The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), an umbrella group of Jewish trade unions and fraternal organizations, was founded on February 25, 1934, largely to lobby for the American labor movement's support against the growing threat of Nazism. The JLC's first president, Baruch Charney Vladeck, was active in the Jewish Labor Bund, one of the JLC's founding organizations. Leaders of the Workmen's Circle, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), and the Jewish Daily Forward also cofounded the JLC. A Canadian branch of the JLC was formed two years later, with a similar mission as the U.S. JLC.
The JLC's initial goals were to organize opposition to Nazism and provide assistance to the victims of Nazi persecution. By working with European resistance movements, the JLC was able to aid the rescue of several thousand labor and socialist activists and their families. One of the many relief efforts the JLC organized was a child "adoption" program, whereby unions and other organizations and individuals served as "parent" sponsors to children orphaned or otherwise affected by the Holocaust. Sponsors gave the children financial support to be put toward food, clothing, school materials, and other items. The JLC also provided immigration assistance and offered help with employment and housing for refugees who came to the United States.
After World War II, the JLC continued its relief programs for Holocaust victims. As the immediate need for aid started to decline, the JLC shifted much of its attention to supporting the U.S. labor movement and raising awareness about issues of concern to the American Jewish community. In a departure from its earlier anti-Zionist stance, the JLC helped mobilize the labor movement's support for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. In the decades that followed, the JLC would continue its efforts to garner support for Israel and its trade union principles.
From the 1950s onward, the JLC increasingly focused its energies on encouraging support for the labor movement's issues within the Jewish community, and vice versa. The JLC thus solidified its role as a link between the labor movement and the organized Jewish community in the latter half of the twentieth century. It campaigned on a variety of issues related to civil rights, human rights, and trade union rights. Though mostly concerned with domestic matters, the JLC also continued to be active in foreign affairs.
The JLC's concern with the spread of Nazi propaganda during World War II foretold its involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The National Trade Union Council for Human Rights (NTUC) was founded by the JLC in response to the growth of anti-Semitic and anti-African American groups. Through the efforts of the NTUC and the wider JLC, the JLC combatted discrimination in the workplace, in education, and in society at large by supporting civil rights legislation, working with U.S. and Canadian unions to establish local committees, and participating in civil rights marches and the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights.
The JLC was also one of the earliest advocates for the Jewish population living in the Soviet Union. The organization raised awareness among the labor community about the widespread oppression of the Jewish community under the Communist governments, which limited their right to religious expression even more so than other religious groups. In 1963, the JLC was one of the founding members of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry (later the National Conference on Soviet Jewry), an organization that would play an important role in the Soviet Jewry movement.
The Canadian branch of the JLC ceased its operations in the 1970s, but the U.S. JLC continued to be active on the home front and internationally. Trade union seminars in Israel, organized by the JLC, educated a new generation of emerging American labor leaders about the development of the State of Israel and its relationship to the U.S. labor movement.
In the 1980s, the JLC took a strong stance on workers' rights, supporting the fights to stop plant closings, increase the minimum wage, and prevent the reintroduction of industrial homework. Holocaust education was also a top priority during this period, with the JLC Educators' Chapter playing a key role in the formation of the Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Teachers' Program. The program, led by JLC vice president Vladka Meed, sent thirty secondary teachers to Israel and Poland in the summer of 1985 to visit memorials and historic sites and receive instruction from local historians and academics. The mid 1980s also saw the JLC heighten its awareness of its relationship to other ethnicities and cultures, as evidenced by the formation of the Ethnic Labor Coalition (ELC). The ELC works to strengthen support for the labor movement in the Italian, African American, Hispanic, and Jewish communities, as well as improve relations between these different ethnic groups.
Internationally, the JLC remained committed to the Soviet Jewry movement, cofounding the Trade Union Council for Soviet Jewry with the AFL-CIO in the late 1980s. The JLC also created the Labor for a Secure Israel program, which mobilizes support for Israel in U.S. states with small Jewish populations. In 1988, the JLC made a presentation before the Office of the United States Trade Representative in defense of Israel against allegations that Palestinian workers were being mistreated.
In addition to its many ongoing programs, the JLC continues to campaign for issues of concern to the labor community. The JLC is a member of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (formerly the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council) and works with the AFL-CIO and other Jewish and labor organizations to further its mission. Recently, the JLC has advocated on behalf of agricultural and sweatshop workers and hosted local Labor Seders. With many local chapters located through the country and an active national leadership, the JLC continues to be an influential presence in both the Jewish and labor communities.