The U.S. Trade Union Movement and the Organized Jewish Community

Reference: Jewish Labor Committee


Professional staff and lay leaders of Jewish organizations  have expressed both a need and desire to be in contact with their counterparts within the organized labor movement. There are many issues of common concern to both the trade union movement and the Jewish community, including health care; child care; housing for the poor and elderly; and the welfare of Israel.

The internal workings and language of the trade union movement may appear unusual to outsiders. Unions are neither mutual aid associations, not collective bargaining agents, nor social service provider agencies, not political organization- to a degree, they are a mixture of all of these. Unions are distinctive parts of the social, economic, and political landscape of our communities. In fact, the political and organizational cultures of the labor movement are quite active, varies, and strong.

In terms of Israel advocacy, the relationship between the Jewish community and organized labor remains one of great strategic importance. Organized labor is mobilized throughout the country, especially in many rural areas where there is no vibrant Jewish presence. Through strong relationships with the organized labor movement, we can reach groups in areas where our messages may not otherwise resonate.

Union Organization:

What Is a Trade Union?

A trade union, sometimes known as a labor union- or even simply a union- is a voluntary association of workers who have joined together to address common issues that they confront in their workplaces. Unions in the United States and many other countries have legal status. The legal status of unions in the U.S. is defined in various federal and state statutes as well as in common law. Their primary purpose is to represent workers in collective bargaining of contracts, basic working conditions, benefits, and the like. Unions also often use their organizational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation of importance to their members and workers in general.

What is the AFL-CIO?

The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a voluntary federation of U.S. unions representing more than 9 million working women and men across the country. Many AFL-CIO-affiliated unions have members in Canada as well as in the United States. Thus, they may have membership in both the AFL-CIO and the Canadian Labor Congress (CLC). Structurally and politically, the relationship between the AFL-CIO and its member unions is similar to the relationship between the United Jewish Communities (UJC) and its affiliated local Jewish Federations.

History of the AFL-CIO:

Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor as a federation of skilled craft and trade unions to improve wages and working conditions, shorten working hours, abolish child labor, and provide for collective bargaining. Initially called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (1881),  it was reorganized as the “AF of L” in 1886, with Gompers serving as president from 1886 to 1924 (except 1895). In 1935, United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, dissatisfied with the organizational structure of craft unions, led 10 dissenting unions to form the  Committee for Industrial Organizations (CIO) to operate within the AFL. A central issue in the controversy was the difference between craft unions, organized by trade or by specialty (e.g., cigar-makers or plumbers) an industrial unions, which include all workers within a given industry regardless of their individual craft (e.g., mine workers or automobile workers). Their differing approaches to organizing workers ked to the expulsion of the CIO from AF of L in 1936 (which then became the independent Congress of Industrial Organizations). The AFL and CIO operated separately until 1955, when they merged to form the AFL-CIO.

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We gratefully acknowledge the help and assistance of the following people who made invaluable suggestions, additions and corrections.

Herman Brown, Phoenix, AZ; Elihu Davison, MetroWest, NJ; David Dolev, Boston, MA; Joyce Goldstein, Cleveland, OH; Selma Goode, Detroit, MI; Michael Grace, Washington, DC; Carolyn Jacobson, Washington, DC; Cookie Lommel, Los Angeles, CA; J. Michael Nye, North Hollywood, CA; Michael Perry, Chicago, IL; Ed Rehfeld, Washington, DC; Richard Rumelt, New York, NY; Donald Siegel, Boston, MA; Paula Simon, Milwaukee, WI; Gerry Sommer, Washington, DC; Rosalind Spigel, Philadelphia, PA.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the Van Cortlandt Workmen’s Circle Community House.