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East 4th Street and its Political Past

This post is the second of a three-part series called Histories of Fourth Street, from East to West, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2015 Intro to Public History course. Each group of students was tasked with preparing a presentation around a particular topic concerning a section or block of Fourth Street in conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 16th.  Each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid. The following post was written by Candyce Quintyne, Charlie Morgan and Kate Schnakenberg.

64-70 East Fourth Street in 1875.

It only takes about 30 seconds to walk between the buildings at 64 and 85 East 4th Street. Today that walk would take you from a show at the IATI and Paradise Theaters to a drink at the KGB bar. But nearly one hundred years ago, that same distance would take you deep into the heart of the labor organizing movement on the Lower East Side.

On East 4th Street at 2pm on July 7, 1910 the largest labor strike in the U.S. until that point began with furor. Nearly 70,000 members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) descended upon a seemingly non-descript building at 64 East 4th Street where socialist journalist Abraham Cahan addressed the members of the union. 64 East 4th street was by no means a random meeting point. It was the home of the Labor Lyceum – a building that had been, and would still be, a significant address in the history of Lower East Side social and labor movements.

justus funeral nyt
The New York Times, December 21, 1900

In 1900 the building hosted the funeral of noted anarchist saloon owner Justus Schwab. Schwab’s saloon at 50 East 1st Street was a staple of what had been for much of the nineteenth century a German enclave known as Kleinedeutschland or Little Germany, and his funeral was a significant event. The eulogy at his Labor Lyceum funeral was given by Johann Most, and Emma Goldman was in attendance. Right after the service 2,000 people followed Schwab’s coffin in a procession that went past his saloon and through the street of Little Germany.

Trial of 7
The Trial of the Seven Cloakworkers. John Aspitz, Morris Stupnicker, Max Singer (rear), Solomon Metz, Morris (Max) Sigman, Julius Woolf and John Wedinger (front) were charged but never convicted in the murder of Herman Liebowitz

But in 1910 East 4th Street was the launching pad for one of the most bitter and consequential strikes in U.S. history.  The Cloakmakers Strike or the ‘Great Revolt’ as it was also known began on July 7, 1910 with massive worker walkouts. The strike was organized and carefully planned by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which had staged a similar but slightly smaller walk out and strike of Shirtwaist makers the year before.  In 1910 the strikers were about ten percent female (the ‘Ladies’ in the union’s title refers to the type of garments they made, not the gender of the workers), one third Italian and two-thirds Jewish.  They demanded union recognition, a closed-shop system, a 48-hour work week, double pay for overtime, and an end to the inside contractor system.  They were met with bitter resistance by the garment manufacturers, who employed thuggery, arrests, injunctions, and police violence to try to break the strike.  But the workers were not without their supporters; the     Women’s Trade Union League provided 200,000 quarts of milk to help sustain the strikers’ children.

Fast-forward to August 1910 and the Cloakworkers strike was in dire straits. Scab laborers had escaped up to the Catskills to continue their work and the government was looking to crack down on the strikers. A major blow would be struck just across the street from the Labor Lyceum at Casino Hall, at 85 East Fourth. On August 10th, after being forcibly recalled to the city from a scab-labor factory in the Catskills to meet with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union at Casino Hall, scabbies were violently assaulted by their union brothers. Union organization was clearly not synonymous with union order. While most of those attacked survived, Herman Liebowitz, cloakmaker and father of five with another on the way, died after suffering multiple blows to the back of the head. A young prosecutor, Lucien Breckenridge, saw this case of violence within the unions as a potential crack in the increasingly formidable labor foundation. The Trial of the Seven Cloakworkers would help lay the foundations for investigations into union organization and gang violence on the Lower East Side, although all of the men charged in the murder were acquitted.

In October of 1910 Louis Brandeis was brought in to broker what came to be known as the ‘Protocols of Peace.’  The settlement was far from perfect, but also set a far-reaching precedent that was used to end similar labor disputes, and established that labor had a stake in well-run and well-managed businesses and were key to their success, helping to forge a closer partnership between labor and management.

By the 1940s the Lower East Side labor movement had been put on the defensive by anti-communist attacks. These attacks would soon be intensified under McCarthyism. It’s in this context that the Ukrainian Labor Home went into hiding – with a move to 85 East 4th Street – ironically enough, the same building where Liebowitz had been killed only thirty years before.

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A Soviet flag hanging in KGB bar. Items like this were found stashed away throughout the building.

Nearly seventy years later, 85 East Fourth Street is once again covered in socialist and Soviet posters and flags. Hidden by the Ukrainian Labor Home in the 1950s, they were recovered by current owner Dennis Woychuck in the 1980s and once again hung with pride.

64 and 85 East Fourth Street are the metaphorical bookends of the Lower East Side labor movement. It was born, matured, and in many ways died at these very addresses. But if you peel back the wallpaper, look under the floorboards, or, in the case of Dennis Woychuck’s KGB Bar, just walk in the front door, you can find the traces of this tumultuous past.

To see the students’ presentation, click HERE.  Special Thanks to NYU Professor Peter Wosh for continuing to work with GVSHP on this program.

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