Born Rachelle Peisoty, 20 November 1896, Derazhyna, Russia; died 6 December 1965, Miami, Florida
Daughter of Masia and Issak Peisoty
While it is for her years as an able and often inspiring trade union organizer that Rose Pesotta is best known, she is also the author of two autobiographical books. Bread Upon the Waters (1944) concerns itself largely with her eight years as a general organizer for the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU); Days of Our Lives (1958) recalls her youth in a Ukrainian village in the Jewish "Pale."
Days of Our Lives links some of Pesotta's childhood experiences with her later calling. In recounting hearing of the revolts of the mujiks and the "Peasants' Union" they formed, Pesotta comments that it was "the first time I ever heard two words that would mean so much to me later on—organized and union." Vivid descriptions are given also of her activities in the under-ground movement against the Czar, beginning at the age of ten as a clandestine carrier of leaflets.
In 1913 Pesotta emigrated to the U.S., joining an older sister working in a New York shirtwaist factory. Pesotta had left Russia, she wrote, because she rebelled against a tradition in which she could "see no future for myself except to marry…and be a housewife." She saw the new land as an alternative, a place where "a decent middle class girl can work without disgrace."
Soon after her arrival, Pesotta joined the two social-political movements to which she was to devote the rest of her life—trade unionism and anarchism. By the 1920s she was taking an active role, as a public speaker, in the drive to release the celebrated imprisoned Italian-American anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. (It is noteworthy that in neither of Pesotta's books does she describe her experiences in the anarchist movement, although her participation in it is well-documented and well-remembered in interviews with her comrades.)
In 1922 Pesotta was elected to the executive board of ILGWU Local 22. Over the next decade, Pesotta served on various important strike committees, and attended Bryn Mawr's Summer School for Women Workers, and Brookwood Labor College. In 1933, she was appointed to a paid, full-time position as a general organizer for the ILGWU. The following year she was elected to serve as a vice president on its General Executive Board—a post she held for 10 years.
In Bread Upon the Waters, Pesotta describes organizing thousands of women (including Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, and French-Canadian women frequently alleged to be "unorganizable") into new ILGWU locals, and how she planned and conducted strikes and negotiations in cities from Los Angeles to Buffalo, in Puerto Rico and Montreal. The imaginative flair with which she conducted her campaigns gained her a reputation as a skilled organizer which soon spread beyond her own union.
Pesotta was well aware that she distinguished herself in a field in which there were few women, and she understood the important role played by sexual discrimination in this dearth. Indeed, it was discrimination that was in large part responsible for her resignation, in 1942, of her position as a general organizer for the ILGWU. In a statement explaining her resignation to the ILGWU General Executive Board, Pesotta cited the refusal of the union's leadership to recognize she was as competent as any of the men on the ILGWU's staff, and its concomitant refusal to give her responsibilities commensurate with her experience. Interestingly, Pesotta was publicly silent on the reasons surrounding her resignation. Like her participation in the anarchist movement, it is not discussed in either Bread Upon the Waters or Days of Our Lives.
The importance of Pesotta's books is not their literary quality, which is marginal, but their historical value. Bread Upon the Waters is almost certainly the first autobiography of a female labor union organizer ever published, and details the special challenges presented someone choosing this career. Days of Our Lives provides essential information on Pesotta's ethnic, family, and political background, as well as suggesting what experiences such a woman considered important or formative enough to record. Together, these works add to the scant store of knowledge available on the lives that were led by the small but significant number of women who became union organizers and worked with the most desperately exploited workers—women.
The Rose Pesotta Collection at the New York Public Library includes diaries and letters. There are papers of Rose Pesotta at the Bund Archives of the Jewish Labor Movement, in New York. The Tamiment Library of New York University has early drafts of Bread upon the Waters in its John Beffel Papers.
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Kessler-Harris, A., "Organizing the Unorganizable: Three Jewish Women and Their Union," in Labor History (Winter 1976).