July 4, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – When the Jewish Labor Committee [JLC] recently invited Reverend Al Sharpton to help honor Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with Teamsters Vice-President George Miranda at its annual Human Rights Awards Dinner, the 80-year-old organization was continuing a decades-old mission that – while evolved over the years – remains as vital today as it has ever been.
“We have to form alliances,” JLC President Stuart Appelbaum told a gathering at the Sheraton Hotel on June 19. “The labor movement needs to work with the Jewish community and other communities of faith. With community groups and immigrant groups; with the Civil Rights Movement; with women’s groups and the LGBT community, and with all groups who share a belief that every human being should be treated with dignity and justice and respect. None of these communities is large enough to do it on our own. We need each other if we are going to achieve a more just society.”
Eighty years ago, a group of Jewish trade unionist from the Lower East Side of Manhattan got together under the leadership of B.C. Vladeck to actively push back against the poison tide of Nazism and fascism.
The group continued its fight for social justice issues and worker rights throughout the Civil Rights Movement, and on through to today – although generational changes have made continuity of purpose a challenge.
Reverend Sharpton’s participation in this year’s Human Rights Awards dinner, which Appelbaum helped broker, was an effort to refortify the traditional alliance between two communities of working people who continue to share common interests, despite sometimes becoming estranged from one another.
“The problems confronting many African-American workers, their spouses and their kids, aren’t totally different from Jewish folks in the community,” says JLC Associate Director Arieh Lebowitz. “The fact that they often live in different communities makes it even more important for us to try to work together to combat these things.”
Along with the JLC’s eight-decade milestone, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of “Freedom Summer” – the historic 1964 campaign to register subjugated black voters in deeply segregated Mississippi. “Freedom Summer” workers – both African-Americans and Jews – bled and died in that bold fight for social justice.
Over the years, however, that brave tradition of solidarity has been subverted, resulting in periodic clashes between the African-American and Jewish communities. And at times, Reverend Sharpton has been seen as a divisive figure, rather than a unifying force.
“I think people were a little surprised about him being in front of a Jewish audience,” Lebowitz says. “But over the last five to 10 years, Reverend Sharpton has been working to develop better relationships, or have a new presentation, before the larger Jewish community. The labor movement is a lot smaller than it was years ago. So, it might be that organizations like ours and Reverend Shaprton’s can play a useful role in bridging some of these gaps.”
One of the more enjoyable ways the JLC is working to unite working people, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, is through its Labor Passover Seders held in cities across the country. The last Labor Passover Seder held in New York City this past spring, took place at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters.
“We compare the Exodus story of Jews living in Egypt to workers trying to better their lives,” Lebowtiz says.
While the level of upward mobility experienced in the Jewish community has led to waning union participation, the JLC associate director maintains that there are those who remain close to their religious traditions, and take the social justice message of their faith very seriously.
That’s good news for the JLC, since its eight-decades-old mission to overcome injustice and advance worker rights continues unabated.
“The needs are very different now [than they were 80 years ago],” Lebowitz says. “But the needs are still there.”