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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,101

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This is the grave of Morris Feinstone.

Born in 1878 in Warsaw in what is today Poland, Feinstone grew up in the artisan class of the Jewish community, as his father was a shoemaker. Feinstone had an artistic bent and got into the Warsaw Art School, where he worked in various arts, including carving and design. But like many young Jews of his generation, he also had no tolerance for the oppression both Jews and the poor faced in eastern Europe. This was the era of Jewish Bund and Feinstone got caught up in that movement. He was active in leftist political organizations and like so many others, came to the attention of the Czar’s law enforcement. He spent some time in prison and when he was released, he realized there was no future for him in Russia. He emigrated to Germany. Then he went to England. There he practiced his craft of woodcarving and his passion for leftist politics, leading the Woodcarvers’ Union in London. He was also active in the initial formation of the Labour Party.

In 1910, Feinstone decided to try his politics in the United States. By this time, the Jewish community in New York was well-established as was its leftist politics. This was, after all, the year after the Uprising of the 20,000 when mostly Jewish textile workers rebelled against the sweatshops where they worked. He immediately became a leader in the Jewish organizing community there. He worked for the Umbrella and Cane Industry Union as an organizer beginning in 1913. He did that for two years before he became the assistant secretary of the United Hebrew Trades in 1915. He held that position for the next ten years. He continued to move up in that organization, becoming its secretary-treasurer in 1928.

Feinstone became known as the liaison between the organized labor movement, particular the American Federation of Labor, and the often more radical Jewish labor unions in New York. Much of what he wanted to emphasize in the U.S. is that the issues between different parts of the working class were about class, not race. As he once wrote of immigrants working in sweatshops, “When these fugitives came to America seeking the promised land, they were taken off the boats by contractors and set to work in inhuman surroundings, for a miserable wage, and under conditions that made protest utterly impossible.” One could rightly say that about so much labor making products for Americans, even if not always in the United States, today.

For Feinstone, the sweatshop, especially the in-home version of it, destroyed families. When families had to subject themselves to this to survive, they gave up their “health, moral courage, and the last even hope of deliverance.” As historians have pointed out, this talk gives substance to the claim that even immigrant workers themselves bought into the ideas of racial degeneration popular among the reformers of the day.

Feinstone did at least engage in some alliance work with Black workers in Harlem. He was on the board of the Negro Labor Committee in the mid-30s and was involved in trying to rectify organized labor’s terrible reputation in the Black community. A few years later, the NLC would play an important role in building support for A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington movement to desegregate the defense industry. I don’t really know to what extent Feinstone was involved in this, but i have little doubt that he strongly supported it.

By this time, Feinstone was a committed Zionist, believing that the only real for Jewish liberation was to have a homeland in Palestine. Of course he wasn’t particularly concerned with the non-Jewish people actually living there. One can certainly see why he would see the need for a Jewish homeland but this blind spot he and so many others had helped created the apartheid state of Israel as it has developed today. He would no doubt be disgusted with Israel’s move toward white nationalism and alliance with figures such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. In any case, even though Feinstone had left Britain, he remained involved in Jewish politics there. When the Labour Party stopped Jewish emigration to Palestine in 1930, Feinstone was central to a response from Jewish leaders in American labor lambasting the policy as anti-Semitic.

But at least Feinstone combined his Zionism with socialism and he wrote extensively in journalists such as the Jewish Daily Forward on the need to embrace socialism. Interestingly, though Feinstone was a socialist, he was quite friendly with American Federation of Labor leadership, including Samuel Gompers and William Green, men who usually had little tuck for socialism. With the rise of the New Deal, Feinstone had a complex relationship. As a left-socialist, he was committed to the idea of labor parties. I mean, he had helped developed the successful one in England that supplanted the Liberals so I will withdraw my usual complaint about third parties for him.

On the other hand, the New Deal did implement some of the ideas he had supported for a long time and he was a big enough deal in the New York Jewish community to bring him into state’s liberal government in some way. That meant making him a member of the committee to implement the National Recovery Administration in New York. Fiorello LaGuardia also named him a member of the city’s labor relations board. When World War II began, Feinstone was a member of the regional War Labor Board. He was also heavily involved in Jewish charities. Moreover, his labor work also led him to tenant organizing, which makes a lot of sense given the poverty of Jewish workers in New York. Of course for all of this, Feinstone ended up in a 1938 report of the House Un-American Activities Committee, at the time when it was controlled by that racist and anti-Semitic clown Martin Dies.

While at the Park Central Hotel in New York in 1943, Feinstone had a massive heart attack and died. He was 64 years old. A massive funeral was held for him with speakers ranging from LaGuardia to Forward editor Abraham Cahan to AFL executive Matthew Woll. A largely forgotten figure today, Feinstone was a legend of the early twentieth century labor movement.

Interestingly, after his death, the Navy named a ship after Feinstone. The SS Morris C. Feinstone was a Liberty ship that was launched in late 1944 and remained an active ship until being torn apart for scrap in 1972. The reason this happened is that the United Hebrew Trades, the Jewish dominated trade union federation in New York, went on a massive war bonds drive to raise the money to get the Navy to do it.

Morris Feinstone is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other early twentieth century labor leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Green is in Coshocton, Ohio and Matthew Woll is in Brentwood, Maryland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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