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A note on Jewish trade unionism

Harold Pollins

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 40, 2005 A note on Jewish trade unionism HAROLD POLLINS In his article, 'Greeners and Sweaters: Jewish Immigration and the Cabinet making Trade in East London, 1880-1914' Trans JHSE XXXIX (2004), Leonard D. Smith makes this point about trade unionism: 'Contemporary commentators like Russell. . . observed that Jews characteristically made poor trade unionists. They were seen as too quarrelsome, too individualist by nature and lacking in ideas of class or trade solidarity. Consequently, they were considered difficult to organize. Historians including Lloyd Gartner and Harold Pollins have tended to accept the argument that immi grant Jews did not make good trade unionists and that their participation in industrial conflict was sporadic, erratic and ineffective.' Smith contrasts this approach with that of other historians 'who have shown the energetic if sometimes undisciplined involvement in union activity of significant sections of the immigrant workforce in Leeds, Manchester and London' (p. 115). I do not wish to note the apparent contradiction between his approval of this latter view and his statement (p. 116) that 'Trade union organization in the immigrant trades was characterized by volatility. Unions tended to be ephemeral and membership could fluctuate dramatically in the wake of successful or unsuccessful localized strikes.' Rather I wish to state that he has misread what I wrote in my Economic History of the Jews in England (1982). He particularly refers to p. 159 of my book where I say that Jewish unions were often weak and unstable. But I am talking there about the 1890s, and on the following page I state that in that decade 'all unions in Britain were on the defensive in view of trade depression and the antagonism of the employers. Those formed in the late 1880s were especially vulnerable and collapsed even more spectacularly than did the Jewish unions.' However, I do point out (p. 160) that certain unions had a continuous existence in London, Manchester and Leeds. And I go on to talk about strong Jewish union activity in the years up to the First World War. I summarized my chapter on Jewish trade unionism by making these points: 'It is necessary to rescue these organisations from the patronising footnotes where so often they have been fated to appear' (p. 163). And on 157</page><page sequence="2">Harold Pollins page 164: 'given the extraordinary difficulties of organising Jewish workers in the period of immigration - their lack of knowledge of modern industrial society, the small size of their workplaces, fluctuations in employment, anti-alien and antisemitic sentiments - it is surprising they did anything at all. That they seem to have joined unions in certain industries in greater proportions than did non-Jewish workers is all the more remarkable. It is that, rather than their avoidance of unions, which needs to be explained.' 158</page></plain_text>