A Partnership for Economic Justice and Human Rights


A review of Look for the Union Label: The American Federation of Labor and the Jewish Labor Committee’s Partnership for Economic Justice and International Human Rights, 1933–1955, by Rachel Feinmark.
The title of Feinmark’s dissertation is intriguing, but might disguise the work’s true impact. The “Union Label” in question is the distinctive marking that labor groups have used to since the 1870s to denote goods as union­-made, a way to communicate to other workers and conscious consumers. Union labels figure into the first chapter of the dissertation, which is a well-written account of the Jewish Labor Committee (JCL)’s first campaign: a boycott of German-made goods during the rise of Nazism.  But it is the JCL and its partnership with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) that really centers the document. The other chapters, which are equally readable, focus on the two organization’s later partnerships.  Each chapter stands on its own, debasing different historiographic assumptions about the politics of the period, and focusing on different JCL leaders.

The first chapter describes the creation of the JLC in 1934, at the “People’s Conference against Nazism and Fascism.”  There, representatives from a variety of Jewish labor organizations endeavored to create a “class based campaign to protest Hitler’s rise to power,” and formed the JLC to spearhead the campaign (31). The organization grew from domestic contingencies as well as international conflict: the JLC’s leaders felt that the traditional Jewish organizations often excluded labor, and most Jewish labor groups were at that time unaffiliated with well-established labor organizations like the AFL. (33).  By organizing the boycott, the JLC cemented itself in the AFL.

In the anti-Nazi boycott, the JLC and AFL drew from a long tradition of labor boycotting, and seem to understand their members as what Lizbeth Cohen would call “citizen consumers.”  Feinmark draws heavily on Cohen’s framework, arguing that the anti-Nazi boycotters were citizen consumers with a global gaze, selectively using their purchasing power to advance international political goals, rather than the “work conditions or domestic issues” of boycotts past (33-35). The anti-Nazi boycott was fairly successful, shortly after the campaign began several department stores , including Marshall Field’s, Wanamaker, and Montgomery Ward, had all agreed to stop selling German products (58).  But moreover, the JCL was successful in convincing the AFL to see Nazism as a “class issue”  (23).  By emphasizing that the boycott could boost American markets and improve employment rates, the JCL painted  “anti-fascism through the lens of democracy and labor rights,” injecting domestic concerns into a seemingly international affair (61).

The JLC collaborated with the AFL during WWII as well, when the two groups organized a campaign on behalf of refugees that is the topic of the second chapter.  Here, Feinmark responds to literature that argues that American Jews, preoccupied with domestic issues and deeply ambivalent towards lower class European Jews, were unattentive to the plight of Holocaust refugees.  Instead, she argues, the Committee focused on individual refugee cases–rather than large-scale resettlement–because of its commitment to a particular political project: the European socialism and the Bundist movement in Poland.  Wholesale Jewish migration would, Feinmark argues, “effectively [end] the presence of Jewish socialism in Eastern Europe” (94).  Instead, the leaders of the JCL used their limited resources to support “selective political immigration,” supporting the migration of European labor leaders and political figures who would temporarily reside in America before “repopulat[ing] the continent with Jewish-and non-Jewish socialists in their image” (95).  The JCL and ACL rescued a variety of labor leaders and intellectuals, using their connections with European political networks.  In this way, the joint rescue mission can be seen as a “qualified success” (101).

In Chapter 3, Feinmark describes the response of the the two organizations to Communism and the Cold War.  Anti-Communism derived from socialism or social democratic theory, rather than from an all-out acceptance of McCarthyism.  Here Feinmark delves into a literature that has for too long seen anti-Communism as a “limiting movement” that stemmed the more radical redistributive possibilities embedded in pre-McCarthy labor and rights movements (106).  By Feinmark argues that the AFL’s anti-Communism, at least by the time of WWII, was as much a rejection of totalitarianism as it was of radicalism (110).  Feinmark quotes a JCL official who, in a 1950 speech, emphasized that Communism had “strangled the trade union movement,” presenting a real threat to labor movements across the world (112).  Furthermore, neither the AFL nor the JCL approved of McCarthyism. Then AFL President William Green argued in Congress against legislation banning the Communist party, and the JCL sponsored a well-attended lecture series entitled “Anti-Communism without McCarthyism” (120-21).

In addition, Chapter 3 expands on the impact of anti-Communism on the AFL’s foreign policy. Much of this chapter is a fascinating review of the AFL’s Free Trade Union Committee (FTUC), which adds further depth to this reconceptualized anti-Communism.  The FTUC, under the leadership of former Communist Party Secretary Jay Lovestone, devoted itself to educating domestic AFL members about foreign affairs, and to countering Communist propaganda by “celebrating socialist and democratic labor gains” on the international stage (130-36).   By dissecting FTUC publications about colonialism, Feinmark uncovers the AFL’s faith in capitalist expansion and  American intervention (141).  Unlike the CIO, which in pre-merger foreign policy documents had exhibited some hostility towards American intervention, the AFL (whose foreign policy was adopted by the AFL-CIO post-merger) saw American involvement as a positive counter to Soviet imperialism, due to its effects on foreign workers.

Chapter 4 describes the AFL and JLC’s participation in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations.  The AFL’s representatives–who spoke at U.N. meetings with a “quasi official” status accorded to important non-governmental organizations–advocated for a conception of human rights that included the right to earn social security, form and join trade unions, and receive “favorable conditions of work and pay” (157). Additionally, AFL advocates took on the issue of forced labor in the USSR, which represented a danger to individual labor rights as democratic governance.  Once again, Feinmark seems to think that scholars have for too long been obsessed with the effect of anti-Communism on the labor movement. Correcting a set of scholars who portray the AFL as an “agent of American economic imperialism” and “a front for anti-Communist activities,” Feinmark takes the AFL’s Human Rights politics on its own terms  (23)  The AFL’s anti-Communism was rooted in an organic belief in democracy, human rights and free labor.  Just like civil rights activists that  Risa Goluboff and Carol Anderson celebrate, AFL activists rejected the distinction between political and economic rights that would dominate American liberal thought in the post-war period.

The final chapter looks at the JLC’s role in “spearheading” the AFL’s anti-discrimination policy from the end of the war to 1955 (191).  Under the guise of the AFL, the JCL planned local “conferences against intolerance,” seeking to educate rank-and-file union members about the evils of discrimination (218-19).  A former Communist Party secretary named Emanuel Muravchik directed this work, and he is a central figure in the chapter.  In speeches, Muravchik advocated for decent wages and government subsidized housing, health care, tying these to the organization’s anti- discrimination goals (232).  His rhetoric stands in stark contrast to “mainstream” Jewish groups, who saw racial discrimination as a result of flaws in education or “intergroup relations,” rather than flaws in the economic system.  This mainstream viewpoint echoed that of traditional liberal thinkers like Gunnar Myrdal, whose limiting conception of racial inequality is often criticized by historians because it spurned more fundamental economic reform.  The JCL was unique among labor groups, too.  The AFL had been “ambivalent” on discrimination questions, particularly because its decentralized structure deprived the national office control over exclusionary local chapters (214).  Eventually, Feinmark argues, the JCL’s advocacy pushed the AFL to take seriously civil rights concerns.  By the time it merged with the CIO in 1955, the AFL would commit to a clause banning discriminatory charters in local branches (233).

Each chapter of this well-argued dissertation responds to a set of assumptions in the history of the 20th century, and the document will make an important impact on the fields of labor history, Jewish history and on the study of American liberalism more generally. Feinmark takes seriously midcentury labor activists, resurrecting the era from the oversimplified or conclusory arguments of handwringing historians of liberal politics.  She is especially skilled at avoiding the black-and-white portrait that American historians tend to paint of the effect of anti-Communism on American radicals, arguing with labor historians like Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein as well as historians of civil rights like Glenda Gilmore, Jacqueline Dowd Hall and Risa Goluboff.  Feinmark portrays a “liberal anti-communism” that was genuinely concerned with the use of forced labor and the effect of Communist policies on workers and unions.  Furthermore, she notes, anti-communist labor groups responded to a real threat from American Communist Party members who sought to gain power within AFL unions (113). 

Readers will also appreciate Feinmark’s fluid description of the international and local concerns of Jewish labor leaders.  Here, she portrays a more nuanced assessment of both the global and domestic concerns of these activists, making an important addition to scholarship that has long bifurcated the two.  Her assessment of the JCL’s targeted advocacy for European refugees, for example, would present an interesting model for scholars of other refugee crises, and might help these historians recognize the domestic political concerns behind humanitarian refugee efforts.  Her study of the organization’s campaigning at the U.N. similarly enhances existing scholarship on the participation of civil rights activists in international struggles by providing an example of the human rights concerns of labor activists.

Smita Ghosh
JD/PhD program in American Legal History
University of Pennsylvania

Primary Sources
American Federation of Labor, George Meany Memorial Archive, National Labor College
Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University
National Archives and Records Administration: General Records of the State Department, Records of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Wisconsin Historical Society

Dissertation information
The University of Chicago. 2014. 259 pp. Committee Chair: Jane Dailey

Image: American Federation of Labor union label, circa 1900.  Wikimedia Commons.

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