Joseph Schubert (1889-1952) was a popular labour organizer, public health advocate, and City Council alderman in the 1920s and 1930s, representing the interests of Montreal’s "downtowner" immigrant Jewish community during its formative years. After arriving from Romania, he worked as a pants maker before quickly rising to prominent positions in labour, the Jewish community, and civic administration.
A defender of workers' rights, Schubert condemned exploitation in clothing factories and later became secretary of the Cloak Pressers’ Union. Needle trade unions were often Jewish organizations, initiated by Eastern European immigrants who arrived with ideas inspired by the socialist ideas of the Bund (the East European General Union of Jewish Workers), and were also influenced by the Workmen's Circle (founded by East European Jews in the United States). Various disputes, including the 1912 strike against the Clothing Manufacturers’ Association of Montreal, pitted "uptowner" Jewish factory owners against "downtowner" Jewish immigrants. A passionate speaker and effective organizer, Schubert helped negotiate a compromise of a 49-hour, rather than 55-hour, work week.
Elected to Montreal’s City Council in 1924 to represent the predominantly Jewish St. Louis ward, Schubert advocated for workers’ rights during his 15 years in office. One success was the attainment of an eight-hour day and a $0.50 hourly minimum wage for municipal employees. During a 1925 strike, Schubert disputed rumours that the strikers were all Jewish, as pervasive antisemitism discredited the workers’ efforts.
A socialist, Schubert promoted the unpopular stance of higher taxes to improve social services. He battled rumours of communist affiliations stemming from his sympathy for allegedly communist Russian Jews barred from immigration and from his position as Montreal’s only Labour Party alderman. Despite such accusations, Schubert retained popular support, leading the opposition to the powerful Liberal administration from 1924-30 and criticizing their dealings with the underworld.
As alderman, Schubert addressed the spread of diseases due to overcrowding and unsanitary working conditions. During the Depression, he was commissioned to write a report on unemployment and relief distribution across North America. His recommendations struck a chord, as public spending on Montreal’s public health was the lowest proportionally in North America, an embarrassment given that the city had the highest infant death rate on the continent, and the largest number of tuberculosis patients. The report resulted in a Public Health Commission, in which Schubert was active in creating measures to prevent the spread of disease. In a 1931 public health initiative, Schubert built a public bath house for immigrant families lacking access to hot water; it was located on the corner of Bagg and St. Laurent. Known as the Schubert Baths, this public pool remains in use.
Schubert’s advice was sought during the 1920s "Jewish School Question." He was appointed by Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau as one of three Jewish representatives to sit on a Royal Commission called the “Committee of Nine.” Schubert voted for a separate Jewish school system.
Compiled by Marian Pinsky
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*Images courtesy of the Jewish Public Library Archives, the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives and les Archives de la Ville de Montréal.