New York, NY – This Women’s History Month, LaborPress is highlighting Ann Toback, a fourth-generation union member, Jewish-American and the first woman to lead the Workers Circle (formerly Workmen’s Circle), which will have its 120th anniversary September 4.
Toback, Brooklyn-born and Long Island-raised, was brought up in a semi-traditional, semi-progressive family.
“The progressive part is that my family’s tradition is union,” says Toback. “In my home we had a lot of union-focused conversation and activities.”
Toback’s father was in the NewsGuild, he would often go on strike and was a part of the negotiating committee for his union. Her grandfather worked in a sweatshop and was also a union member.
Through the power of social media, Toback’s has also learned that her great-grandfather was a union member, too.
“I’m now reconnecting with my father’s cousins and what I’ve learned about the patriarch of the Toback family who came here from what was then the Soviet Union and what is now the Ukraine,” says Toback. “David Toback was a very strong union activist and he worked as a treasurer in the very early days of ILGWU with David Dubinsky.”
Toback’s childhood in the 1970s was often spent on the picket lines.
“My family boycotted grapes for most of my youth,” Toback says. “I didn’t eat any grapes unless it was Concord grapes, which were local New York grapes and weren’t under the boycott.”
During theatre strikes her family refused to go to Broadway shows.
“The other piece was my Jewish identity,” says Toback. “It was a part of our culture, our tradition and there, too, was activism. We participated in huge marches for Soviet Jewry, because there were days when Jews were not allowed to emigrate from Russia.”
When Toback was around 6-years-old, she marched near the United Nations with her father at what is now called the Sharansky Steps — named after the Israeli human rights activist Natan Sharansky.
“I now live near the United Nations and I think about that first major action I participated in and how things have changed and where I am now,” Toback says. “It’s a grounding moment for me. I’m very nostalgic about it.”
Toback’s mother also encouraged her to fight for women’s rights.
“Even as a little kid, I fought for the Equal Rights Amendment,” Toback says. “My mother, of course, encouraged that.”
All of those experiences would later help her in her new role as CEO of the Workers Circle, a social justice, Yiddish-language learning cultural organization.
In 2008, Toback, a former WGA East assistant executive director, took on the role of Workers Circle CEO as the organization sought to revamp for the 21st century.
“I saw an ad for the Workmen’s Circle and I knew about its history as a partner in the labor movement and as an organization rooted in Jewish values that had a proud history of activism,” says Toback. “They were in the process on envisioning a new image from this 1900s fraternity for new immigrants with social justice front and center.”
However, the organization now consisted of second, third and even fourth-generation Americans who were joining for different reasons and included a lot of women in its membership, according to Toback, who didn’t realize that she was the first woman to lead the organization.
“The leadership was so excited,” says Toback. “It’s rooted in egalitarian values, but in the early days, men were in the leadership roles even though half of our members were from the women immigrant workforce in the 1900s. Jewish women garment workers were very much a part of the early history.”
While the Workers Circle Jewish secular identity is still important to the organization, connecting the next generation to its activist heritage by fighting the public charge rule, working towards av$15 minimum wage and supporting the Alliance for Fair Food, are some of the new initiatives that have helped to attract new members to the group.
“The whole ethos of the United States was to help people in need, to help people seeking refuge and seeking new lives, and to become productive citizens,” says Toback. “Public money is not simply charity — it is an investment in immigrants and the next generation of great Americans. This idea that we should close our doors to people who are fleeing here is unacceptable to myself, to this organization and to our founders who came here with very little.”