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Though Jewish immigrants in this period faced difficult conditions in housing and work, their experiences in America were still an improvement from their lives in Eastern Europe.In America, they were able to find jobs, even if they were harsh and low-paying, and they could move freely across the country and practice Judaism openly.
The unions not only addressed worker grievances; they tried to support workers in every aspect of their lives, offering educational programs in subjects such as English language, literature and politics; social and cultural programs such as dances, shows and concerts; and even opportunities to get out of the city and enjoy vacations in the country at union-run camps.
In part because of the contributions and insights of women workers, the unions came to understand that they needed to address not only workers' basic needs of higher wages and safer working conditions but also the greater human needs for education, community, beauty, and dignity—a concept captured in the phrase “bread and roses.” Though the origin of the slogan is unclear, it was expressed in a 1911 poem by James Oppenheim, popularized by Jewish labor activist Rose Schneiderman in the context of a women's suffrage campaign in 1912, and was later applied to a strike of primarily women workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, that took place earlier in 1912.
In 1907, the women who dominated a garment shop making underwear walked off the job together to protest “speedups, wage cuts, and the requirement that employees pay for their own thread.” After they won relief from most of these indignities, they were allowed to join the ILGWU.
With parts of the garment industry dominated by women laborers, their entry into the unions as members and organizers was crucial for the growth and success of the unions.
Workers were not to talk to one another as they worked; they could not go to the bathroom unless they were on a formal break; the noise of hundreds of sewing machines was deafening; doors and windows were locked until the bosses opened them.
In both the sweatshops and the factories, workers often worked fourteen hours or more a day, six or seven days a week.
In order to increase their profits, sweatshop bosses, would reduce the pay per completed piece of work, so that workers either had to work faster—and risk injury to themselves for which they would lose pay—to complete more pieces or lose part of their weekly earnings.
These tactics were used in the larger factories, as well.
In Russia, the May laws of 1882 restricted where Jews could live and their right to practice their religion.
Political activity and union organizing were legal in the US, and while immigrants could get in some trouble for their activism, they would not be executed or sent to labor camps.