“Brava, Brava Jewish Women,” exclaimed the Jewish Daily Forward headline on May 15, 1902, applauding the “[t]housands and thousands of balaboostas rebelling against the meat fraud” of 1902. Kosher meat wholesalers, decried as “robber barons” by the indignant housewives of the Lower East Side, had hiked up the prices of kosher meat from 12 to 18 cents a pound. The kosher butchers of New York City tried to combat the monopolists by refusing to sell the wholesalers’ meat, but their inventory was severely depleted as a result. They threw up their hands and resumed selling the pricey meat. “The Kosher butchers of the east side, numbering about 1,600, … abandoned their fight against the wholesale meat dealers and … raised their prices even higher than the retailers of up-town New York,” reported the New York Times.
The women of the Lower East Side knew a thing or two about the collective power of the purse and took matters into their own hands. During this time, nearly one-third of New York City’s workforce was employed by the garment industry, with immigrant women making up the majority of the employees.
The women of the Lower East Side knew a thing or two about the collective power of the purse and took matters into their own hands. During this time, nearly one-third of New York City’s workforce was employed by the garment industry, with immigrant women making up the majority of the employees. The Jewish immigrants had arrived in the United States in waves. The first wave came from Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, and worked their fingers to the bone in the Garment District for meager wages. A new crop of Jewish workers then arrived in the early 1900s from countries with a tradition of working-class militancy. Pogroms had swept Eastern Europe, causing a wave of Jewish immigration from places such as Poland, Russia, and Lithuania, where Jews had been members of the Labor Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party with heavy union representation. These Jewish women were no strangers to collective bargaining.
Fanny Levy, the wife of a unionized cloakmaker, and Sarah Edelson, who owned a small restaurant, called a meeting of their neighbors around Pike and Monroe Streets on May 14, 1902. Above the din of angry housewives, Mrs. Levy hollered: “This is a strike? Look at the good it has brought! Now, if we women make a strike, then it will be a strike.”
A strike, indeed! The women agreed not only to boycott the kosher butchers, but also to harass the scabs. The Times observed: “Not alone were the proprietors of the butcher shops attacked, but those who patronized them also met with the mob’s fury.” Customers emerging from the butchers’ doors had their purchased meat forcibly grabbed from their arms and trampled. Butchers in bloodstained aprons watched helplessly as their former regulars stormed their stores and rendered their wares inedible and unsellable by pouring kerosene and carbolic acid on them. One policeman called to dismantle the fray had “an unpleasant moist piece of liver slapped in his face.”
Another meeting took place the next day, May 15, this time in New Irving Hall, on Broome Street. More than 5,000 people showed up, inciting a mob scene. Police were summoned and ducked for cover as shoes and the occasional brick were hurled at them from windows and fire escapes. The New York Times praised these officers, who “kept their heads perfectly” by “belaboring the less sensitive parts of the rioters’ bodies with their clubs.” Rioters with toddlers clinging to their skirt hems were arrested and bailed out by their husbands or the collection efforts of other rioters. “The patrol wagon raced up and down, picking up its burdens at the corners, leaving them at the station, and returning for more.”
The Protesters Go to Shul
The insurgence continued, unhalted by the holy Shabbos, which fell on May 17. Butchers were closed, but shuls were open. The revolutionaries left their seats in the balcony and interrupted Torah reading to persuade men to back their cause and to gain communal support, which was almost uniformly forthcoming. In fact, these women were greeted warmly by the shuls, whose members aligned themselves with the cause. When police officers arrived at one particular shul to arrest a boycotter, other congregants successfully prevailed on her behalf, convincing the officers to release her.
The kosher butchers shuttered their doors. The boycott spread down to Brooklyn and up to Harlem. Mrs. Yetta Hirschberg attacked a man carrying a parcel of kosher meat on 105th Street while her eight-year-old son looked on. Upon being arrested for disorderly conduct, Yetta cried so hard that an officer at the precinct office secured a bondsman on her behalf.
By June 5, 1902, the strike was concluded. The robber barons rolled back the wholesale price of kosher meat to 9 cents a pound, so that the retail price would be pegged at 14 cents a pound. The women returned to their peaceful routines of working in their factories, minding their children, and caring for their homes. But the success of this resistance galvanized the Jewish women, and they organized more collective strikes to effectuate better working conditions for themselves.
Labor Strikes Follow the Food Strikes
The most famous of New York’s organized labor strikes was the shirtwaist makers’ strike of 1909, organized primarily by Jewish women working in New York shirtwaist factories. Many of these Jewish women were the daughters of those who had mobilized during the meat strike of 1902 to keep neighborhood grocery prices affordable. Some of those daughters had even participated: As these young girls entered adolescence and the garment trade, the backbone of New York’s labor movement, the resounding voices of their mothers echoed in their ears, so that when they found themselves working long days in unsanitary and unsafe sweatshops for miserable wages, they mobilized. Twenty thousand shirtwaist workers walked out of their factories and refused to return.
Armed with memories of their mothers’ achievements, these working Jewish daughters had succeeded in creating a more just workplace for themselves and generations to come.
Weeks later, the “1910 protocol of peace” was finally reached. This historic compromise between the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the major employers of the women’s garment industry in New York City met the demands of the workers, which included better pay and shorter hours. The success of this strike marked a crucial milestone for the development and growth of unions nationwide. Armed with memories of their mothers’ achievements, these working Jewish daughters had succeeded in creating a more just workplace for themselves and generations to come.
Dina Gielchinsky is a civil counterterrorism lawyer who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband and three children.
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