by Jason Lever
Posted on Sun, 01 Dec 2013 17:08:54 GMT
The battle to establish Jewish unions
When Solomon entered the world of work in the late 1910s, overcrowding and chronic poverty were increasing in the East End. Cut-throat competition in cabinet making made it a precarious living, with long hours and low wages.
Jewish immigrants arrived into a system in which “native” tailors and shoe-makers, in particular, had already begun to toil within ‘the full rigours of the sweating system’. Sweatshop conditions of 13-hour working days were fuelled by starvation wages. This also applied ‘to a lesser extent in cabinet-making and baking’ (ref: Jones).
Distinctly Jewish unions began to form in some sectors, for example the short-lived Hebrew Cabinet Makers Union. With the majority of cabinet making workshops run by a master with maybe four to eight men under him, it was not a trade conducive to collectivism (ref: Gartner; White).
In 1892, only about 1,200 of some 30,000 immigrant Jewish workers were members of Jewish trades unions in London (ref: Alderman). Jewish unions ‘rose and fell rapidly, often vanishing without a trace’ in the first decade of the twentieth century (ref: Bermant). With fairly rapid assimilation into the English working-classes, the need for separate Jewish unions was questioned.
According to Rudolf Rocker, the Jewish trade unions took steps to build contacts with the general trades union movement in the country, becoming active in major disputes and strikes. Yet, they tried to ‘provide for the cultural needs of the Jewish workers’ (Ref: Rocker).
There was greater stability in smaller trades such as baking (ref: Gartner). Some time between 1903 and 1909 the London Jewish Bakers Union was formed, evolving from meetings of refugee bakers held in the Jewish pub in Black Lion Yard and other East End pubs. It affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1920 (ref: Marsh & Smethurst).
Solomon Lever, one time cabinet maker, was to be its general secretary for over half its 60-year history.
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