Labor’s Love is Lost

By J.J. Goldberg

Labor’s Love is Lost

Sometime this spring, a report will be issued inLos Angeles by a select panel of rabbis and Jewish community leaders,recommending ways to stabilize Southern California’s booming garmentindustry.

Readers outside Los Angeles will be forgiven forwondering what on earth the Jewish community is doing, planning thefuture of any industry, even the shmatte trade. Angelenos whofollowed the story locally may suspect the answer. Don’t give itaway.

The panel arose a year ago as the Los AngelesJewish Commission on Sweatshops. A joint project of the AmericanJewish Congress, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a fewother groups, its purpose was to press manufacturers to improveworking conditions.

But garment manufacturers also know a thing or twoabout pressing.

Los Angeles is the nation’s second-largestgarment-manufacturing center. Working conditions for the area’s150,000 mostly Latino workers are generally considered appalling.More than half the manufacturers are Jewish. The garment workers’union, once a Jewish stronghold and still led by Jews, targeted LosAngeles for an organizing campaign in 1995. It was looking for Jewishallies to help pressure Jewish owners. Last April, it found theJewish sweatshop commission.

The commission’s task initially seemed simple: toremind Jewish owners of Judaism’s traditional social values.

But as the panel began meeting last fall, issuesgot complicated. Critics complained that exposing wrongdoing byJewish owners could fuel anti-Semitism. Owners warned that raisingwages would drive plants overseas. In December, the U.S. Departmentof Labor issued a devastating report on the Union of Needletrade,Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), charging that the successorto the old Jewish garment unions was now running sweetheart dealsthat left its members worse off than non-union workers.

Weeks into the Jewish commission’s publichearings, the sponsoring organizations started getting complaints ofimbalance from their own donors. The commission began meeting inprivate. It reconsidered its goals. Early expectations had been foran endorsement of the union. Now some members were holding up amanufacturers’ monitoring group, the Compliance Alliance, as amodel.

Commission members say that they still hope toissue a moral call to the industry, and perhaps offer a few practicalideas. But few have a taste for confrontation.

“There are moral and ethical things we want tosay, but we want to have our facts straight first,” says commissionco-chair Carol Levy, regional executive director of the AJCongress.”We’re just interested in seeing what we can do to have this industrycontinue and not drive people offshore. We don’t want to get involvedin the union thing.”

Union leaders are disappointed, to put it mildly.”Of course, unions aren’t perfect — no big institution is,” saysUNITE spokeswoman Jo-Ann Mort. “But trade unionism as a principleshould not have to be debated within the Jewish community, and yetit’s in question now. It’s a sad commentary on the Jewishcommunity.”

Sad, perhaps, but a fact. Union membership hasdropped from one-third of the U.S. work force in the 1950s to lessthan 15 percent today. Few Americans seem to mourn the loss. Mosthave come to accept the conventional wisdom that unions hold backeconomic growth (even though highly unionized countries, such asGermany and Belgium, enjoy higher per capita growth rates thanAmerica with less inequality, according to the Washington-basedEconomic Policy Institute).

Jews, in particular, have outgrown unions with avengeance as they roar up the socioeconomic ladder. Gone is theromance of the Yiddish worker-poets. The Yiddish Forward, thesocialist daily with a circulation of a quarter million at its heightin the 1920s, is now a struggling weekly. Its English-languageedition is a leading voice of neoconservatism.

“Every Jewish family used to have a connection tothe labor movement,” says UNITE’s Mort. “One brother would be in theunion, and another brother would be a factory owner. Now there’s nomore brother on the shop floor.”

Actually, there’s a bit of an optical illusionhere. When Jews left the garment shops, many entered other unions.They remain a powerful force in the teachers’ union. They’re a realpresence in the retail, postal and communication workers and publicemployees unions — not to mention the Screen Actors Guild and ActorsEquity. All, not coincidentally, are headed by Jews. Six of 54members of the AFL-CIO executive committee are Jewish. So is a majorproportion of the labor movement’s top professional staff. Theirpresence helps guarantee labor’s support for Israel and other Jewishcauses.

But if Jews remain a force in the labor movement,labor is no longer a major force in the Jewish community. “Most ofthe Jews in the labor movement don’t think about the connectionbetween Judaism and labor,” says Carolyn Jacobson, an official withthe bakery workers’ union.

As a result, they don’t act as a group in theJewish community. Their chief voice, the Jewish Labor Committee, oncea major Jewish agency, is now a tiny bureau struggling to keep linesopen between labor and the Jewish community. Few listen, at least onthe Jewish side. “Federations, these days, don’t really want to knowabout unions,” says committee director Avram Lyon.

The Los Angeles Jewish Commission on Sweatshops isnot organized Jewry’s first foray into garment industry labor strife.A century ago, the industry was torn by explosive clashes. Back then,nearly everyone on both sides was Jewish, and Jewish communityleaders stepped in to cool the fires.

Those conciliation efforts helped to shape thebodies that still dominate Jewish life, from local federations tonational defense agencies. The Jewish community became an allianceamong factions, a powerful combination of compassion and clout thatlasted decades.

The clout is still there. The compassion? We liketo think so. At least we take care of our own.

But it’s not that easy to draw the line.

Ask the United Jewish Appeal. Every year, itdesigns a new campaign theme, which it presents to federation leadersat regional “ignition” gatherings each fall. This year’s UJAliterature features six caregivers funded by UJA-federation dollars– an emigration worker in Kiev, a Hebrew teacher in the Midwest, asocial worker near Tel Aviv and so on.

Why caregivers and not their needy clients?Because, a UJA marketing expert told one “ignition” last fall, “it’shard for our donors to identify with clients these days.”

Pray for reconciliation in Los Angeles. Neitherside can make it without the other.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for TheJewish Journal.