An Interview with Avi Lyon

Avram Lyon has been the director of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) for eight years. The JLC serves as “the voice of labor inside the Jewish community and the voice of the Jewish community inside organized labor.” It is an active member of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and has close ties with the United Jewish Communities and other groups. Among the issues JLC concerns itself with are advocacy for Israel and Jews in other lands, passage of hate crime legislation, building positive minority relations through the trade union movement, defending social services and health care for the elderly and vulnerable, and mediating workplace and community conflicts that involve Jewish interest
Henry Foner, of our Editorial Board, and Martin Schwartz, Director of the Workmen’s Circle Center for Social and Economic Justice, interviewed Avi Lyon in January.
Photo of Baruch VladeckJewish Currents: The Jewish Labor Committee is in its seventieth year, which means it was founded in 1934.
Avi Lyon: Just as Nazism was taking power in Germany. Jews in the American labor movement were terribly concerned about developments in Europe. We had a range of contacts with European labor and socialist groups who understood the threat of fascism. We formed the Jewish Labor Committee to support organizations and people in the struggle in Europe. We were involved in anti-Nazi boycotts and, together with the American Jewish Congress, formed the Joint Boycott Council. In 1936, we organized a “counter-Olympics” [in response to the Munich Olympic Games — Ed.]. The “World Labor Athletic Carnival,” as it was called, was held on New York’s Randall’s Island.
JLC Anti-Nazi PosterAs the war developed, the JLC took a very active role in helping to rescue Jews and labor leaders from Nazi-dominated areas. (We tend to forget that the first people the Nazis went after were Communists and labor union people, not Jews.) We raised well over $50,000 from the labor movement — a huge sum at the time — which was smuggled to the partisan groups and rescue efforts. We were the only national organization in the Jewish community to be involved in the rescue of both Jews and non-Jews. The JLC helped Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Nazi partisans in a number of countries, during and after the war. We ultimately played an important role in the rescue of about 1,600 people, plus or minus — minus because a number of folks were recaptured by the Nazis.
After the war, we were involved in the DP camps — arranging, for example, for people to learn a trade to qualify them to emigrate to other countries. We also arranged for the adoption of children in the DP camps by union locals, who would pay for their education until they were 18.
JC: Which labor unions and organizations were associated with the JLC at that time?
AL: We had major support from the the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, the Jewish Labor Bund, and the United Hebrew Trades.
The ILGWU and the Amalgamated were still predominantly Jewish at the time, though the demographics of the garment industry were changing fast. Still, there were probably half million Jewish members in the labor movement in the 1930s and ’40s.
Today, of course, there aren’t that many Jewish plumbers, electricians or factory workers around, but we still have a very large number of Jews involved in labor — in municipal unions, for example, and in the teachers’ unions. And we still have leaders of major union who are Jewish: Morton Bahr of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and his successor, Larry Cohen; Andrew Stern of the Service Employees (SEIU); Randi Weingarten of the United Federation of Teachers; Stuart Applebaum of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDS); Bruce Raynor of UNITE HERE — quite a few.
JC: We’re in a turbulent period for unions. What do you identify as the major problems facing labor — and their possible solutions?
AL: Union membership is down. The number of people living in union households is down. John Sweeney was elected to head the AFL-CIO on the promise that he would reverse this trend, but it has been extremely difficult to do so. The AFL-CIO is more of a confederation than a federation and cannot impose its will on its member unions. It’s very much like herding cats. For example, the AFL-CIO has suggested that its member unions should spend a certain percentage of their budgets on organizing, but it can’t enforce that. Unions decide their own priorities. If it’s a question of taking care of their own retirees or spending more on organizing, unions will make their decisions based on their own particular needs.
JC: Do you see unions concerned with educating the general public about living wages, workers’ rights, and similar issues?
AL: Yes, and linked to that is the question of reaching beyond members to their families. In this last Presidential election, for example, union members came out to vote in larger numbers than ever before — but many members of union households did not. It’s a big problem if union families are not seeing the value of union membership and of voting in their own economic interest.
We can barely uphold workers’ rights, much less advance them, under the current administration. The National Labor Relations Board, for example, has five members, with the majority appointed by President Bush. They represent a philosophy that is not pro-worker. In my opinion, their decision on university teaching assistants, for example — not allowing them to organize — is a terrible decision. Their ruling against a worker’s right to bring another worker into a dispute with management was also awful: What if the worker doesn’t speak English well and needs to bring someone to translate or help with the language?
From 1935, the year of the National Labor Relations Act, until today, there have been incredible changes in corporate law that advance corporations’ ability to move money overseas and give them tax breaks, technology breaks, all kinds of advantages. We desperately need pro-labor legislation, some advances in laws protecting worker rights, in order to compete with management on a level playing field.
To give an example, the JLC was recently involved in assisting some workers in a Jewish home. A local rabbi supporting the union drive asked us to help. The pro-union workers came to us and said: “We’re trying to organize and we’re having all these problems with management. Can you help?” Basically, management was willing to violate labor law because the penalties involved for such violations are minimal.
In this case, there were very egregious violations of NLRB law. Before the union election, management forced employees to attend meetings, at which they raised the room temperature and wouldn’t allow bathroom breaks, so that the people would associate physical discomfort with unions. (There are many other psychological tricks that management uses to make employees feel that unions are terrible.) They demanded one-on-one meetings with employees and made veiled and not-so-veiled threats about reducing staff, about people losing immigrant status, their green cards, their citizenship, and so on. If you’re an undocumented worker, forget it. You fear being picked up by the INS anyway.
Some of the threats were clearly a gross violation of the law. When the union lost the election, it appealed to the NLRB, which looked at the situation and — for the first time in about sixteen years! — posted an order requiring the home to bargain with the union because they had violated the law so egregiously. But there were no meaningful penalties besides standing up and saying “Mea culpa. We shouldn’t have done that and we’re sorry.” The Jewish home appealed the decision by the local NLRB to Washington, which overturned the order to bargain and instead ordered a new election. By that time, the workers were so intimidated by management that the results were a foregone conclusion.
JC: What strategies can unions adopt to deal with such a disadvantageous climate?
AL: There is enormous strategic disagreement within the AFL-CIO about what to do. There are about six different plans on the table for the upcoming elections: plans put forward by Sweeney, the CWA, SEIU, the AFT, the Teamsters, and others.
The most dramatic proposal put forward is from the SEIU, to reduce the number of unions in the AFL’s Executive Council from more than fifty to less than twenty and concentrate more on organizing. There is also a proposal to rebate a portion of AFL-CIO dues back to the unions so they would have more to spend on organizing.
Reducing the number of unions requires forcing mergers in order to increase union density and financial power. But I don’t know many unions that are going to commit suicide. There’s also no guarantee that consolidation would bring any changes. More important than merger is the need for changes in basic labor law, something that is unlikely to happen, as I said, under the current administration. It seems to me that greater effort has to be placed on legislative changes that can be accomplished state by state.
Certainly, some realignment is needed. For example, there are are number of unions that now have nursing locals — the AFT, the SEIU, the Teamsters, AFSCME, and the CWA. Everybody is organizing nurses! But we’re up against health care organizations that have gone through major mergers and acquisitions. Health Midwest now own a number of hospitals, and because there are different unions representing nurses at these different hospitals, Health Midwest can divide and dissipate the power of the unions and make it more difficult for nurses to succeed in an organizing drive or a strike. It’s much more effective if you can strike all those hospitals at once!
There’s also an example of a union successfully organizing the sanitation workers in a city, and the hotel workers come and say: “Hey, we like what you’re doing. We’d like you to represent us.” Should the union turn them down and say, “No, you have to go talk to that other union”? Is a union violating labor ethics by organizing outside its usual industry boundaries if they’re asked to do so by the workers themselves?
JC: What does the JLC hope to see emerge from the AFL-CIO convention next summer?
AL: Unity. My fear is seeing a fractured labor movement, which would further diminish its power. There are people who are so far out on this issue that I don’t know how they can climb back from the end of the limb. The Carpenters have already left. If you have more leave, instead of having a labor movement of thirteen million, you could have two or three different labor federations. All that does is weaken labor. Yet there does have to be change, and the strategic debate is actually very healthy. Recent decisions by several unions not to walk out, but to stay and fight for change from within the AFL-CIO, are a great relief for all of us.
JC: It mirrors the situation within the Democratic Party and the liberal world in general.
AL: To some extent it does.
I have heard labor union members say, “We backed the Democratic Party, but the Democratic Party isn’t pulling its own weight, so maybe we should think about doing our own thing, backing our own candidates” — for example, through the Working Families Party — which, I think, at this point, would be a mistake.
The best example of the dilemma facing the labor movement is Wal-Mart. How do you organize Wal-Mart? One proposal suggests putting $25 million — a lot of money! — into a fight against Wal-Mart. But in a fight against Wal-Mart, $25 million is nothing.
The key question, in my view, is who is organizing Wal-Mart. The vulnerable part of Wal-Mart is its “just in time” delivery system. Wal-Mart keeps the inventory in its stores very, very low, while they maintain giant distribution centers that feed merchandise into the stores. If you can challenge their delivery system, you’ve hit them in the pocketbook. Who are the best unions to do that? I personally believe there are two or three who could cooperate and succeed in organizing Wal-Mart.
JC: What role is there for the JLC in both the labor movement and Jewish community today?
AL: What troubles me most today are Jewish leaders who are constantly saying to the media that the Jewish community is politically changing when, in fact, it has hardly changed at all. Yes, we’re dealing with a younger generation that is far removed from the European experience and knows very little even about the role Jews played in the founding of the labor movement, or even about the founding of the State of Israel. But when you look at young Jews who have gone through a Jewish educational process, say, in the Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist movements, they tend to be loyal to and conscious of Jewish values of social justice. They want to do tikkun olam. They want to get involved with organized labor. They come out of college and say, “How do I actualize the Jewish values that I believe in?”
I remember meeting with a young Jewish woman who was the head of a student sweatshop coalition at the University of Pennsylvania. They had a sit-in in the president’s office to demand that Penn sell only sweatshop-free clothes. On Friday night, she stops to light candles in the president’s office and they all make shabbos. This is a kid from a Reform background who saw her activism as a way to live her Jewish values.
We’ve seen a similar process in many other places — grassroots concerns drive home a recognition that the Jewish community needs the unique contacts and approach of the Jewish Labor Committee. We have staffed offices in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. In most other cities where we used to have a chapter, we now have volunteers, stalwarts of the movement, who are very much by themselves and doing their own thing. But it’s enough to make a real difference.
We’ve also started a program of labor seders using our labor Haggadah — which is traditional in format, but incorporates quotes from labor leaders, civil rights leaders, and social justice thinkers. The purpose of the seders is to bring Jewish community leaders and labor leaders together. They have to pass food to one another, read and take part, and each sees that the other doesn’t have horns.
We have so much in common: our concerns about social security, daycare, immigration rights, and so on. There is so much we can work together on! We’ve also done seders at Cornell University, at Harvard Hillel, at George Washington University and elsewhere. These seders help Jewish students see the breadth and depth of the Jewish role in labor struggle.
JC: You mentioned the anti-sweatshop campaign on campuses, which brings together labor and immigration issues and the recent Jewish past.
AL: I wrote an op-ed piece called “My Grandfather, the Horse Thief” for Labor Day a few years ago. It talked about my grandfather, who stole a horse in Russia in order to come to the United States and what he was able to do as an immigrant to build a life here. He and my grandmother had eight children; all of their grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, teachers, lobbyists, and one is even involved in labor. What does today’s immigrant want? The same thing my grandparents wanted: a shot at the American dream and a good life. This is a country built by immigrants — the people who will do things that others will not. They clean the toilets. They take care of the sick, the elderly, our pre-school children.
Someone once said to me that if the Jewish Labor Committee didn’t exist today, we’d have to invent it. The ties we build are so important. One of the lessons that we’ve learned from the Holocaust, and from thriving in this country, is that we must have allies. We must pay attention to community relations. Yet what we see in the Jewish Federation world today is a growing disdain for the need for allies. Jewish community relations committees are being disbanded, and Jewish organizations are careful to take stands that will not be offensive to their big donors. We want other minority groups to be on our side but we are less willing to stand with them, particularly if doing so alienates a big donor.
We’re seeing today the devolution of the Jewish community to pre-1940 concepts of influence, power and community. We’re in danger of forgetting one of the most important lessons of the Holocaust: If you want a friend, be a friend.
It’s not enough to give money to powerbrokers in Washington. You always have to have a broader base of support built on a community of interests, and the only way to have that is by really working at it and getting involved with other ethnic and coalition groups in a major way. The labor movement is an important part of the Jewish past and the Jewish present, and is an important ally to the Jewish community. We have stood by them, and they have stood by us, and we need to continue to do that. There will be a tremendous price to pay if we isolate ourselves.