Union, Jewish Groups Unite To Help Low-wage Workers

By E.J. Kessler

Published October 28, 2005, issue of October 28, 2005.
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An ad hoc coalition of liberal Jewish organizations is teaming up with a national labor union in order to promote social justice for low-wage workers in eight cities, after the success of a similar partnership in Los Angeles.

The coalition — comprising groups in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and St. Paul, Minn. — is meeting for a conference November 16 in Los Angeles with the combined needle trades-hotel worker union Unite Here.

The conference, which is being underwritten by the union and by the Jewish Fund for Justice, aims to forge bonds between the Jewish social justice organizations and the union locals to bring community leverage to bear as the locals face contractual negotiations.

“We hope that we’ll be able to create relationships between the Jewish social justice organizations and the union chapters, so that the Jewish community can play a role in achieving fair, equitable and decent contracts for these low-wage, mostly immigrant, workers,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which operates in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“The reason the Jewish Fund for Justice is holding the conference in Los Angeles is because of the successful relationship between the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Local 11 of Unite Here, which played an important role in helping to resolve a contract conflict earlier this year,” Sokatch continued. “So we’re working with that model in cities with the same issue, in order to form a coordinated, aggressive, progressive Jewish-labor alliance on behalf of working people.”

Sokatch was referring to a 14-month labor dispute resolved earlier this year involving unionized workers at nine Los Angeles hotels. The workers, with salaries starting at about $11 an hour, struck briefly over alleged unfair labor practices. In a development that the Los Angeles Jewish Journal covered extensively, Jewish groups including the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Workmen’s Circle promoted a boycott of seven of the hotels, which are used frequently for Jewish community functions. The Jewish groups also rallied in support of the workers.

According to Simon Greer, executive director of the Jewish Fund for Justice, the upcoming conference fits in well with the organization’s goal of serving as a bridge between Jewish social justice groups and “movement-building allies and partners” nationally.

“There’s an opportunity to take the local work to a national scale,” Greer said. “There’s an opportunity to create structural change, to bring Jewish values to bear on the economy.”

Greer praised Unite Here’s general president, Bruce Raynor, and its hospitality president, John Wilhelm. “It’s a tribute to Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm that the union wants to build coalitions in the faith-based community,” Greer said. “It’s a sign of things to come.”

Raynor, who is Jewish, leads the needle-trades half of Unite Here. That half has long ties to the Jewish community, having its historical roots in two Jewish-led garment workers unions. Those unions, in turn, provided the cadre that for decades spearheaded the Jewish Daily Forward.

In addition to the Progressive Jewish Alliance, groups participating in the upcoming conference include Jewish Community Action in St. Paul, Jews United for Justice in Washington, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice in New York, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Workmen’s Circle in Boston, and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago. Unite Here is expected to send top organizers from those cities as well as some of its national leadership.

The conference represents a further flowering of a significant upsurge in grass-roots activity on the Jewish left. The Progressive Jewish Alliance, formed in 1999 by dissident members of the American Jewish Congress who left after what they said was a rightward turn by that group, has grown into an organization that has several thousand members and recently opened an office in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Jewish Fund for Justice has amassed a base of several thousand donors.

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