Joseph Schlossberg (1875–1971) was born in Russia in 1875. In 1888, his family joined the massive wave of Russian Jews immigrating to North America and specifically to New York, where, like many others, Schlossberg worked in the garment trade. He became involved in the labour organization of the industry, and in 1914 co-founded with Sydney Hillman, later one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest advisers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, serving as General-Secretary from its establishment until 1940.
At about the time of the start of World War I, Schlossberg pioneered the Amalgamated’s takeover of the Montreal clothing (shmata) industry from the more conservative United Garment Workers, receiving important help from local Jewish and socialist labour leaders such as H. M. Caiserman. After a few smaller battles with local factories represented by the anti-union Clothing Manufacturers Association of Montreal (CMAM), which was headed by Jewish community leader Lyon Cohen, the Amalgamated took on Semi-Ready Ltd, which manufactured Canadian Army uniforms. A. F. Wood, the president of the company, accused Schlossberg of being a German agent whose mission was to destroy local manufacturing and thereby prevent Canadian soldiers from receiving the uniforms and equipment they needed. Schlossberg pointed out that “in Germany he would have been known as a ‘d-----d’ Jew and it seemed strange to come to Canada to be called a German.” Cohen, aware both of the need to maintain a modicum of Jewish communal unity and of the fact that Schlossberg was Russian, and not German, said: “We, the manufacturers, disagree with you [labour] leaders and strikers in certain matters, but we agree with your protest against slander.”
Despite these modest overtures over the Schlossberg controversy, the labour disputes with Cohen and other members of CMAM escalated until the entire industry effectively had shut down by February 1917. The clothing manufacturers committed themselves to stopping the spread of the Amalgamated throughout the city, and the union organizers, in turn, were committed to demanding fair treatment for all employees. Tensions continued to rise, as violence broke out on picket lines, and a bomb exploded at the house of one strike-breaker. The industry-wide shutdown ended in May 1917, with some small victories for strikers. It was the most intense labour dispute in Montreal history, and would remain so until the volatile 1930s. Schlossberg continued to contend with Cohen and his manufacturing allies in the ensuing years of acute labour strife in the Montreal shmata industry.
Compiled by Richard Kreitner
Debs, Eugene V. et J. Robert Constantine. Letters of Eugene V. Debs Illinois : University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Logan, Harold Amos. Trade Unions in Canada. Toronto : Macmillan, 1948.
Tulchinsky, Gerald J. J. Taking Root : The Origins of the Canadian Jewish Community. Toronto : Lester Pub, 1992.
*Les images proviennent du Musée McCord et le Kheel Center, Cornell University.