This Day in Jewish History

1934: Immigrant N.Y. Labor Leader Abraham Shiplacoff Dies

Shiplacoff, who immigrated to U.S. at 14, became a convert to Zionism after the Balfour declaration.

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On February 7, 1934, the labor leader and New York Socialist politician Abraham Shiplacoff died at the age of 56.

Shiplacoff was born on December 13, 1877 in Chernigov, in the Russian empire (today in Ukraine). In 1891, his family left for the United States, where they settled in what was then the largely Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Abraham spent his days working in a garment industry sweatshop, and evenings in school. In 1905, he received his teacher’s certificate. He practiced the profession for two years in a Brooklyn school, until the poor health that dogged him his whole life led him to resign. He also worked for three years as a clerk and debt collector in the U.S. Customs House, before a brief stint in 1914 as labor editor of the Yiddish Daily Forward.

Shiplacoff moved to labor organizing itself the following year, when he became secretary-treasurer of the United Hebrew Trades, a federation of labor unions representing some 400,000 members.

Shiplacoff had his introduction to electoral politics in 1915, when he ran for the New York State Assembly as the Socialist candidate from Brownsville. His election made him the second Socialist to enter the state legislature (after Herbert Merrill in 1913), and the first from New York City.

Shiplacoff realized early on that as the lone representative of his party (although by 1917, he was one of 10 Socialists elected), he would not be in a position to do much political bartering. During the first two of his three terms, only one of the bills he introduced was actually passed, a law that prohibited police from using physical intimidation during interrogation of suspects. He did, however, “[put] up a fight against the bills which were opposed to the interests of labor, or were otherwise of a vicious nature,” as he explained at the time.

Among bills that Shiplacoff proposed that never made it out of committee were resolutions that would have required employers placing ads for jobs during a strike to inform applicants a strike was indeed going on; tightened rules regarding emergency exits in workplaces; required factory workers to be 16 or older; required compensation for employees injured on the job; and a bill that would have legalized dissemination of information about birth control.

The first birth control clinic in the United States had been opened in Shiplacoff’s district in 1916 by Margaret Sanger. Shiplacoff introduced his bill after Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne were arrested for their work, and while Byrne was in the middle of a hunger strike at Brooklyn’s Raymond Street jail.

Shiplacoff suffered frequent attacks on his national loyalty for his opposition to America’s entry into World War I, which continued even after the United States was fighting overseas. And during the Bolshevik Revolution, his vocal objections to the stationing of U.S. troops in Siberia in 1918-1920 led to his being indicted for sedition under the country’s Espionage Act. (The charges were dropped after World War I ended.)

Shiplacoff became a convert to the Zionist cause after the Balfour Declaration, and when he died, the Poalei Zion-Tzei’irei Zion movement eulogized him as “one of the first Jewish labor leaders in America to perceive that the struggle for a new social order must, in the case of the Jews, go hand in hand with the struggle for the national emancipation of the Jewish people.”

Following the loss of his Assembly seat, Shiplacoff served as an alderman in New York City, and continued being active in the labor movement.

He died on February 7, 1934 of kidney disease, after a long illness.