The recent strike by the Chicago Teacher’s Union, as well as the advent of a strike by Walmart workers, (in spite of the company’s long record of being anti union and the likelihood that the striking workers will lose their jobs), marks an interesting and revolutionary moment in the history of United States labor history. This fall, the Jewish Women’s Archive released its latest online curriculum in the Living the Legacy series, a Jewish social justice education project that uses primary sources to explore the role of Jews in the Civil Rights movement, and now, in the labor movement.
The curriculum looks at the history of Jews in the labor movement via a series of 8 lessons, on topics such as agriculture, housewives and consumer organizing, radicalism and the Red Scare, and Jewish labor campaigns. I spoke with Judith Rosenbaum, feminist historian and the Director of Public Projects at the Jewish Women’s Archive, about the curriculum in more detail.
Q: Give us a glimpse into this particular curriculum and what it contains.
Judith Rosenbaum (JR): Two years ago, we released the curriculum on the Civil Rights movement. In it, we wanted to go beyond the often congratulatory manner of Jewish conversations about social justice and look more closely at the challenges regarding race and Jewish identity in the movement. The Labor curriculum is also primary source based, and adaptable for a variety of educational situations. It crosses different time periods and narratives and includes 14 biographies of labor leaders, as well as women’s stories in the labor movement, which are often excluded.
Q: What do you hope that folks will take from the curriculum? What conversations do you hope people will have as a result of it?
JR: In the United States, the conversation around labor has fallen apart. I hope this curriculum will help folks see parallels and create alliances, and start a different level of dialogue about dignity, identity, human rights, ethical treatment of workers; beyond the questions of whether or not unions are good or bad. We see things as a question of laborers v. professionals, or allies v. members, when actually, we’re all involved in the labor relationship, but most of us feel alienated from it, because we have a particular idea of what a worker is. Let’s reframe the issue around fair employment and create a fuller picture: What does it mean to be a worker? What are worker’s rights? What are my responsibilities to the labor relationships in which I am involved? Where does dignity fit in to our notions of what work is about?
Q: What do you think the contribution of Jewish communities and women has been to the labor movement? What do you think it can be?
JR: Jewish involvement in the labor movement in the first half of the 20th century helped shaped American Jewish identity. In the workplace, we became observers of American language and culture, we gained strength from experiences with others, from experiencing injustice together. We learned language for talking about social change from different positions within systems; we can and have brought strength, resiliency and challenge to the labor movement. At the same time, social justice and activism became a secular Jewish practice.
In the contemporary Jewish community, there’s no consensus around labor issues. We may be nostalgic about the history of Jewish labor activism, but we talk about the Jewish community today as if there are no working class Jews, as if we are not implicated in current unfair labor practices. One reason we created this project was to open a conversation that would draw connections between our activist past and our current realities and responsibilities as American Jews.
Q: What piece of the curriculum is your favorite?
JR: There’s a document in the Jewish Radicalism and the Red Scare section, it’s an advertisement for the “Free Thinkers and Radicals Picnic” on Yom Kippur in Central Park in 1907, put together by Emma Goldman and her friends. I like it because it’s complicated: you can’t make assumptions about what’s Jewish and not Jewish, or about what kinds of actions are political. A Yom Kippur picnic is clearly a rejection of traditional Jewish practice, but it’s also a kind of secular Jewish practice.