Edelman, the union man


BALTIMOREANS whose memories span the 1930s through the early 1970s will remember Jacob J. ("Jake") Edelman as a scholarly, dapper (always the handkerchief in the lapel pocket), silver-haired labor lawyer and articulate city councilman who for some 30 years brought light to that often-benighted body.

Edelman was born just before the turn of the century in Rovno, Russia. He came here at age 13, penniless. But with the help of two sisters already here, he soon had a job as a clothing cutter for the H. Sonneborn Co. Sonneborn was one of the industry giants; it occupied the entire 15-story building at Paca and Pratt (which is still standing).

During Edelman's teen-age years, Baltimore's burgeoning clothing industry was undergoing vast changes. Management was introducing labor-saving technology, and this automation, coupled with long and deep-seated resentment over working conditions, created great tension in the labor market. Strike fever was in the air.

Angered by sweatshop conditions at Sonneborn, Edelman agitated and took his fellow employees out on strike. He was fired, branded a revolutionary and forced to leave the city. He could find work only in New York, and it was there that he became enamored of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America union (ACW).

In 1914, with ACW help, he was able to return to Baltimore and to Sonneborn. In the Sonneborn factory the ACW had been accepted by management, but it was challenged by a rival union, the United Garment Workers of America.

In August 1916 the "war of the scissors" broke out in earnest, and Edelman was in the trenches. It began with a fracas between members of the rival unions on the ninth floor and spilled out onto the sidewalk at Paca and Pratt. Riot police arrived with blackjacks and left bloodied and bruised victims on the sidewalk. Twelve men were arrested. "I am sure my father was one of them," says Beverly Edelman Levin.

Ultimately, Edelman's scrappy union, the ACW, won. (It later merged with a textile workers' organization to become today's Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.) Edelman was able to unionize almost every clothing manufacturer in Baltimore. And this meant better wages and working conditions for years to come in one of the city's major industries.

Though Edelman would go on to serve in the higher reaches of city and state politics -- and gain fame as a labor lawyer -- his daughter says he would always think of himself as a sidewalk picket and union organizer.

He died in 1984 at age 88, rich in years and honors, a life's labor completed.

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