first to non-union states in the South and then overseas.
In the second half of the 20th Century in addition to divisions on sectarian grounds, Zionism and support of Israel has been controversial. The Left generally opposed Zionism as a form of nationalism, but after the Holocaust some became ardent supporters of the Jewish state. The controversy has never really gone away.
By the 1990’s the UHT gave up independent status and became the New York State affiliate of the Jewish Labor Committee that it once founded. Although it maintains New York offices, holds meetings, and issues occasional press releases on labor or political issues, the largely elderly leadership of the UHT cannot even maintain a web page of its own.