Institute for the Humanities

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Compassionate Capitalism? A New Look at the 1910/11 Chicago Garment Workers Strike

Tobias Brinkmann, Penn State University

Date(s): Wednesday, 3/19 4:00 PM to Wednesday, 3/19 6:00 PM
Campus Address: Institute for the Humanities, Lower Level, Stevenson Hall
Address: 701 South Morgan St

 

On September 22, 1910, Hannah Shapiro, a young Jewish garment worker in Chicago, and more than a dozen other immigrant women walked out, triggering one of the biggest strikes in American history. By the end of October 1910 more than 40,000 male and female garment workers were on strike across the city. The Chicago strike followed in the wake of two even larger strikes in New York. Shapiro’s sweatshop was part of Hart Schaffner & Marx (HSM), Chicago largest clothing manufacturer – and one of the largest producers of men’s clothing in the world. It is well known that HSM co-founder and partner Joseph Schaffner played a decisive role in resolving the conflict. The death of two pickets who were shot by the police deeply unsettled Schaffner. He and several other Chicago textile entrepreneurs belonged to Chicago’s established Jewish community. Many workers were recent Jewish immigrants. Schaffner took a bold step by entering into talks with a delegation of his workers that included the young Sidney Hillman. HSM’s formal recognition of organized labor in January 1911 led to the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914. Schaffner later admitted that the work practices at HSM had been intolerable. Schaffner’s bold decision, however, had deeper roots. The social justice theology advocated by the rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, Emil Gustav Hirsch, made a lasting impression on Schaffner – and his fellow congregants such as philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. In his sermons, Hirsch regularly called for workers’ rights and fair working practices. He did not hesitate to name and shame prominent congregants from the pulpit. In my talk I will explain why a congregation composed of some of the wealthiest Chicagoans openly supported the pro-labor agenda of its rabbi, and how his message found its way from the pulpit into corporate offices and sweatshops. The clash between Jewish capitalists and Jewish workers in 1910/11 also throws an interesting light on the transforming relationship between the Jewish establishment and immigrant Jews.

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