Andy Stern’s retirement marks an end of an era: not just for the Service Employees International Union, which he separated from the historically dominant AFL-CIO and built into a political powerhouse, but for the Jews and the U.S. labor movement.
Several unions, most notably those of garment workers, have long been dominated by Jews even as the number of actual Jewish, say, garment workers has dwindled. (The main garment union is now an S.E.I.U. affiliate.) Last year, the Forward reported on the hasty marriage and then divorce of that major garment union (itself headed by a Jew) and a hotel employees’ union. The paper reported: “The tradition of those old Jewish unions—bringing in immigrants and helping them step up to the middle class—seems to be the legacy that union activists watching the battle are most concerned about as the fights drag on.”
Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson penned an excellent essay last year on the decline of Irish-Americans in the leadership of America’s labor movement. He noted that Jews have experienced a similar decline. The piece is worth a re-read today.