Our national observance of Labor Day this weekend formally began in 1894. What we all sometimes tend to forget is that this federal holiday is very firmly and historically rooted in the trade union and labor movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
We are a nation of immigrants, and every year at this time, I am always inclined to invoke and recall with pride the memory of my great-grandfather’s brother, Ben Schlesinger, who, in 1876, was born in the small Lithuanian town of Kaidan, which, at that time, was part of oppressive czarist Russia rule.
At the age of 15 and along with his older brother Louis (my great-grandfather), Ben emigrated to the United States in 1891 where he settled in Chicago and where he became an American citizen in 1898.
He began his life’s work there merely as a peddler of matches. He later found employment as a “floor boy” (a gofer) at a coat factory, and then managed to move up to the position of a sewing machine operator of ladies’ cloaks and suits in what was readily a “sweatshop,” where working conditions were absolutely deplorable.
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In 1892 and determined that conditions in the proliferating sweatshops just had to change, Ben Schlesinger served as a delegate from Chicago to the convention that founded the International Cloak Makers Union of America, where at the age of 16, he was elected its treasurer.
In 1895, Ben was elected recording secretary of the Chicago Cloakmaker’s Union, becoming the business manager and organizer of Local 5 of that fledgling union. When the five Chicago locals united in 1902, Ben Schlesinger served as manager of that organization.
Subsequently in 1904, Ben Schlesinger was elected President of the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union), and he became the organizer of New York locals until 1907. He was re-elected its president in 1914 and served in that capacity until 1923 when he returned to Chicago. Apparently irreplaceable, he was re-elected a final time to the presidency of the ILGWU in 1928 and served until his death in 1932.
Along the way, Ben Schlesinger introduced the initial legislation calling for sick benefits for workers, as well as for the implementation of a wide variety of monthly and bimonthly education programs for local union members who had no other choice but to forgo formal schooling in order to barely keep their families financially afloat.
Along the way, he also called for the alliance of all garment workers unions, and at his suggestion, a Council of Conciliation of unbiased persons was formed to address conflicts that arose between management and disaffected workers.
A century later, we now celebrate Labor Day primarily as the unofficial end of summer with family and social gatherings and outings, and special storewide savings and sales.
But let each of us be certain to take a few moments this weekend to recognize and remember that so many of the workplace benefits that you and I have enjoyed — and by and large simply take for granted — were not a part of the lives of the hard workers like this peddler of matches upon whose shoulders we all now gratefully stand.
Rabbi Larry Schlesinger serves Temple Beth Israel in Macon.