Unionist Jack Sheinkman, 77

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
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Jack Sheinkman, a former head of America’s largest clothing-workers’ union and a leading strategist of the post-Vietnam-era labor movement, died in New York last week of pneumonia. He was 77.

Sheinkman was president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union from 1987 to 1995, after serving for three decades as the union’s secretary-treasurer and top lawyer. He retired after negotiating the union’s merger with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or Unite.

A champion of aggressive union organizing, Sheinkman was the chief architect of the 1980 victory in which the union won recognition from the JP Stevens textile company, following a lengthy struggle that was fictionalized in the 1979 movie “Norma Rae.”

That victory followed a similarly dramatic fight to win recognition from the Texas-based Farah Manufacturing Co., in which the union pioneered the use of nontraditional tactics such as consumer boycotts and labor-civil rights coalitions.

“Jack was a very far-sighted labor leader who led the way in finding the weapons that labor would need to win in the post-Reagan era,” said the president of Unite, Bruce Raynor. “The Farah and Stevens campaigns were the first ones to involve consumer boycotts and civil-rights coalitions on a national scale, and he was the architect.”

Sheinkman was also a leading advocate of international labor cooperation and played a strong labor role in shaping foreign policy. He served three terms as president of the Jewish Labor Committee during the 1970s, and lobbied actively for strong U.S.-Israel ties.

Jacob Sheinkman was born in 1926 in the Bronx. His parents were Russian socialist activists who had fled the Bolshevik regime three years earlier. He was educated in the New York City public schools and in the Yiddish supplementary schools and summer camps of the Workmen’s Circle.

After serving in the Navy in World War II, Sheinkman entered Cornell University, where he was one of the first graduates of the School of Labor and Industrial Relations. After graduation he became an organizer for the International Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers. He joined the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America as a lawyer in 1953, becoming general counsel in 1958. The clothing workers merged in 1975 with the smaller Textile Workers Union of America to form the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.

Sheinkman was elected secretary-treasurer of the union in 1972 as part of a new leadership team that included Chicago attorney Murray Finley as president. The election of the two American-born lawyers, following the retirement of longtime union president Jacob Potofsky, a Russian immigrant who had risen from the shop floor, represented a historic generational transition within the union.

“Jack was probably the last major labor statesman on the national stage to emerge directly from the old world of Yiddish-speaking social democrats,” said Jo-Ann Mort, who was the union’s spokeswoman under Sheinkman. He was also a key link to the next generation of post-1960s activists.

During the 1980s Sheinkman emerged as a leading opponent of U.S. policy in Central America. He founded and co-chaired a national committee on labor rights in Central America, which served as an organizing base for union activists opposing U.S. military intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The committee also helped union organizers threatened by right-wing militias in El Salvador to escape to safety in this country.

Sheinkman’s foreign policy activism frequently put him at odds with the hawkish leadership of the AFL-CIO, then led by Lane Kirkland. That role, together with his earlier role in the Stevens campaign, cemented Sheinkman’s image as a galvanizing figure for a younger generation of liberals drawn to union activism. His union “became a real repository for the energies of progressives who wanted to be part of the labor movement,” Mort said.

“Jack’s career was marked throughout by incredible integrity, seriousness and hard work,” Raynor said. “If the rest of the American labor movement had leaders like that, the movement would be in better shape than it is.”

He is survived by his wife Betty, three sons and three grandchildren.

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