The Rise of Shtarkers: The Jewish Labor Movement, Organized Crime, and the Forging of Anti-Progressive Politics in New York City, 191213

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 2:30 PM
Salon 12 (Palmer House Hilton)
Aaron Welt, New York University
In 1912, the Jewish Labor Movement of Yiddish-speaking workers in New York City allied with organized crime. Over that year, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) began employing shtarkers, the Yiddish word for “strongman” that by the Progressive Era came to refer to crime bosses who hired out gang members to perform the violent labor of breaking strikes or defending strikers during industrial conflicts. As these partnerships developed, American Jewish gangsters posed an intractable dilemma for the city’s Progressive Movement. Shtarkers projected an American Jewish and immigrant image of masculinity that clashed with contemporary notions of civilized manhood while also causing significant interruption to reform political initiatives like the Curran Investigating Committee and Progressive labor policies like the Protocols of Peace. Shtarkers contributed to New York’s economy of violence, a commodified marketplace for legal and illicit physical force. Therefore, the city’s “underworld” blocked the municipal state’s attempt to monopolize violence within the New York Police Department, a primary ambition for the urban Progressive Movement.

Several events in 1912 propelled the alliance between Jewish organized labor and crime. The Fur Strike and White Goods Strike spurred ILGWU organizer Morris Sigman to partner with “Dopey” Benjamin Fein, the most powerful Jewish gangster of Progressive Era New York. Shtarkers like Fein originally functioned as a defensive force for workers who suffered violence from police, private security companies, or other gangsters hired by industrialists. After 1912, shtarkers remained embedded in unions even when strikes ended and by the 1920s would be dubbed “racketeers” by the press and reformers. As symbols of working-class and immigrant masculinity, and as violent actors who reflected the brutality of early twentieth century labor conflict, shtarkers conveyed the limitations of urban Progressivism and the noteworthy influence of anti-reform politics in New York City history.

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