Worries Abound on Labor Front: Will Longtime Group Survive?

For more than 70 years, the Jewish Labor Committee has had a presence in Philadelphia. But there's a real chance that the local office could close up shop before Labor Day of next year, according to the organization's leaders.

While a number of long-term factors have contributed to the JLC's struggles — chief among them the steady decline of the number of Jews in labor unions — the immediate cause is all about dollars and cents.

For decades, the Philadelphia office has been subsidized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, but Federation's most recent round of allocations contained no money for the JLC. According to Federation officials, that decision reflected both the need for cutbacks in a challenging fundraising environment and a belief that JLC's activities were no longer a priority.

Ted Kirsch, a past president of JLC in Philadelphia who currently heads the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania, said that Jews and the labor movement were once thought to be practically synonymous. Through the 1930s, he noted, it wasn't uncommon for minutes of major union meetings to be taken in Yiddish.

But the JLC's fiscal crisis has raised the question of whether there's still a need for a such an organization.

Do its activities ensure that the labor movement — a somewhat weakened, but still a powerful political bloc — understands and advances the concerns of the Jewish community, particularly given the contrasting situation in Europe, where labor unions have been at the forefront of attempts to boycott Israel?

Or is the JLC — which is based in New York and also has offices in Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago — now just an anachronism from an earlier era?

Martin Schwartz, the organization's national director, asserted that if the Philadelphia office closes, "a strong Jewish voice on social-justice issues would be significantly weakened. And we run the potential of losing a significant partner on issues of specifically Jewish concerns."

Rosalind Spiegel, who has run JLC's Philadelphia chapter since 1985, said that it's no accident that American labor leaders have rejected the Israel boycotts championed by the European counterparts. She said that it's the result of strong relationships and ongoing discussions.

In recent years, Spiegel has organized seders for labor leaders, and convened a meeting between activists and Daniel Kutner, consul general at the Israeli consulate in Philadelphia.

Spiegel said that her office has typically counted on the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to provide roughly half of its modest budget. Yet it was one of the few agencies that still relied on Federation for the bulk of its funding; most other local Jewish entities have stepped up their own fundraising efforts in recent years as dollars from the central body have declined.

Last year, JLC got $33,000 from Federation for its advocacy efforts, which include educating labor leaders about Israel, and trying, with limited success, to get Jewish groups to lobby on behalf of labor priorities, such as the Employee Free Choice Act.

This year, it asked for $50,000 from Federation's Center for Social Responsibility and was turned down. Arguing that the cuts might result in its closure, the JLC then made a request for emergency funds from Federation. That was denied as well.

"It hasn't quite sunk in," Spiegel said, adding that the cuts came without warning. "Certainly, a much more significant percentage of Philadelphians are labor-union members than they are Jews. To bring the weight of that community to bear on Israel and other causes that the Jewish community finds important, we think, is an important community-relations function."

According to Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility, which funds senior programs and other social services, there is widespread appreciation of Spiegel's work advocating on behalf of Israel and domestic concerns.

But with donations to Federation down and people struggling financially, Gralnick said that his center's board felt they had to give as much as it could to programs and organizations that provide direct services to Jews in need. (The $4.3 million at its discretion represented a 26 percent decline from last year.)

"Our Jewish community has a real need during these economic times," he stressed.

Several members of the Philadelphia JLC's board said that the body had met several times to discuss fundraising, but no one put forward a specific plan to save the office. Schwartz said the national board is committed to keeping the Philadelphia chapter open until the end of 2010, but couldn't make any guarantees beyond then.

The organization's other regional offices, which also rely on their local federations for funding, have also faced cutbacks in recent years, according to Spiegel.

But, she added, none have faced as dire a situation as the Philadelphia office.

"That was a huge cut to go from the allocation that we had down to zero," said Spiegel, who is the JLC's only local employee; she works rent-free in a building shared with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania.

Back when the national group was founded in 1934 by representatives of numerous trade organizations — it started in Philadelphia a few years later — throngs of Jewish men and women worked in the needle trades and other blue-collar professions.

The group organized boycotts of German goods, assisted anti-Nazi unions in Europe and helped resettle European refugees.

Later, the agency turned its attention to civil rights and the Soviet Jewry movement.

Once a Mainstay

In more recent decades, as the ranks of Jews in the labor movement thinned and its role shifted to much more of an intermediary between the Jewish establishment — the JLC is part of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations — and labor powerhouses such as the AFL-CIO.

Kirsch, of the teachers' union, acknowledged that "most people have no idea of the role of the JLC."

He noted that the organization is most voluble during a public-relations crisis faced by Israel. For example, both the national and local offices spoke out forcefully in defense of the Jewish state after the international flap over a flotilla raid in late May, when Israel boarded a ship aimed at breaking the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The ensuing confrontation resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens and the injuring of seven Israeli soldiers.

The real problem with the world — and the news cycle and need for P.R. — concluded Kirsch, is that you never know when a crisis will occur.



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