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The Jewish Labor Movement and the Bund in Bialystok
As industrialization proceeded apace in Eastern Europe during the late nineteenth century, numerous factories, mainly connected to the textile industry, began appearing in Bialystok. By the mid 1880s, there were over 70 factories in the city with a workforce of over 2000 laborers, between 60 to 70 percent of whom where Jews. Ten years later, there were 5000 workers in 230 factories.
Thanks to the growth of industry, the population of Bialystok also grew. By the mid-1890s, the Jewish population comprised 76% of nearly 63,000 total residents. Many of these Jews worked as weavers and laborers in the growing textile industry. With the creation of a large scale Jewish proletariat came the interest in Left wing, pro-labor ideologies which would come to have significant influence on the city and its residents.
The strength of the labor movement was largely held in their ability to shut down the means of production, in other words, to go on strike. One of the first strikes in Bialystok - in 1882 - was organized by Hasidic workers against their Hasidic boss. Influenced by Leftist ideologues, approximately 70 weavers in Aron Suraski's textile factory went out on strike, demanding higher wages. Their success set the stage for numerous other strikes demanding better working conditions and 12 hour work days during the 1880s.
With the increase in factories and of workers, numerous strikes occurred in Bialystok during the 1890s, the most significant one taking place in August, 1895, when 10,000 textile workers shut down factories for three weeks in protest of a Russian government demand that workers meet certain quotas. Employees only returned to work after receiving a promise from the police commissioner that conditions such as weekly pay and that workers could not be randomly fired were instituted.
With the advent of the Bund in 1897, Bialystok's workers had a specifically Jewish organization on its side. A year after its founding, there were already 200 card-carrying Bundists in Bialystok. Two years later, the number had more than tripled.
An economic crisis hit Bialystok and the region in 1900, creating much unemployment. Jewish labor organizations mobilized to create soup kitchens and aid to poor families. In one episode, a group of unemployed weavers prevented Torah reading in a large synagogue during Sabbath services in order to call attention to their predicament.
Do to political problems elsehwere, Bialystok became the de facto center of the Bund in 1900, if only for about a year and a half. In May 1901, the Bund held its fourth annual conference in the city, during which it drew in local workers by creating small groups in which they could learn about and discuss economic, labor, and political issues.
The city became a hotbed of Jewish revolutionary activity and, eventually, a center for the Socialist Bund, which used Bialystok as their center of operations after the organization’s leaders were exiled from Vilna just after the turn of the twentieth century. The Bund was such a central feature of Jewish political life in Bialystok, that the city had its own Bundist newspaper, Der bialystoker arbayter (The Bialystok Worker). During the period between the failed Russian Revolution and the first World War, the Jewish Labor Movement, with the Bund at the forefront, grew to comprise a force of approximately 15,000 laborers and an important political and cultural element in the city.