‘The Yiddish Stage and Press— A Closed Shop In Which Two 100% Organizations are Revealed’ by Max D. Danish from Labor Age. Vol. 11 No. 11. December, 1922.
H.A.U.—in huge letters—on the window panes of the second floor of a marble-faced four-story brick building in the heart of the Yiddish Rialto—on Second Avenue—inform the incessant human ebb and flow outside that here is housed the Hebrew Actors’ Club. It is an institution as inseparably linked with the East Side as Williamsburg Bridge or Shiff’s Parkway, erstwhile Delancey Street. Passing quickly up two short flights of stairs, through the dining and the social rooms of the club, I was admitted instantly into the sanctum of the Hebrew Actors’ Union, where Reuben Guskin, the Union’s manager, was awaiting my coming.
Guskin, a swarthy, rather stockily built young man, with keen eyes and an active intelligent face, is not only the manager of the Actors’ Union. He is a power in the Jewish labor movement, being the President of the United Hebrew Trades and the chairman of the national executive committee of the Workmen’s Circle, a benefit society of almost 100,000 Jewish workers and a model organization of its kind. Near him sat Jean Greenfield, a suave, soft-spoken little gentleman, himself not an actor, yet the president of the actors’ union.
“Well, we are ready,” Guskin swung around in his chair toward me, “fire away.”
I extracted a piece of paper from my vest pocket upon which I had jotted down some questions.
“Is the Hebrew Actors’ Union affiliated with the national actors’ organization or are you going it alone?”
“I should say we are a local of the Associated Actors’ and Artists of America,” replied Guskin, not without a touch of pride. ““‘We were one of its first locals.”’
“Tell me something about the history of your organization, Brother Guskin,” I asked.
“Well, this Union was organized about twenty-five years ago, more as a mutual aid society in the beginning, to protect the actors against the uncertainties and hazards of the profession and against the greed and avarice of some of the managers. In 1915, however, we became a real trade union and obtained a charter.
Controlling the Stage
“Our union controls practically the entire Jewish stage, which includes about a half dozen theatres in New York City and permanent theatres in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Montreal and Toronto, with regular stock companies. In addition to this, there are several companies who play ‘stands’ in the smaller towns and composed of members of the Hebrew Actors’ Union of New York: And when I say we control the stage, I do not mean the actors only. We have, in our life-time, helped to organize the Ushers and the Theatre Bill-Posters and have cooperated right along with the Choristers’ Union. We all together form a Theatrical District Council and have more than once taken up cudgels on behalf of these weaker sisters of ours in the theatrical trade, even to the extent of going out on strike on their behalf, as in 1915.”
“Are strikes frequent on the Jewish stage?”
“Oh, no!” he replied with a smile that was both reassuring and definite. Jewish stage would be unusually costly luxuries for our managers and would practically mean the giving up of productions. You cannot substitute a known actor on the East Side even if you should be able to find a ‘scab’. The Jewish masses are more keenly interested in their stage than, perhaps, any other section of New York’s population and they are unusually keen about their individual stage favorites, their personal achievements and failures. The Jewish stage, from its early beginnings, some thirty-five or forty years ago, has played a very intimate and close part in the cultural and spiritual development of the Jewish masses in America. Our stage today, reflects, to a great extent, this development. Our actors and our outstanding stage figures live with these masses, play for them and respond to their everyday life and problems With the Masses Always
“Why, how can it be otherwise? When there is a great strike among the Jewish workers, the actors are always found to be on the side of the strikers. During the cloakmakers’ strikes, in the past fifteen years, and during the fights of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, our actors have given the workers not only moral and spiritual aid but also generous financial sup- port. Of course, this kind of service counts.”
“Then you have a ‘closed shop’?”
“Well,” Guskin smiled, ‘‘call it that, if you will. The present position of the Actors’ Union is unchallenged. Of course, we haven’t gained it all in a day. It has taken years to conquer. Times there were when $25 a week was a respectable salary for an average Jewish actor. Today our minimum wage on the Jewish stage is $55 while the maximum runs as high as $400 a week.
‘‘Members of the Union usually sign contracts with the managers individually, but every contract must be sanctioned by the Union. The Union has a membership of over 200 active members. We maintain a nice, spacious club house and we act towards each other like members of a big family. And, of course, as you know, like every big family, we have our little quarrels and big spats but we manage to straighten them out.
“When a successful actor decides that he would like to become a manager—and these things occur not infrequently on the Jewish stage—he does not have to drop his membership in the organization. He merely obtains a withdrawal card. This leaves him free to rejoin the Union as an active member, —which also happens quite frequently,” Guskin explained.
Another Story: The Press Writers
From the Rialto to Rutgers Square, where the ten-story building of the Jewish Daily Forward, the biggest Jewish daily in America and the champion and spokesman of working class interests, towers over myriads of tenements, is but a short mile. But it is a tortuous way through a bewildering mass of pushcarts and narrow crowded streets, almost impassable during the rush market hours. I found Harry Rogoff, ex-President of the Jewish Press Writers Club,—the Peretz Verein, —who is an associate-editor of the Forward, on the night floor. Rogoff is a mild-mannered, highly gifted young man, with a national Jewish-American reputation as a journalist and lecturer. “I shall spare you the trouble of asking me questions,” Rogoff said to me as we were seated.
‘I can tell it to you al] in the course of ten minutes and I don’t mind telling you, I like to talk about our Writers’ Union. I have been with it from the earliest days of its existence and I am pretty much attached to it.
Battles of the “Peretz Verein”
“The Jewish Press Writers’ Club (or as it is known today on the East Side, the Peretz Verein, named after that great master of Jewish prose and poetry, Yehudah Leib Peretz), is a full-fledged trade union and we are affiliated with the United Hebrew Trades. It is six years old. We have about two hundred members, one hundred of whom are active journalists, engaged on the staffs of the various Jewish newspapers. The other hundred are either ‘social’ members or freelances.
“The path of our Union has not been entirely a ‘bed of roses’. The Writers’ Club had to overcome a great deal of hostility on the part of editors and newspaper managers and more than once its members were on the verge of striking. This hostility still exists here and there, though our Union is today practically in unchallenged control of the newspaper profession as far as the writers are concerned.
“That the Union has been of great value to the newspaper workers can be gleaned from the fact that it had boosted up earnings from 100 to 150 per cent in the editorial offices. Only not so very many years ago, a Jewish newspaper writer was the poorest paid worker. The pressmen, the compositors and the linotypers ranged far above him as money-makers. Today the newspaper writers are the best paid men in any Jewish newspaper office.
“The strength of our Union, however, is neither the strength of numbers nor that of a huge treasury. It is the influence that our members have always had upon the readers of the Jewish press that has been more than anything else responsible for winning their battles for them. Remember that the contributors to the Jewish press usually sign their articles. They are, therefore, individually known to their readers. Unlike the workers on any of the big or small English dailies, the Jewish press writers are more than mere pegs in a newspaper machine because of this personal contact with the readers.
“Our Club has regular branches in Philadelphia and Chicago and it also has a number of members at large in other cities where Yiddish newspapers are published, like Cleveland, Montreal and Toronto. You probably know that the International Typographical Union is now voting on this question of affiliation of newspaper writers’ locals all over the country. It is quite likely that the printers will vote to release these locals. This might enable the writers’ unions. eventually to organize independently either as federal locals, under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor or as a separate international. In the latter event, of course, the Jewish Press Writers’ Club will join the national organization.
“There can be no doubt that a powerful organization of newspaper men and journalists could be formed, raising the standards of the profession in every sense of the word. There are scores of cities in the country where locals of newspaper men can be formed. Such an international organization would not merely improve the economic wellbeing of newspaper workers. It would bring it in touch with the great labor movement of the whole country.
A Six-Hour Day—Or Night
“The members of the Jewish Press Writers’ Club work only six hours, that is, they have to be in the newspaper offices six hours daily. The minimum wage is $60 per week, though the great majority receive much more than that. It is quite interesting to observe that since our Union has been organized, prices paid for novels, short stories, special feature articles and repertorial jobs in general to outsiders or free lances have practically been doubled.
“But this is not all. Among the most active spirits in the Club are literary men, novelists, dramatists, poets, short story writers, etc., whose names are household words among the Jews in this country and in Europe. These, of course, are not employed on regular newspaper work. The Club is also engaged in special cultural work among Jews and has been organizing lectures on literature, the arts and the theater. It is in constant touch with Jewish writers and literary men abroad and it has raised thousands of dollars to relieve the unfortunate Jewish literati in the countries devastated by war, invasion and plague. It has raised a permanent fund for that purpose and frequently arranges dances, concerts, and literary evenings for this purpose. The annual ball of our Press Writers has now become the event of the year in ever-widening Jewish circles of New York City.”
“Can I say then that you have an honest-to- goodness ‘closed shop’ in the newspaper offices on the East Side?” I asked upon rising and shaking Brother Rogoff’s hand in parting.
“If there ever was one,” he replied, without hesitating a second.
Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v11n11-dec-1922-LA-.pdf