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Jewish Journal

Labor Lore

by Tom Tugend

August 17, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Debra E. Bernhardt, left, and Rachel Bernstein, authors of "Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives."

Debra E. Bernhardt, left, and Rachel Bernstein, authors of "Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives."

In 1776, printers in New York City organized and declared a strike in support of the newly formed United States of America.

In 1999, New York physicians led the fight to form a national labor organization in their field.Between these dates, millions upon millions of workers built America's premier city, fought against sweatshops and exploitation, and set the pattern for the nation's labor union movement.

Throughout the 20th century, as the modern city took shape, waves of cheap immigrant labor built the vast infrastructure of skyscrapers, bridges, subways and factories that undergirded the city's growth and wealth.Immigrants provided the sinews for the gargantuan effort, with some 17 million newcomers arriving at the port of New York between 1880 and 1919. They came from every European country, but the largest ethnic wave consisted of Russian and other East European Jews, who, by 1920, accounted for one in every four New Yorkers.

They came to play an extraordinary role on the picket line and in the leadership of the labor movement, and later in the struggles for civil and women's rights.

Among the book's "resonant voices and images that evoke the chutzpah, tenacity, creativity, and fire of working New Yorkers," in the authors' words, are those of many Jews.

First, there is Samuel Gompers, who as a teenager organized his fellow cigar makers in the 1860s and later founded the American Federation of Labor, serving as its president for 37 years.

Another voice is that of Natalie Zuckerman, growing up in a working class home on the Lower East Side in the late 1910s and early 1920s, who recalls that "the toilet was out in the hall, and when you wanted to take a bath, the sink in the kitchen served as a washtub."

Jewish workers founded their own associations, beginning with the United Hebrew Trades in 1888, which fought for better conditions for fur workers. The Arbeiter Ring (Workmen's Circle) enshrined in its 1897 constitution the motto, "Let us help one another, while we build a better world for all."

The Jewish Labor Committee was founded in 1934 by the needle trade unions to educate their fellow Americans about the spreading dangers of Nazism and fascism.

The handsome coffee-table book is profusely illustrated with 170 black-and-white photos, many never published before, and includes the words of hundreds of workers spanning the decades of the 20th century.To the two authors, the book represents a work of professional scholarship and filial devotion. Both work at New York University, Debra Bernhardt as director of the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, and Rachel Bernstein as a teacher in the public history program.

Bernhardt grew up in an extended Michigan family of unionized school teachers and iron miners. Bernstein, a native Angelena, is the daughter of Harry Bernstein, for many years labor editor of the Los Angeles Times, and Joanne Farrell Bernstein, who worked as a labor organizer in the South during the 1950s.

"Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives: A Pictorial History of Working People in New York City" by Debra E. Bernhardt and Rachel Bernstein. New York, New York University Press, 240 pp. $29.95.nIn 1776, printers in New York City organized and declared a strike in support of the newly formed United States of America.

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