As we begin the Hebrew year 5776, it got me to thinking about 1776. True, there is no connection between the two, but it seems as if there should be, both ending in 776. It was on July 4, 1776 that a remarkable group with courage and vision came together and created the United States of America. They represented 13 colonies, and they met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia to speak out against injustice.
Another remarkable group came together in New York’s Central Plaza in February 1934 to speak out against injustice. They did not represent 13 colonies. They represented three needle trades unions: The International Ladies Garment Workers, The Hat, Cap and Millinery Workers, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Labor Bund, the Forward Association, and the United Hebrew Trades. They created the Jewish Labor Committee.
The equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were Baruch Charney Vladeck of the Forward, David Dubinsky of the ILGWU, and Benjamin Gebiner of the Workmen’s Circle.
More than 1,000 delegates came together to make the American public, and especially the American trade union movement, aware of the injustices and the suppression of freedom growing in Nazi Germany, and threatening the rest of the world. They were sounding the alarm about Nazism, anti-Semitism, racism, and the destruction of democratic institutions.
The Jewish Labor Committee was to be their vehicle for spreading the word. The JLC had links to scores of labor and anti-fascist organizations throughout Europe, and attempted to publicize the threat that Hitler posed. Vladeck addressed the 1934 American Federation of Labor convention. The JLC created a news service informing the Jewish and labor communities of the growing threat. It organized mass meetings and initiated a boycott of Nazi goods. With the help of the AF of L, more than 1,000 visas were obtained for Jewish, labor and Socialist leaders who would have otherwise been killed by the Nazis. Through the rest of the 1930s and 1940s, it assisted anti-Nazi forces, especially the Polish underground.
After World War II, the JLC continued its overseas work, organizing shipments of food and clothing to survivors in displaced persons camps, and initiated a child adoption program where local unions and Workmen’s Circle branches raised money earmarked for individual children in Europe.
In 1944, the JLC began its educational programs focusing on ending discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism in the workplace and throughout American society. By the 1950s, it had established Labor Committees for Civil Rights in more than a dozen cities, as part of the JLC’s regional offices.
I joined the national staff of the JLC in 1956, after having been an ILGWU organizer. Over the next six years, I learned its history, and met and worked with the legendary people carrying on the work begun in 1934. Vladeck was gone, but Dubinsky (my former boss) and Gebiner were still around.
Lazar Epstein maintained overseas contacts, and Zalman Lichtenstein brought thousands of children and funders together. The Executive Secretary was Jacob Pat, assisted by Benjamin Tabachinsky, both were leaders of the Jewish Labor Bund who made it out of Poland in 1938.
I was hired by Manny Muravchik, Director of the Anti-Discrimination Division, to be national field secretary, maintaining contact with our regional offices, including Julius Bernstein, the New England Regional director. I edited Labor Reports, our monthly news service to the labor press, prepared educational materials, taught at union summer schools, addressed union conventions, and attended meetings of the National Community Relations Advisory Council (now the Jewish Council on Public Affairs–JCPA). We were recognized in the Jewish community relations field as the bridge between the organized labor movement and the organized Jewish community.
We were the voice of labor to the Jewish community, and the voice of the Jewish community to labor. We transmitted the concerns of one to the other. In part, it is because of the JLC that labor has no better friend among American ethnic and religious communities than the Jews, and American Jewry has no better friend among non-Jewish organizations than organized labor.
These days, the JLC is still involved in building Jewish solidarity with ongoing labor struggles. We play a central role in improving working conditions for hotel workers in the Boston area; we continue to support domestic workers and educate employers of domestic workers following passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, and we are prioritizing the Fight for $15 campaign to raise the wages of low wage workers. The JLC chapter of New England, of which I am a board member, is part of the RaiseUp Massachusetts coalition of unions, interfaith and communal organizations that came together last year to successfully push through a raise in the minimum wage and earned sick time last year.
The JLC has been around for more than 80 years. Our membership and leadership have changed. In the early days, we claimed that we were speaking for 500,000 Jewish trade unionists, and both our membership and leadership spoke Yiddish. It is no longer the case. However, we are still committed, as were the founding fathers of both the USA and the JLC, to fighting injustice. The fight continues.
To help support JLC New England's efforts for a fair minimum wage, please add your name in support of the Fight for $15 campaign.
Before joining the JLC in 1956, Jake Schlitt was an organizer for the ILGWU. After leaving the JLC, he worked for two unions, and three government agencies, and is happily retired.
This piece is second in a JLC New England blog series From Passion to Action.