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September 1, 2017 by

Head of Workmen’s Circle on Strike Solidarity, Yiddish, and Fighting Fascism this Labor Day

Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen's Circle, with Rita Margulies, Clara Lemlich's daughter.

Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen’s Circle, with Rita Margulies, Clara Lemlich’s daughter.

While marked by many as the unofficial end of summer, Labor Day also has a radical history that began 135 years ago. On September 5, 1882, thousands took to the streets to demand better working conditions, an eight-hour workday and a Labor Day. Twelve years later, in an attempt to defuse tensions following the Pullman strike, the first Monday in September would become officially recognized by the federal government as a holiday for workers. 

In honor of this history, Lilith’s Amelia Dornbush interviewed via email the executive director of the Workmen’s Circle, Ann Toback. The conversation ranged from the future of the labor movement to the continued influence of radical Jewish women and what lessons from 5777 to carry into the New Year.  

Amelia Dornbush: How did you become involved in the labor movement?

Union activism is a Toback family tradition, dating back to my great-grandfather, a Ukrainian immigrant who came to the United States in 1905 and was a tailor in the garment industry, to my grandparents who met in a union hall here in New York City, to my father who was a leader in his Newspaper Guild-CWA local. My sister and I each served as staff directors of unions. I grew up in a home that revered unions and collective worker empowerment. After I became a lawyer, I went on staff at the Writers Guild of America, East, and ultimately served as its Assistant Executive Director, coordinating and overseeing the east coast ground operations of the WGA 2007-2008 strike.

Ann Toback: What do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing unions and working people this Labor Day?

In 2017, the labor movement finds itself under unprecedented White House and Republican-driven attacks on every angle of union membership and collective engagement. Workplace safety regulations that have been in place ever since the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the right to organize, to collect union dues, and to unionize are all in real jeopardy. This offensive is happening alongside an onslaught of attacks against immigrant communities, religious freedoms, civil rights and liberties, healthcare benefits, the environment, LGBTQ communities, and much more, so at times it is hard for those of us in the progressive world to know where to direct our activism. While this is a terrible time for us all, it also is a moment for labor to reclaim its historic role as a unifier of all working people, because at the root all of these attacks are attacks on workers. The outcome of the last election would have been very different if union members had voted in unison for progressive candidates. So the greatest challenge for labor today is also perhaps its greatest opportunity, to unify and grow its base and to take back political power for the progressive movement. 

AD: How do you see radical Jewish history—and in particular the traditions of radical Jewish women—as informing current organizing work?

AT: The historic legacy and examples of radical Jewish women activists in the United States serve as an inspiration to many of us in the progressive movement to this day. For me, personally, the activism of Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich—two immigrant radical Jewish women—serves as a daily inspiration for my social justice work. I think of Clara Lemlich’s rallying cry, spoken in Yiddish, “I am one of those who suffers from the abuses described here, and I move that we go on a general strike!” These words sparked the “Uprising of 20,000,” the largest women-lead strike of women workers in our country. I am inspired and motivated to follow in her footsteps as an organizer, impassioned speaker, and activist. However, it is the thousands of radical Jewish women whose names we will never know, the women who collectively walked off their jobs in 1909 and in the years that followed, that should inform our activism today.

The labor movement is driven by great leaders and great members. It is the members who drove those strikes between 1909 and 1915 that resulted in critical safety regulations, workplace protections, benefits, and ultimately, the National Labor Relations Act. And today, we must look to the example of the tens of thousands of largely immigrant women workers of the last century who fiercely stood up for their right to organize and work in a union, for safe worksites, fair pay and good benefits, who in 1911 walked off their jobs en masse and mourned the deaths of the 146 workers who were murdered by corporate greed at the Triangle fire. Today we must follow the example of this women-driven member movement of the last century and create a new movement that can collectively work to change the focus and direction of the White House and Congress to respect for workers.

AD: What is Workmen’s Circle working on right now?

AT: Our priorities today are fighting for economic justice, immigrant rights, and against the language and acts of fascism and hate, including misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and LGBTQ attacks, and the list goes on. In the past months we have been active in campaigns for immigrant rights demanding “no ban/no wall“ and an end to the travel ban.

We continue to support the Fight for $15 movement, calling for worker rights, a living wage, and the right to join a union in New York and across the United States; in Chicago we are helping to build Jewish support for the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign that is ramping up in Illinois.

Recently, we walked the picket line in New York City with Spectrum workers, who have been on strike for almost six months as they fight for basic union protections. This past month, we also worked in partnership with the National Council of Jewish Women and Bend the Arc to draft and initiate a petition campaign that has been sponsored by nearly 50 Jewish leaders and organizations, representing millions of people across the country, and which calls for signers to commit to fight the growing fascism movement in our country. In Boston, our Workmen’s Circle community was an active participant in the Fight Supremacy! Counter-Protest and Resistance Rally post-Charlottesville.

On September 9th, we are organizing an “Immigrant Rights are Labor Rights” contingent to march at the head of the New York City‘s Labor Day Parade. This contingent will include a coalition of Jewish organizations, unions, and immigrant rights groups marching in solidarity and sending the message that we all stand together against the viscous attacks on immigrant and worker rights.

AD: Labor Day is only a few weeks from High Holidays this year. What lessons do you think we should be taking into 5778?

AT: This New Year, when our Jewish community gathers together, we must contemplate a world full of both significant challenges and real opportunities to join together and effect change. There are endless issues for us to work on, and many different approaches for activism. At the Workmen’s Circle I have outlined our priorities; other organizations will have equally important, though different priorities. We all must acknowledge that different foci on change does not negate the importance of other activism. There are so many issues that require protection and activism; no one person or one organization can hope to cover our society’s entire need for change. We must unite around the goal of resistance to this massive, right wing offensive. Ultimately, our strength to yield real change will lie in effective base-building over individual actions. I am hopeful that 5778 will present us in the Jewish community the chance to build a major coalition and together act against the intolerance and hate that is emanating from the highest levels of our government today. Only through a strong, united effort will we be able to effect change at every level.

AD: In addition to participating in coalitions with Fight For $15 and providing strike support for workers from Spectrum, the Workmen’s Circle also offers Yiddish classes and Rosh Hashone services (in the Workmen’s Circle transliteration of Yiddish). How do you see these types of work and other projects of the Workmen’s Circle as connecting?

AT: The Workmen’s Circle is a social justice organization that powers progressive Jewish identity through Jewish cultural engagement, Yiddish language learning, multigenerational education, and social and economic justice activism. All of these parts come together to create a robust foundation and enrich outcomes. 

Our social and economic justice activism is stronger for its connections to our Yiddish tradition of labor activism. Our education teaches strategic social change movement building. Our Yiddish language classes connect us to our heritage and activist roots. And our Rosh Hashone programs, which are offered in Workmen’s Circle communities across the country, connect participants with meaningful life cycle celebrations and focus on building communities of activism to work for change in the New Year. 

Our activism and activities are richer for their interconnection to our traditions, our culture, and our heritage. And everything we do today is informed by our founding values of working for a better world for all. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.