Role of Jews in labor movement past and present visible in S.F. exhibit

“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise, and livin’ in the houses they build — I’ll be there, too.”

Tom Joad was speaking somewhat allegorically when he uttered his memorable goodbye to Ma and Pa in the film version of the John Steinbeck classic “The Grapes of Wrath.”

But — albeit idealistically — it’s a fitting epitome of centuries of Jewish involvement in the labor movement, from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to bloody streets below New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company to the mills of the Midwest and the fields of California.

When a naked farm worker cringed as the cloud of DDT billowed into his face and settled into his jet-black hair, photographer Leonard Nadel was there with his camera.

When Depression-era Salinas lettuce pickers gathered on a dusty trail to discuss a forthcoming strike in a meeting lit by the headlights of their pickup trucks, Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth had their camera ready.

And when mounted San Francisco policemen laid into striking workers with their billy clubs, artist Victor Arnautoff immortalized the moment in a woodcarving.

The aforementioned works by Jewish artists are among many snapshots, paintings, etchings, woodcarvings and installations at San Francisco’s California Historical Society, entitled “At Work: The Art of California Labor.”

And while most American workers enjoy having their weekends off, receiving overtime after eight or so hours and appreciate safer working conditions, the show’s curator said it’s still difficult to generate great interest in labor art, and even harder to fund an exhibit.

The images “still hold a political threat. Who pays for major museums?” said Mark Dean Johnson, an art professor at San Francisco State University, whose exhibit runs until Dec. 20 at the downtown gallery.

“The subjects are lower-class people, laborers. People of color, women and Jews. I think it makes people uncomfortable and certainly makes funders uncomfortable.”

While by no means a Jewish exhibit, the display features a number of works by or featuring Jews, from the photographs of Nadel to the artwork of Arnautoff to pamphlets penned by Emma Goldman.

And that’s hardly surprising. After all, Jewish names dot the annals of the labor movement to the point of ubiquity. While excluded from the traditional European trade guilds — and relegated to careers as pawnbrokers, money changers, tobacco handlers and jewel traders — Jews formed their own bunds (labor leagues) in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Left-wing activism borne of years of harsh repression found a fertile home in the crowded, inner-city homes Jews carved out in American cities, and was recharged when the children of these immigrants came of age in the turbulent 1960s.

Throughout history, the typical Jewish labor activist was unlikely to be found at Shabbat services or Torah study. In a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations, a full 20 percent of the California union leaders interviewed identified as Jewish, but very few considered themselves to be religious.

But, to many, fighting for the underprivileged is what Judaism is all about, going back several generations.

“My grandfather was a Russian Jew, a tailor in New York City and active in the union there. My father was a teacher, in the union and active. And my mother was a nurse, and also a proud union member,” said Karen Zullo Sherr, a longtime painter and labor activist.

Sherr has spent years fighting for improved conditions for San Francisco’s thousands of home-care workers, who are primarily Filipina immigrants. Her illustrated manual depicting proper care of the elderly is featured alongside Goldman’s pamphlets in the labor art exhibition.

“In terms of home-care workers, it’s women’s work, and they’re such an invisible group of people. I can’t think of anyone who needs a union more than them. Throughout organizing this group of workers, I was constantly reminded of the sort of social unionism associated with settlement houses in New York City and the work that came out of immigrant communities when Russian Jews and Italians came to New York in the first part of the 20th century.”

With many of the jobs that drew Jews and Italians to America now being filled overseas by Mexican, Indonesian or Chinese workers, union membership has sagged. On the heels of World War II, half the nation’s employees belonged to unions, a figure that is now hovering at between 9 and 13 percent (though 15 percent of the nation’s union workers are here in California).

In today’s world, giant corporations such as Gap, Wal-Mart and Starbucks are far too gargantuan to be assailed by even the strongest union.

So the future of labor organization may be a phasing out of the traditional frontal assaults of collective bargaining and, instead, a reliance on clever end-arounds.

That’s what Nato Green did when he helped to conceive and champion San Francisco’s recently passed Measure L, which upped the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.

In a single night of voting, the 28-year-old labor organizer had earned raises for an estimated 30,000 workers.

“This reflects the reality of the world we’re in. We’ve got more leverage with the government than we can get with some employers,” said Green, a tall, sturdily built and stunningly erudite native San Franciscan with a shaved head and low, serious voice.

His given name, incidentally, is Nathaniel, but Nato has been his nickname since childhood. And, yes, he’s heard every horrible pun regarding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Measure L “was a big victory. Certainly if we tried to go around to all the different employers in separate campaigns and tried to get them to raise wages to $8.50 an hour, it would have been a whole different process. This was what the times called for.”

Green, who, along with Sara Flocks (also Jewish) founded Young Workers United last year, followed an unusual path to his current position as a labor organizer. Like the labor leaders of his parents’ generation, he is college-educated, having graduated from Oregon’s Reed College after attending San Francisco’s prestigious Lick Wilmerding High. But, like the leaders of his grandparents’ generation, he started working a trade at the bottom rung of the ladder, and threw himself into organizing.

Just out of college, he landed a low-wage job at Noah’s Bagels in the hopes of organizing the work force while eking out a living. Instead, he was fired for his efforts. But he put the lessons of his unsuccessful campaign to good use in his next job, as a delivery man.

At one messenger service, Green and his co-workers forced their employer to provide them with lunch breaks, as required by law. At another, Green and fellow workers won back a fired companion’s job with a 90-minute impromptu strike.

And now, as a full-time organizer devoted to earning fair pay for young people — and an end to the “They’re just going to blow all their money on computer games, so they don’t need more” attitude — he’s getting the calls. For a while it was once a month, and the calls went something like this, said Green: “I’m 22, Jewish, I just graduated from a liberal arts college in the Northeast, I was a student activist. Now I’m moving to the Bay Area and I want to do organizing for a couple of years before I go to grad school. Can you help me?”

Though the frequency of such requests has slowed, Green still replies in much the same way. His answer isn’t always the one callers want to hear: Get a job.

“I think too many people want to seek out nonprofit work or some kind of staff position [rather than a job in the ranks]. I think any person with a middle-class background who wants to do organizing should get a job and organize their own job. I’ve learned stuff fighting with my own boss that I couldn’t have any other way.”

And while family and friends asked Green why he wasn’t in graduate school or practicing law instead of driving a truck, he always knew that labor activism was the place for him.

“To be a good organizer, you have to be a historian, economist, lawyer, therapist, philosopher and rabbi all in one,” he said with a laugh. “And I like that.”

“At Work: The Art of California Labor” runs through Jan. 10 at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., S.F. Information: (415) 357-1848. Admission: $3 for adults, $1 for students or seniors.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.