Jewish Labor Committee: Part 1

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by Ilana Rossoff, Reference Services Research Intern, Center for Jewish History

This post is part of the Jews and Social Justice Series. To view all posts in the series, click here.

The Jewish Labor Committee is the longest existing prominent pro-civil rights Jewish labor organization. It was founded in 1934 as a union between the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)—two major Jewish trade unions—the Workmen’s Circle, a socialist fraternal organization, and other labor and Jewish socialist organizations. Its purpose was to serve as a vehicle for the labor movement to work against the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe.

In its initial program, the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) worked with the U.S. government and international organizations to rescue European (both Jewish and non-Jewish) labor union leaders under the threat of persecution from the Nazi regime. According to Catherine Collomp in “The Jewish Labor Committee, American Labor, and the Rescue of European Socialists, 1934-1941,” the Committee’s founding mission was to “give aid to Jewish and non-Jewish labor institutions overseas; to assist the democratic labor movement in Europe; provide succor to victims of oppression and persecution; and to combat anti-Semitism and racial and religious intolerance abroad and in the United States" [1].

The JLC educated masses of American workers about the dangers of fascism, Nazism, and the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe and the U.S. Additionally, they worked to inform other Jewish community organizations such as the American Jewish Congress about the Nazi campaign to persecute European socialists and labor unionists as well as Jews.

Including its member organizations’ membership, the Jewish Labor Committee claimed to represent 400,000 members in 1934 and 500,000 in 1935 [2]. In its early years, the JLC raised money by hosting fundraisers such as dinners and other events to assist labor unionists and socialists in Europe through the American Federation of Labor’s “Labor Trust.” According to Gail Malmgreen in “Labor and the Holocaust: the Jewish Labor Committee and the anti-Nazi Struggle”:

Through the 1930s, the JLC steadfastly expressed its conviction that the key to defeating Nazism was self-defense by a broad front of Euro[pean] labor and progressive forces, Jewish and non-Jewish, supported by material aid from abroad [3]. 

Collomp writes that the JLC invited European labor refugees to speak to American working-class communities to raise money for the Labor Chest, which would send it to fund underground resistance networks, such as in Warsaw, and to labor organizations in exile elsewhere in Europe [4]. In 1936 the JLC formed the Joint Boycott Council with the American Jewish Congress to promote a widespread boycott of German goods and services, and in 1938 both organizations joined with B’nai B’rith to form the General Jewish Council to coordinate anti-Nazi work in the U.S.

Beginning in 1940, after the fall of France to Nazi invasion, the JLC embarked more aggressively on missions to rescue Jewish and non-Jewish labor leaders (and oftentimes their families) and bring them to the U.S. With the support of the ILGWU and ACWA, the JLC provided food and other material supplies to refugees. In 1945, it began a child “adoption” program wherein donors in the U.S. could sponsor the relief of a Jewish child in post-war Europe.

The JLC was considered a very reliable relief provider, and after the war it served as a global news dispatching center for people to send and find news of their relatives [5]. According to Malmgreen, in all the JLC is estimated to have spent $1,000,000 on post-war relief for refugees. Meanwhile, in addition to its post-war relief efforts, the Committee continued to fight discrimination on the home front. Next Monday, I will take a closer look at the Jewish Labor Committee’s support of civil rights legislation.

Notes:

[1] Catherine Collomp, “The Jewish Labor Committee, American Labor, and the Rescue of European Socialists, 1934-1941” International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 68, Labor in Postwar Central and Eastern Europe (Fall, 2005), page 117. This article can be found in the JSTOR database and accessed at the Center for Jewish History.

[2] Collomp, page 116

[3] Gail Malmgreen, “Labor and the Holocaust : the Jewish Labor Committee and the Anti-Nazi struggle.” Silver Spring, MD : The George Meany Memorial Archives : 1991, page 22. This article was reprinted in Labor’s Heritage in 1991 and can be accessed through the Lillian Goldman Reading Room here at the Center for Jewish History.

[4] Collump, page 119

[5] Collump, pages 112-113

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