First Published: Morning Freiheit, August 18, 1975.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Death snatched away a history making personality of the trade union movement. I was stunned when the sad news reached me that Ben Gold died. This dynamic man who wrote a stormy chapter into the history of the Jewish and the general American labor movements which will never be erased – a chapter of struggle for humane conditions in the furriers trade and in the needle trades as a whole – this man is no longer among the living!
For more than two decades little was heard of Ben Gold. He became a senior citizen and like many other old-timers he settled in Florida. There he wrote and published a few books in Yiddish. It was not history that he wrote. He wrote novels about working folk, about fighters against the nazi destroyer, about people of character whose conscience drove them to strive for a better world.
Despite the fact that it is now about thirty years since Ben Gold became a private citizen, his name is remembered by his followers and friends as well as by his enemies and opponents. This is so because he personified an important period in the history of the labor movement. If one wishes to speak or write on that period he cannot avoid Ben Gold’s record.
Ben Gold’s political faith was no secret to anyone. He was one of those who in their youthful years were seized by the great promise of the Russian October revolution. He was a worker and a son of a worker. He was born into a progressive family in Bessarabia in 1898. In 1908 his father, Israel, came to America, another one of the many caught up in the stream of emigration at that time. People then rushed here seeking freedom after the defeat of the 1905 revolution; they fled pogroms and persecutions, they sought a chance to make a living.
Two years later, in 1910, the father brought over the rest of his family to the United States.
In his book, World of Our Fathers, Irving Howe writes the following on Ben Gold’s early years:
“... The boy quickly began working at all sorts of trades, pocketbooks, dresses, paper boxes. At thirteen he took his first job in a fur shop, earning nine dollars a week as an operator. In May 1912 Israel Gold gave Ben $1.25 to pay for a union book and the young boy joined the Furriers Union. When the furriers’ strike of 1912 began, Gold (all of fourteen) was assistant chairman of the shop of Pike and Rabinowitz. During the strike Gold became acquainted with men and women active in the Socialist party. Though much older they took the young boy into their confidence and taught them many things.”
“In 1916 Gold joined the Socialist party. . .” (World of Our Fathers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1976, page 340.)
In 1926 the furriers, under Ben Gold’s leadership, struck for a 40-hour work week and an increase in pay. The strike was won after a hard and militant struggle. This was the first time a 40-hour work week was achieved in the garment industry! (The Fur Workers Union was later to be among the first to gain a 35-hour work week.)
Irving Howe also noted the following about Ben Gold’s early years:
“In the whole immigrant world there was no one quite like Ben Gold. Gold’s natural setting was a meeting hall at Manhattan Center or a platform at Seventh Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street during lunch hour. With or without an amplifier, he would rise to speak before thousands of garment workers milling about in the streets and ready for a few minutes of excitement: the followers whom he sent into transports of adoration, the opponents whom he scandalized, and those who savored his gifts with a neutral objectivity they might turn upon the technique of a great cantor” (Ibid, page 339.)
I, myself, a former trade union leader in the Furniture Workers Union and an activist in Yiddish cultural organizations, knew Gold quite well because I worked with him in the same environment and for the same purposes.
I do not know how Ben Gold in recent years regarded my changed opinion and altered view of the past and of formerly held beliefs. My attitude on the past, the political past, is the same as that of many others who at one time were of the left or were Communists.
Yet, I am not concerned about Ben Gold’s later views. If those early years were later to cause disillusionment, as in my case, it is still true that the efforts and activities of particular individuals were honest and credible as they saw the need to change our unjust social system. Ben Gold was one of those individuals!
I collaborated with Ben Gold in many socially important activities and at all times and everywhere his influence was felt through his strong personality and firm character.
He was reckoned a dynamic leader in the trade union movement. The struggles of the Furriers Union under his leadership became widely known. A large and powerful union was built which later united with the Leather Workers Union to become even stronger and more influential.
During the years of the Second World War against the nazi destroyer the Furriers Union was in the forefront of every activity to help win the war. Whenever there was a need to mobilize workers for demonstrations, the furriers were in the front ranks; whenever there was a need to raise funds to promote the war effort the furriers were the first to contribute.
Even before the war against Hitler, whenever the need arose to help in the struggle against the Franco regime in Spain, the furriers, upon Ben Gold’s initiative, contributed much in the way of funds and in the work of individuals.
Ben Gold was also an active leader of the Jewish Peoples Committee which conducted an active campaign against anti-Semitism in this country and worked to rescue Jews from nazi concentration camps. I was then the president of the Jewish Peoples Committee and Ben Gold’s cooperation was that of a dedicated people’s leader.
When on one occasion a mass meeting was called in Manhattan Center to protest against the British White Paper which prohibited the further immigration to Palestine (then under British rule) of the Jewish victims of nazi Germany, Ben Gold along with Rabbi Stephen Wise was one of the speakers.
Unfortunately, there was division in Jewish life even in that serious period. Would that it had not been so. Jewish left activists of that period have today adopted a different view on those events. This is well known. This division also existed in the Yiddish press.. ..
Ben Gold as a left Jewish leader, a man who was preoccupied with trade union work – and there was much to do – never failed to help support the Morning Freiheit. His name and his participation left its mark everywhere in Jewish life and especially in the activities of the left-wing at the time.
Ben Gold’s ability to accomplish so much was not accidental. He had the knack of influencing and building a cadre of leaders. Such a cadre emerged in his union and this made it possible for the union to engage in its varied activities.
One recalls the conventions of the CIO and the respect which many trade union officials showed to Ben Gold. When the right-left struggle began in the CIO (in the post-war years) and its president, Philip Murray, sought to settle the quarrels, he appointed a special committee for this purpose and Ben Gold was one of those he chose.
Regrettably, this effort failed and the internal struggle led to a deep split and the expulsion of the left-led unions. In addition, the dismal Taft-Hartley Act became law and this led to further convulsions in the trade union movement.
It was then that a critical moment arrived for the Fur and Leather Workers Union and Ben Gold became a sacrifice. He was forced to abandon his leadership. He left with dignity though he bore a profound anguish and those who knew him understood him well. Not everyone was agreeable to his retreat and silence.
But whether they agreed or not, whether they were his friends or his opponents, Ben Gold is viewed as a distinguished historic personality who was forced by life and by political events to completely withdraw from the arena of the labor movement.
In my opinion Ben Gold’s name will remain dear to many of his former followers and co-workers and he will be remembered with respect by his former opponents.
As for myself, I can only repeat the Hebrew saying:
Khevel al de’abdin! (We are pained for the one we have lost!) We will not forget your name, Ben. May this be a consolation and expression of condolence to Ben Gold’s dear wife, Sadie.
(Transl. by S.R.)