November 17, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – The shadow of Donald Trump loomed over the Jewish Labor Committee’s annual Human Rights Awards Nov. 14.
The organization, founded in 1934 by Jewish trade unionists to fight Nazism, was presenting the awards a few hours after the President-elect announced that his White House would be run by a hardline antilabor Wisconsin Republican and a white-nationalist Internet propagandist who peddles conspiracy theories about Jewish control of the banks and media.
“The unthinkable has happened, and we must proclaim our values,” JLC President Stuart Appelbaum told the gathering at the Roosevelt Hotel. Those values, he added, were “organizing for economic justice and defeating the forces of bigotry and prejudice.”
The organization presented the human-rights awards to Richard Lanigan, president of the Office and Professional Employees International Union; Thomas P. Clarke, a vice president and Region 1 director of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Zara clothing-store chain from Spain, a founding member of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. It also honored the philanthropic Atran Foundation.
“I’m very humbled at receiving this award from an organization that started out in the 1930s fighting against Hitler and Nazi atrocities, fought for civil rights, and marched with Martin Luther King,” Clarke, who earlier this year led workers at the New England supermarket chain Stop & Shop in a fight against contract givebacks, said before the ceremony. “What I’ve done in my life pales.”
The JLC was founded in 1934 by a group that included David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, and the United Hebrew Trades—the union that had tried to organize workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory before the deadly fire of 1911. It was one of the earliest U.S. organizations to oppose the Nazis, says associate director Arieh Lebowitz. During World War II, it worked to get Jews, union activists, and cultural figures out of Nazi-occupied Europe and into the United States. In 1963, it helped organize the civil-rights March on Washington, working with the late Bayard Rustin.
Today, with the Jewish presence in labor unions much smaller, the JLC works mainly as a support group. “We’re the link between the organized Jewish world and the organized labor world,” says Lebowitz. “If there’s a picket line and they want Jews, they come to us.”
Recently, they’ve picketed Trader Joe’s stores to urge the chain to buy tomatoes from farms that pay workers better, and gotten 300 rabbis to sign a letter demanding that Hyatt hotels in Boston rehire housekeepers they had replaced with temp workers making minimum wage. The JLC is also active in the annual commemorations of the Triangle Fire.
Despite the specter of Trumpism, speakers counseled against sinking into despair. “I for one am choosing to rise up,” said AFL-CIO vice-president Tefere Gebre, recalling how he’d seen classmates in his native Ethiopia hanged for handing out flyers when he was a teenager, and the fear he’d felt when California voters approved draconian anti-immigrant laws in 1994. But the successful campaign to overturn those laws, he said, “created the present-day California.”
The OPEIU’s Lanigan credited Jewish philosophy with the concept of fair pay, citing the Torah’s admonition that “You shall give him his wage on his day and not let the sun set over it, for he is poor, and he risks his life for it” and the 12th-century philosopher Maimonides’ commentary that scribes should be paid “90 maneh a year,” and if that is not enough, whatever they need to support their household.
“The labor movement has survived McCarthy, Nixon, Bush, a couple of world wars,” he told the crowd. “We know how to fight, we know how to negotiate, we know how to hold our ground, and more important, we know when to do which.”
“We are not going anywhere,” he concluded.