As is the custom, millions of families will soon flock to beaches and backyard barbeques to celebrate Labor Day. Unfortunately, the reason for the holiday, recognizing the value of the labor movement, is too often forgotten. Of course, every family has reason to salute the contributions unions have made to our country. After all, it was organized labor that introduced the idea of the weekend and the eight-hour workday. However, this year there’s one group of Americans who have special reason to be thankful for organized labor — those of us in the Jewish community.
At a time when many in business, the media, and other institutions are too timid to challenge the rising tide of anti-Semitism abroad, America’s labor leaders did something extraordinary this summer. In a stunning show of solidarity with Israel, the presidents of virtually every major U.S. union signed on a declaration denouncing anti-Israel boycotts and divestment campaigns like the ones that have been endorsed by several British unions.
The fact that unions representing everyone from teachers to truck drivers bashed the Israel-bashers is no small thing. Just ask Kenneth Stern, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s department on Anti-Semitism and Extremism, who described it as "an important milestone in the fight against attempts to demonize Israel and Israelis."
"Our hope," said Stern, "is that other unions around the world will follow the example of their American counterparts and realize that it is morally wrong to focus solely on Israeli actions in this conflict and to realize that such bigoted behavior is entirely inconsistent with the norms and purposes of the trade union movement."
Is the U.S. labor movement’s opposition to the Israel boycott having an impact? So far the answer is an unequivocal "yes." Many foreign unions that once may have been tempted to follow the lead of their British counterparts are having second thoughts. Perhaps most important of all, Israel’s supporters within the international labor movement now know that they are not alone.
Clearly, the mobilization of the U.S. labor movement against the Israel boycott didn’t happen on its own. It was organized by the Jewish Labor Committee, the national organization of Jewish union leaders and their supporters. But while it was the JLC that launched the effort, it was hardly "a Jewish thing." The vast majority of labor leaders who backed the JLC’s campaign were non-Jews. In fact, one of the first to endorse the effort was Bill Lucy, the influential president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Some may ask why so many American union leaders decided to stand up against anti-Israel boycotts. After all, Jews today comprise only a minuscule portion of U.S. union members. The real question ought to be "why wouldn’t they?" After all, whether it was opposing the Nazis, supporting Soviet Jewry, or challenging bigotry against Jews in our own country, the labor movement has never wavered in its opposition to anti-Semitism or its support for Israel.
On this Labor Day, we ought to reflect on the contributions unions have made to our country. But that’s not all. We should also recognize that the American labor movement is one of the best friends Jews have ever had.
Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union and president of the Jewish Labor Committee.