Historian Adam M. Howard’s important new book sheds light on the crucial role national and international unions played, in the early twentieth century, in the establishment of Israel as a Jewish homeland.
Howard recounts the fascinating story of the Jewish garment workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), who spearheaded the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. The ILGWU was primarily composed of Eastern European Jewish trade unionists, who knew firsthand the persecution faced by Jews in Europe and the need for a safe refuge for them. Many were dedicated to Zionist and socialist visions, and committed to making a better world for persecuted Jews and workers everywhere. Within union circles, the ILGWU garnered tremendous respect when its 1909 shirtwaist makers successfully organized a strike for better working conditions. Then, in 1910, the cloakmakers’ strike earned workers a fifty-hour workweek, minimum wages for certain workers, and a Joint Board of Sanitary Control in New York. These advances further cemented organized workers’ respect for the union and gained their cooperation in its efforts to mobilize financial and political support for a Jewish homeland.
Trade union leaders developed what Howard characterized as a two-pronged approach. First, they “maneuvered beyond the confines of national governments by contributing financial and material assistance to Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine.” Secondly, organized labor “employed its political influence in the United States and around the world to persuade government officials to support the Jewish cause in Palestine.” The AFL (American Federation of Labor), ACWA (Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America), and the ILGWU regularly collected money to be sent to Histadrut for the financing of hospitals, trade schools, and technical institutes with the intention of bolstering a fellow labor movement and aiding the development of Palestine for Jewish settlement. Other union organizations with very few Jewish members, such as National Maritime Union (NMU), Teamsters, American Federation of Musicians, and AFL-CIO also championed the cause of making Israel a Jewish refuge, homeland, and ideal worker economy.
Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israeldoesn’t end with the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Howard provides further details about how the ILGWU and other unions continued to work closely with Israeli trade unionists and leaders to help Israel flourish. It is an important read for anyone concerned with the formation of Israel and understanding little-known social factors in its development.