Charles S. "Sasha" Zimmerman (1896-1983) was an American socialist activist and trade union leader, who was an associate of Jay Lovestone. Zimmerman had a career spanning five decades as an official of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. During the early 1970s, Zimmerman and Bayard Rustin were national Co-Chairmen the Socialist Party of America and the Social Democrats USA.
Charles S. Zimmerman was born of Jewish parents as Alexander Ubsushone in 1896. Alexander, known to family and friends as "Sasha," was born in the Ukrainian shtetl of Talne, then part of the Russian empire. Sasha's father died when he was 7 and his widowed mother opened up a small grocery store and candy shop to support Sasha, his two siblings, and her mother. Sasha was raised in large measure by his grandmother, an Orthodox Jew.
Sasha attended Talmud Torah for three years and had two years of Russian schooling, gaining admission to the Russian gymnasium, which already had its quota of Jewish students, only after a battle made with the assistance of a local doctor.
Zimmerman later recalled:
Apparently he didn't want his handwriting to be on it... I asked him questions... [He replied that] when you will grow up, you'll understand. But whether I understood or not, it was bound to leave some impression. There was the revolutionary movement in town ... and the kids knew all about it, and there were meetings.
All these things had an effect... At the age of eleven and twelve you were no longer a child.
Sasha emigrated to the United States in 1913 at the age of 16, where he joined a sister in living with an uncle in New York City. It has been alleged that Sasha had his name changed to Charles Sasha Zimmerman by an official at Ellis Island upon arrival and he was thereafter known by this new moniker but this is impossible because Ellis Island officials never changed people's names.
Zimmerman first went to work as a retail clerk in a store near his apartment, but the hours of employment made it impossible for the boy to attend night school. Charles quit and took a job in the burgeoning New York garment industry making knee-pants, a position which allowed him to continue his studies in the evening. Pay for the immigrant workers was low and conditions poor in the New York sweatshops. Within a year, the young Zimmerman had helped to form a union local and had led a three-week strike of his fellows for better wages.
In 1914, Zimmerman found himself laid off his job. He was taken to work by his uncle, a factory foreman in Astoria, where he was taught carpentry, a job which netted him just $5.80 per week after car fare was paid. After less than a year, Zimmerman again found himself unemployed, and he returned to work in the garment industry, working in a factory in New Jersey.
Zimmerman joined the Communist Party of America (CPA) at the time of its formation in 1919. In the CPA, Zimmerman was a close associate of Jay Lovestone, who emerged as Executive Secretary of the organization after the sudden death of C.E. Ruthenberg in 1927.
From 1923 until 1958, except for one interlude, Zimmerman was prominent in the powerful Local 22 of the ILGWU in New York. Zimmerman was stripped of his position due to his Communist political affiliation in 1925.
During the period in which he was excluded from the ILGWU, Zimmerman was influential in establishing the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union, a dual union sponsored by the Communist Party's Trade Union Unity League (TUUL) and affiliated with the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU). Zimmerman's expulsion from the Communist Party in 1929 led to his expulsion from the NTWIU in 1930, paving his way for a return to ILGWU Local 22 shortly thereafter.
Zimmerman was in Moscow on party business in association with RILU in May 1929 at the time of the decisive showdown between Lovestone and his associates with the Communist International. The Comintern's was at the time attempting to solve the unceasing and bitter factional war in the American Communist Party by equalizing factional strength in the party leadership and reassigning factional leaders Lovestone and Alexander Bittelman to Comintern work abroad, decisions which the Lovestone majority group deeply resented. Zimmerman soon found himself expelled from the organization along with Lovestone and most of the others in his circle for their defiance of the Comintern's instructions.
Zimmerman joined with Lovestone in establishing the Communist Party (Majority Group), an organization which underwent a series of name changes before eventually emerging as the Independent Labor League of America in the late 1930s. He was among the initial members of the governing National Council of the CPMG.
In 1933, Zimmerman was asked by the retiring manager of Local 22 to run for his post. The election was held on April 6, 1933, with Zimmerman elected manager by a narrow margin, receiving 396 votes out of 825 cast in a three-way race. Zimmerman remained in this position heading Local 22 of the ILGWU for the next 40 years, retiring only in the early 1970s.
In 1934, Zimmerman was elected as a national vice-president of the ILGWU. His election to such a prestigious position did not necessarily follow that Zimmerman had left his radical political orientation behind, however. Zimmerman was a bitter critic of the National Recovery Act of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the period, regarding it in particular and the New Deal in general as "a Fascist idea," and he was outspoken in holding the view, saying as much to a convention of the ILGWU.
In the middle 1930s, with the ultra-radical "Third Period" at an end in favor of the coalition-building of the "Popular Front," the official Communists were persuaded to drop their dual union activities and to rejoin the ILGWU. Communist Party loyalists contested the "Lovestoneite" Zimmerman's leadership of Local 22 for a number of years, without success.
As a national leader of the ILGWU, Zimmerman proved a loyal supporter of union head David Dubinsky, supporting the affiliation of the union to the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1935 and backing Dubinsky's decision to withdraw from the CIO in 1938 in order to return to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a decision made in the face of particularly bitter opposition from official Communists in the union.
During the years of the Spanish Civil War, Zimmerman led a trade union campaign to aid the Spanish workers and civilian populations in Spain who suffered under shortages of food, clothing, and medicine. The initial impulse for this fund-raising work was an appeal that came to Dubinsky and the ILGWU from secretary general Walter Schevenels and president Walter M. Citrine of the International Federation of Trade Unions, which had established a Labor Solidarity Fund for the relief work. In response the ILGWU took the lead in founding the Trade Union Red Cross for Spain, with Zimmerman as chairman, Dubinsky as treasurer, and Alex Rose, of the Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers Union, as secretary. Promoting the humanitarian effort as support to Spanish labor in the fight against fascism, the union leaders raised $125,000 by May 1937. The relief organization was later renamed Trade Union Relief for Spain, and remained in existence through early 1939.
By the end of the 1930s, Zimmerman had come over to lending the Roosevelt Administration and its New Deal policies his full sympathy and support. In January 1939 he sent a telegram to William Green, president of the American Federation of Labor, accusing "conservative forces in Congress" of "organizing to prevent enactment of new social legislation" and of acting "to worsen the unemployment situation by cutting down WPA appropriations." Zimmerman called for a national conference bringing together representatives of the AFL, the CIO, and the railway brotherhoods as a means of establishing "united labor action" to defend the Rooseveltian policies.
Along with his political allies David Dubinsky and Jay Lovestone, Zimmerman emerged as a prominent anti-communist "Cold War liberal" in the years after the conclusion of World War II. Early in 1946, Zimmerman was dispatched to Europe on behalf of the Jewish Labor Committee to make a survey of the political situation on the ground there. Zimmerman made his report on his trip in April 1946, detailing his perspective on Scandinavia, France, Poland, and Germany. Zimmerman was particularly concerned that in the zone of divided Germany controlled by the Soviet Union, Communist unionists were receiving five times the amount of newsprint allotted to the Socialists, thus making them far better able to advance their views.
Charles S. Zimmerman suffered a stroke in 1966, which blinded him but did not remove him from active political activity. In 1972, he and Bayard Rustin were elected co-chairman of the Socialist Party -Democratic Socialist Federation, and supports its changing its name to Social Democrats, USA.
After his retirement from union work in 1972, Zimmerman continued to live in New York City. He died on June 3, 1983, at the age of 86. Zimmerman's son Paul is the famed football writer for the weekly magazine Sports Illustrated.