Daniel Katz. All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism. New York: New York University Press, 2011. 312 pp. $39.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-4836-7.
Reviewed by Susan Breitzer
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Many Cultures, One Union?
Daniel Katz’s new monograph, All Together Different, revised from his Rutgers dissertation, begins with the question of why, during the early twentieth century, the predominantly Jewish International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) saw fit to take the almost unprecedented step of organizing African American clothing workers on an equal basis, but did not end with it. Katz, a onetime union organizer who currently teaches history at Empire State College, places this phenomenon in the context of the ILGWU’s preexisting multiculturalism--a multiculturalism that, far from being at odds with the Yiddish Socialist origins of the union, grew out of those origins. Katz also examines how this form of multiculturalism, which he terms “mutual culturalism,” developed and adapted over the first four decades of the twentieth century, before being finally muted in the years between the arrival of the New Deal and the onset of World War II.
Although Katz examines many aspects of this labor multiculturalism throughout his book, his main focus is on the changing purposes and structures of union education. This first-ever full length study of the multicultural educational efforts of the ILGWU displays intensive research from a variety of sources that include several interviews by the author. Katz defines “mutual culturalism” as the recognition and celebration of ethnocultural differences in positive ways that do not denigrate anyone’s culture. Mutual culturalism, according to Katz, nonetheless differs from the essentially middle-class cultural pluralism of Horace Kallen, in that it celebrates differences “in the context of class and the power relations within groups and between the dominant and subordinate ethnic groups” (p. 6). Katz connects the eventual shift away from the commitment to multicultural education to four factors: the increased centralization of the union’s leadership, the declining leadership opportunities for women and concern for gender equality within the union, the post-New Deal role of the ILGWU as one of many union partners in the welfare state, and the shifting political mood of American Jewry in response to the rise of Nazism.
Katz places much of the discussion of mutual culturalism in the context of the history of Yiddish Socialism and Jewish radicalism in a way that upends the traditional understanding of non-Zionist Jewish Socialism as being fundamentally opposed to the idea of national identities as somehow inimical to the creation of a militant working class. Katz begins the book with an emphasis on the development of premigration Yiddishist Socialism, which created a distinctive Jewish workers’ culture that rejected assimilation as unworkable, but also sought to reach out to workers of other nationalities in a spirit of “encouraging the celebration and elevation of all ethnic folk cultures and engaging in a form of political resistance to cultural domination” and to class oppression (p. 28). Although in practice this premigratory ideal only worked among “a very small group of revolutionary intellectuals,” the idea of “mutual culturalism” was just one of many germinated by the Jewish Socialist movement in Russia that would end up taking root and flourishing in America--with adaptation along the way (pp. 28-29).
Katz notes that it was the very fact that Jewish immigrants were accustomed to being ethnic/religious minorities in the old country that made them “generally better prepared for the difficulties of living in a foreign culture” than ethnic groups that had belonged to the dominant culture or religion in their country of origin (p. 45). But he also emphasizes that it was not merely the minority status, but also the radical consciousness of those Jewish immigrants who arrived following the 1905 Russian Revolution that propelled their efforts toward worker empowerment through cultural education, culminating with the ILGWU’s educational programs. Katz also emphasizes the gendered aspect of this revolutionary movement, which provided space and avenues, albeit ultimately limited ones, for women’s militancy and empowerment.
According to Katz, gender played a larger role in the ILGWU’s struggles between moderates and militants than has been generally acknowledged, beginning with the divisions over the acceptance of the 1910 Protocols of Peace, whose peace came at the price of shop-floor militancy and local autonomy, and therefore had negative effects on the predominantly female and increasingly ethnically diverse majority of the rank and file. The subsequent struggle over and eventual collapse of the protocols furthermore happened concurrently with the effort to build union education programs modeled on a combination of Yiddishist educational efforts and the non-Jewish Socialist Rand School adult education programs. These educational programs would be part of union programming in multiple garment centers during the early twentieth century, yet for most of the remainder of the book, Katz focuses on the activities of the New York-based Locals 22 and 25, the largest (and arguably most militant) locals in the ILGWU.
Although the union education programs of the ILGWU were largely coordinated through women’s efforts, from the beginning, differences over appropriate focuses and purposes of labor education were frequently colored by gender as well as politics. While the almost entirely male general executive board quickly recognized the value of having educational programs to build loyalty and support among union members, it was less supportive of the radical orientation of some of the programs. Nonetheless, the programs flourished, and complemented the union leadership’s at once idealistic and pragmatic decision to pursue equitable interracial organizing at a time when African Americans had been employed pointedly to break strikes and hence unions. Most of the programs, which ranged from formal classes to musical and dramatic performances, based on the (radical) culture of (initially) the Jewish and Italian workers (soon expanding to include the cultures of the growing number of African American and Latino workers), were intended to reach all union brothers and sisters across racial and cultural lines. Social activities were similarly inclusive, breaking what were then very well-established racial boundaries to create solidarity and cohesiveness.
The ILGWU’s programs continued and flourished through the open-shop drive of the 1920s, and the concurrent labor wars, the latter in which rival Communist groups provided competition not only in terms of union organization, but also in radically oriented educational programming. During this period of internal strife, Katz argues, the ILGWU leadership’s effort to subdue the Communist insurgency went hand in hand with the marginalization of women in the union from leadership and influence. Nonetheless, Katz insists that the internal struggle within the union “may have sustained the drive for a multiculturalism movement” against the onslaught of the One Hundred Percent Americanism prevalent during this period, because Socialists and their Communist rivals did agree that multiculturalism was “an essential ingredient of a revolutionary worldview” (p. 97). Radical Jewish organizations, first Socialist and then Communist, continued to influence the ILGWU’s multicultural educational programming.
The multicultural education programming began to first be seriously reduced in the mid-1930s when the union became a (junior) partner in the liberal welfare state with the New Deal provisions that culminated in the passage of the Wagner Act. This new legal and social acceptability of the ILGWU doubtlessly provided great material benefits to its members, but it also meant increased centralization and moderation of the union politically, as well as a legislated end to shop-floor power and militancy. Although these changes have been well studied, Katz also brings out just how chilling an effect they had on the innovative and multicultural educational programming that had previously flourished within the ILGWU. Nowhere is this illustrated more dramatically than in the last section of the book, which Katz devotes to the story of the production of the now classic musical Pins and Needles, described as a signature of the union’s shift “from Yiddish socialism to Jewish liberalism.” Pins and Needles began as a show produced by and for union members, dramatizing and celebrating the struggles of the clothing workers and their union, and as it became popular, ended up having its political and social message subdued, and its cast staffed increasingly by professional “ringers.” These trends in turn changed the production company climate from one of solidarity and cooperation to one of competition and individual professional aspirations.
In All Together Different, Katz has created an original and compelling picture not only of “what was” in the ILGWU during the mid-twentieth century, but also of what might have been, were it not for larger political shifts within the union that transformed it from a bottom-up movement to a top-down organization. Just as significantly, Katz upends the traditional assumption that Jewish Socialist and labor activists were uniformly opposed to ethnocultural identification and expression, especially among Jewish workers. He demonstrates that if anything, the ILGWU, which had grown out of the immigrant Jewish Socialist movement and was founded on Jewish Socialist principles, became less celebratory of multiculturalism about the same time it ceased to be an identifiably “Jewish” union.
The book is not without its faults, most notably in the author’s efforts to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Although the early chapters on the immigrant origins of the ILGWU are excellent in solidly grounding this union’s history in the premigration Russian Jewish Socialist movements, the later chapters read more as a general (though still thorough) labor history, rather than as a piece of Jewish labor history. In addition, although the author does a good job integrating gender issues and relating them to the narrative of multiculturality, he does occasionally misidentify the contexts for the genderedness of certain issues. He does this most glaringly in his reference to the Pins and Needles number, “Men Awake!” about which he argues “despite the history of women’s militancy in the ILGWU, the song called to men,” glossing over the still almost universal usage of “men” to refer to people as a group, regardless of their gender during this period (even among the political Left) (p. 221). Finally, the book’s brief concluding chapter about the persistence of multiculturalism within the ILGWU during the postwar era can leave the reader unsatisfied--it would have been interesting and helpful for the author to have projected forward by examining how the ILGWU has responded to (for good or ill) the changing ethnic composition of the union in the subsequent decades, and connect the scholarship regarding later issues (most infamously the IGLWU’s refusal in the 1950s to charter a local for Puerto Rican workers even as it permitted the continued existence of the historic Italian local, amid declining numbers of Italian workers).
These weaknesses notwithstanding, All Together Different provides a fascinating and in-depth look at an early multicultural movement that not only makes the case for recognizing the class aspects of multiculturalism but also should quash, once and for all, the notion that Jewish radical activists must actively distance themselves from their own culture and heritage in order to celebrate the culture and heritages of others. This book will appeal to scholars and students of American Jewish history, especially of the Jewish labor movement in America, as well as those interested in the early history of multiculturalism. This book is also an important contribution to the broader field of labor history/studies, making even more of a case than ever for the relevance of the Jewish clothing workers’ unions to the larger American labor history narrative. Altogether, Katz has made a fine and distinct contribution to the reemerging study of the Jewish labor movement in America.
. Alta Gracia Ortiz, “Puerto Rican Garment Workers in the Garment Industry of New York City, 1920-1960,” in Labor Divided: Race and Ethnicity in United States Labor Struggles, 1835-1960, ed. Robert Asher and Charles Stephenson (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990); Nancy L. Green, “Blacks, Jews, and the ‘Natural Alliance’: Labor Collaboration and the ILGWU,” Jewish Social Studies 4, no. 1 (1997): 79-104; and Robert Laurentz, “Racial/Ethnic Conflict in the New York City Garment District” (PhD thesis, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1980).
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Susan Breitzer. Review of Katz, Daniel, All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism.
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