What was the impact of the Russian and Eastern European Jews on the American Labor Movement?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The immigration of Russian and Eastern European Jews had a tremendous impact upon the American Labor Movement.  In the early immigration of Jews from 1886 to 1914, forty-four percent were women.  These Jewish women, as well as the men, were not farmers as so many other European immigrants since Jews were usually not allowed to own land in Europe; consequently, they were experienced in urban life and capitalist economies.  With Jews constituting thirty-eight percent of those living in cities, the women worked alongside the men, supporting their families through petty commerce, selling all kinds of produce, and working in artisan trades such as shoe-making and tailoring.  In the Ghettos many of the Jewish women and men entered the burgeoning garment industry.  Other men took advantage of their commercial backgrounds and inserted themselves into the economy as peddlers and skilled workers, while other immigrants were unskilled.

Before marriage, many adolescent girls worked in the garment industry in crowded and unsanitary conditions in both small workshops and larger factories where they were underpaid compared to men.  While in these larger factories, young Jewish women, who were reared with the sense that the world of politics was not reserved for men alone, participated in the labor movement that became a powerful force in Jewish communities.  However, the nascent Jewish unions of The Amalgated Clothing Workers and The International Ladies Garment Workers did not recognize women as equals, later female militancy--in 1909 20,000 women garment workers went on strike--forced an increase of female members in these unions. The political interest of these young immigrant Jewish women continued even when they left jobs to be married.  For instance,  they organized boycotts in response to rising meat prices and conducted rent strikes to protest evictions.

In the early 1930s with the Great Depression, unemployment soared to 15 million.  At this time, there were millions of Jews in New York alone, many of whom were unemployed garment union members.  Unrest among the unemployed working class led them to the Communist Party (begun by Karl Marx, a Jew) as a way to address particular concerns:  a means of fighting Fascism, or religious, racial, or ethic discrimination, of gaining union-labor objectives, general social improvement, or humanitarian socialist goals.  Thus, the transition for Jewish workers into this movement was facile as the Jewish Labor Movement aligned itself to the Communist Party; in fact, Communism became a primary mobilizer of Jewish women.  It is of note that communists were present for the formation of major unions still existent today. (The United Council of Working Class Women, Professional Workers of America, International Longshoremen, AFL-CIO, etc.)

From 1946 to the 1950s, the Communist Party came under "unremitting attack" by the government, particularly from the efforts of the Wisconsin senator, Joseph McCarthy.  Many Jewish screenwriters and actors found their careers ruined during this period of "McCarthyism."

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a huge influx to the US of immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe.  A large proportion of these immigrants were Jewish.

The main impact of these immigrants was to radicalize the US labor movement.  It was during these years that the US socialist movement had its greatest successes.  These European immigrants had been exposed to ideas of communism and anarchism that were much more current in Europe than they were in the US.  These ideas came across the Atlantic with the immigrants and helped to radicalize the labor movement for a while.


dseals3 | Student



  Of all Jewish immigrants to the United States from 1886 to 1914, forty-four percent were women, far more than for other immigrants groups arriving during the heyday of mass immigration. The more than two million Jews from the Russian Empire, Romania, and Austria-Hungary who entered the United States in the years 1881 to 1924—when the American government imposed a restrictive quota system—came to stay. Only 7 percent chose to return to Europe, as opposed to about 30 percent of all immigrants. Jewish immigrants intended to raise American families. Ashkenazi (European) Jewish culture and American values as conveyed by social reformers as well as by advertising, and the economic realities of urban capitalist America, all influenced the position of women in immigrant Jewish society in America. Jewish immigrant women shared many of the attributes of immigrant women in general, but also displayed ethnic characteristics.