Launch of GMB trade union’s Jewish faith workers branch ‘a big moment’

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Launch of GMB trade union’s Jewish faith workers branch ‘a big moment’

Rabbis David Mason and Richard Jacobi join GMB union leaders, including general secretary Gary Smith, and JLM officials at emotional branch launch event in Hendon

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Rabbi David Mason speaking alongside the 1936 Hebrew Yiddish union banner in the GMB's offices (Photo: Jewish News)
Rabbi David Mason speaking alongside the 1936 Hebrew Yiddish union banner in the GMB's offices (Photo: Jewish News)

One of Britain’s largest trade unions has launched a Jewish faith workers branch aiming at improving employment conditions for rabbis, rebbetzins, and other religious sector employees in the community.

At an often emotional inaugural launch event, held at the GMB trade union’s London region headquarters in Hendon, north London, around 15 rabbi – from the United Synagogue, Masorti, Reform and Liberal movements – were in attendance, in person and online.

The branch will aim to protect Jewish faith workers around issues such as non-payment of rebbetzins, and more general employment issues.

But Tuesday’s launch event also held added significance as an attempt to restore relations between the community of the trade union movement, which had broken down in most cases in more recent decades.

The impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party only led to further tensions, with rabbis resigning from the Unite union in protest at former general secretary Len McCluskey’s comments around antisemitism.

The initiative, founded by Muswell Hill Synagogue’s Rabbi David Mason and Rabbi Richard Jacobi, of East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue, in collaboration with the Jewish Labour Movement.

In a sign of how much the branch launch meant to the GMB’s leadership general secretary Gary Smith, Warren Kenny, the London regional secretary, and Steve Garelick, GMB’s regional organiser, who is himself Jewish, all spoke at the meeting.

Rabbi Mason said at the launch: “It’s a big moment for the GMB, it’s a big moment for the Jewish community, and for relationships with the Labour movement. This is incredible from all perspectives.”

He added:”I would like to thank the GMB for building this new branch. There is a long history of the Jewish community being part of the trade union story.

“This branch will allow that story to continue and give Rabbinic staff across the community an important voice on their workplace conditions. It has been a pleasure to have been part of bringing this to fruition.”

Mason also noted that often, a rabbi’s house is owned by the synagogue and therefore, a rabbi may feel tied to the employer even if the employment relationship is poor.

Due to the responsibilities of this role, rabbis can be vulnerable to serious allegations of misconduct and placed under heavy workload.

He noted the fundamental role rabbis play in Jewish communities as they administer and interpret Halakhah.

Rabbi Jacobi also highlighted how the current cost of living crisis was impacting all communities, including the Jewish one.

“We know we have a heck of a lot to do together to make life affordable again,” he said.

“That is going to be a challenge for us as Jewish faith workers, and we can’t do it alone, because we are a small community.

“We need to do it in tandem, in partnership with other people.”

All the speeches at the launch were delivered in front of a banner of the London Trouser Makers’ Union in 1936, which had been preserved in a glass cabinet the GMB’s regional office.

The banner, in red silk, with slogans in both English and Yiddish, celebrated men and women workers united in struggle.

The GMB’s general secretary said: “Today marks a remarkable day and a new chapter in both GMB’s and the wider labour movements’ history.

“Our union was co-founded by Eleanor Marx in 1889 who, after seeing the dire conditions of Jewish factory workers in London’s East End, and led by her sense of justice, fought for a more compassionate world.

“It is in this great tradition that we have listened to our members and supported their efforts to launch a specialist faith branch for those working for Jewish faith employers. Workers’ interests are best served when people organise themselves, from the bottom up, not the top down.

Smith also raised the issue of antisemitism within the trade union movement itself.

“It felt to me, someone who is not Jewish, that somehow antisemitism had become a different type of racism,” he observed.

“All too often antisemitism has become the refuge for middle class racists.”

Speaking of his own experience as a Jewish trade unionist Garelick, recalled how he been born in Brick Lane, in the East End the son of a cabinet maker.

He spoke of the “need to assist everyone along the way” as being “part of what the Torah teaches.”

Garelick said he knew of shuls where the rabbi’s wife would go out and do long hours of work, without being paid.

He said: “From my perspective, if someone goes out to do a job they deserve to be compensated.”

In his speech Kenny focused on the history of the banner that had been kept in the GMB office.

In the 1930s, relatively small, local unions based around the Jewish community became part of GMB, he recalled.

From the turn of the 1930s, the journal of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union had been publishing eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities.

Prominent in the anti-fascist, counter-demonstrations, of the mid-1930s was the London Number 2 branch, led by Aaron Rollin, which – from March 1936 – carried the banner of the London Trouser Makers’ Union at its head.

Kenny added: “May I thank all the founding members of the new Jewish Faith Workers’ Branch who have volunteered their time and effort to get us to this point.

“Today our bond endures, stronger than ever, written in over 130 years of standing shoulder to shoulder.”

Mike Katz, National Chair of the Jewish Labour Movement said: “We’re incredibly proud to have been part of establishing this ground-breaking, new branch.

“It’s in our values as an organisation to champion trade unionism in the Jewish community and beyond.

“Rabbis and Jewish faith workers, just like all workers, deserve trade union representation that advocates for them.”

Kosher food, including fish balls, and smoked salmon bagels were served to all.

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