Jewish Labor Committee: Part 2

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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.

At the same time that they were coordinating post-war refugee relief in Europe, Jewish Labor Committee members began to take an active role in supporting African-American-led efforts to advocate for civil rights legislation. According to the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, the JLC established its Anti-Discrimination Committee in the immediate years after World War II to “make itself the center for anti-discrimination work in the labor movement, and the link between organized labor and community relations activity within the Jewish community” [6].

As evidenced in the Jewish Labor Committee archival collection (AJHS)—which includes programs and pamphlets of various JLC activities and events—they were active in numerous cities around the country, working alongside the American Federation of Labor, the Labor Conference on Civil Rights, the Negro Labor Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) [7]. They worked for the passage of fair employment practices legislation and ordinances in different states, and supported legislation to eliminate segregation and discrimination in housing.

One item in the JLC archives, a 25-year progress report of the Anti-Discrimination Department of the Jewish Labor Committee entitled “In Freedom’s Cause,” exemplifies their concern for civil rights issues that affect Jewish, worker, and African-American populations. The booklet report warns about the rise of Southern organizations like the White Citizens Council “in which the anti-Negro, anti-Semitic, and anti-union groups have joined forces [and] carry on the campaign to keep the Negroes in their place and spread hate against Jews and foreigners” [8]. It further discusses how the White Citizens Council was behind campaigns to prevent Southern industrialists from hiring African-Americans, and the way that the JLC worked to challenge the company. The JLC put pressure on Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League, which had recently given an award to the president of that company.

Though the JLC worked to oppose racism and discrimination, it was not immune to racial tension. It and its Jewish labor partners found themselves on the defensive regarding fair practices towards African-Americans. In “Blacks, Jews, and the ‘Natural Alliance’: Labor Cohabitation and the ILGWU,” Nancy L. Green discusses the tensions that arose between the ILGWU and black labor leaders in unions that were majority black or Puerto Rican but retained mostly white leadership in the union. The Jewish Labor Committee was one organization of many that was accused of “having been incapable of eliminating discrimination from their own ranks and, on the other, of having gotten the upper hand in the civil rights movement” as well as having “’paternalistic and missionary’ attitudes toward blacks” [9].

Something I found interesting in my research on JLC and black labor relations was a letter published in an article “Unions and the Negro Community” by Herbert Hill (then Labor Secretary of the NAACP) in Industrial and Labor Relations Review. The letter was from Roy Wilkins, soon-to-be Executive Director of the NAACP, written to Emanuel Muravchik of the Jewish Labor Committee, (reflecting what he considered the “attitude of the [NAACP] and […] generally of the entire Negro Community on the future of Negro labor coalitions”):

 When you declare in 1962 that the NAACP’s continued attack upon discrimination against Negro workers by trade union bodies and leaders places “in jeopardy” continued progress toward civil rights goals or rents the “unity” among civil rights forces, or renders a “disservice” to the Negro worker or raises the question, “Whether it is any longer possible to work with the NAACP” you are, in fact, seeking by threats to force us to conform to what the Jewish Labor Committee is pleased to classify as proper behavior in the circumstances. Needless to say, we cannot bow to this threat. We reject the proposition that any segment of the labor movement is sacrosanct in the matter of practices and/ or policies which restrict employment opportunities on racial or religious or nationality grounds. We reject the contention that bringing such charges constitutes a move to destroy “unity” among civil rights groups unless it be admitted that this unity is a precarious thing, perched upon unilateral definition of discrimination by each member group. In such a situation, the “unity” is of no basic value and its destruction may be regarded as not a calamity, but a blessed clearing of the air. [10]

According to Green, some press tried to portray these tensions as a “war” between labor organizations and black advocacy organizations like the NAACP. However, an article was written in response entitled “Randolph, Wilkins deny ‘War’ but Cite ‘Differences,”allegedly dispelling the idea of an all-out war (though this was in 1960, so earlier than the Wilkins letter previously quoted). [11] The article is a discussion on the presumed idea of the “natural alliance” between blacks and Jews, what it is based on and whether it ever truly existed.

The Jewish Labor Committee continued its global advocacy for the human rights of Jews and non-Jews throughout the next few decades. Beginning in the late 1940s, the JLC became aware of and publicized the plight of European Jews under the Soviet communist regime, and appealed to the U.S. State Department to send aid to the millions of Jews whose “culture, language, religion, literature, and national consciousness” were being “eradicated” [12].

In 1950, the JLC organized the Labor Conference to Stop Communist Aggression, in which 2,000 delegates of various labor organizations committed to fighting the spread of communism and its impact on Soviet Jews [13]. This folder in the archival collection also contains a manuscript entitled “An Appeal to the Conscience of Mankind,” which is a report to the United Nations “for an inquiry into and the redress of the Cultural and Spiritual Genocide systematically pursued against the Jewish people by the Soviet Union,” submitted by the Jewish Labor Committee around 1951. According to a JLC anniversary booklet, “70 Years Strong: The Jewish Labor Committee Story,” the JLC brought a report on discrimination against Soviet Jews to the world congress of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions held in West Berlin in 1955, and in 1960 helped found the National Conference on Soviet Jewry [14].

The JLC was also very vocal on behalf of Israel’s pursuit of statehood. It later charged Arab nations with discrimination against American citizens and diplomats when entering their countries. “70 Years Strong” describes the support the JLC provided to Zionist labor organizations in pre-state Israel as well as to labor and socialist organizations around the world to push their representatives to support the Partition Plan. In the 1980s, the JLC organized educational programming for the younger generation to learn about the Holocaust and Jewish resistance.

The Jewish Labor Committee continues to be active today in labor struggles. It supports agricultural workers’ campaigns for fair wages, for example, and gathers Jewish support for workers rights’ campaigns. According to its website, its current programming includes support for labor campaigns, holding Passover Labor Seders, creating “Friendship Ties” between American trade union councils, and opposing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations against Palestinians.

It is clear from its broad history of advocacy work that the Jewish Labor Committee primarily works for the welfare of Jews around the world. However, its civil rights work through its Anti-Discrimination Committee has also included advocacy on behalf of non-Jews. Emerging in response to the Holocaust, the JLC was on the forefront of fighting against the targeting of Jews in Western Europe and later the Soviet Union, as well as in supporting the direct organizing efforts of the resistance movements. Similar to the Jewish Labor Bund, from whom it derived some of its early membership and inspiration, the Jewish Labor Committee has and continues to take a uniquely Jewish approach to addressing labor rights issues and international human rights crises.

Notes:

[6] “The Jewish Labor Committee,” Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2008. page 254.

[7] Box 1, Jewish Labor Committee archival collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives.

[8] “In Freedom’s Cause,” Report of the Anti-Discrimination Department of the Jewish Labor Committee, pages 10-11. This report was issued for the 1957 Biennial Convention of the JLC in Atlantic City, NJ. It can be found in the Jewish Labor Committee archival collection in the American Jewish Historical Society archives. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found here.

[9] Nancy L. Green, “Blacks, Jews, and the ‘Natural Alliance’: Labor Cohabitation and the ILGWU” Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997), page 87. This article can be found in the JSTOR database and accessed at the Center for Jewish History.

[10] Herbert Hill, “Unions and the Negro Community” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Jul., 1964), page 621. This article can be found in the JSTOR database and accessed at the Center for Jewish History.

[11] Green, page 87

[12] From a New York Post article, “Ask Aid for 2,500,000 Jews in ‘Iron Curtain’ Inquisition,” reprinted in a news bulletin of the Jewish Labor Committee, 13 March 1950. Folder 4, Box 1, Jewish Labor Committee archival collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found here.

[13] “Jewish Labor Fights Communism,” Folder 4, Box 1, Jewish Labor Committee archival collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found here.

[14] “70 Years Strong: The Jewish Labor Committee Story,” originally prepared as a supplement to the 70th Anniversary Commemorative Journal of the Jewish Labor Committee (1934-1970), Bund Archives of the YIVO Institute.

Further Reading:

Berman, Aaron, Nazism, the Jews, and American Zionism, 1933-1948 Detroit : Wayne State University Press, 1990.

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.

Nancy L. Green, “Blacks, Jews, and the ‘Natural Alliance’: Labor Cohabitation and the ILGWU” Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997), page 87. This article can be found in the JSTOR database and accessed at the Center for Jewish History.

Herbert Hill, “Unions and the Negro Community” Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Jul., 1964), page 621. This article can be found in the JSTOR database and accessed at the Center for Jewish History.

Jewish Labor Committee archival collection, American Jewish Historical Society archives. The Electronic Finding Aid to the archival collection can be found here.

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 found in the YIVO library stacks.

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