GMB Renews Faith in Trade Unionism

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Today marks a month since GMB launched its new Jewish Faith Workers’ Branch and, in this short period, we have been overwhelmed by the positive reaction generated

The creation of the branch is a credit to the work of our members who are Jewish faith workers, and we were proud to open an exciting new chapter in the rich history of Jewish trade unionism.  

In our GMB London office in Hendon hangs a little-known treasure. It is the banner of the London Trouser Maker Union from the 1930s. The Trouser Maker Union had started life as a union for Jewish workers, before integrating into the family of unions that would make up GMB. On one side of this banner in Yiddish is the heading ‘Workers Unite’.

From the turn of the 1930s, the journal of the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union had been publishing eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities – often to incredulous or dismissive responses from the mainstream media of the day. Now, it began to organise in earnest to resist the Blackshirt attacks. 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 this same banner at its head.  

This amazing banner, in red silk, is a true symbol of struggle, dignity, and hope. But last month, this banner was also a symbol of present day Jewish activism and partnership within trade unions.   

Rabbis of communities across the varying Jewish denominations came together with union officials from GMB in order to launch a Faith Workers’ branch. This launch had been the result of a number of years of conversations between Rabbis, GMB officers and the Jewish Labour Movement.  

The branch will initially be a home for Rabbinic staff of synagogue communities before widening out to other synagogue staff. In many ways this launch was another step in the rebuilding of relationships between the Jewish community and the Labour movement. Gary Smith, GMB’s General Secretary, was adamant in his speech at the launch of the branch that there was no hiding place for antisemitism within our movement.    

However, this new branch touches on a fundamental truth. Jewish faith workers are subject to the same workplace stresses and strains, and the same struggles as millions of other people across the UK. Protecting their employment rights – the right to representation and fair conditions – is at the heart of the new branch. It will provide a voice and organisation to a workforce, often working in atomised conditions, seeking greater support and unity.  

Underpinning everything will be a member-led approach to organisation, as it is only through the collective voice of members that positive change for all occurs. We hope that by empowering members, providing the tools and skills to fight the battles of today, while remembering the struggles of yesterday, that we will have a more just tomorrow.   

Rabbi David Mason (branch co-founder) and Warren Kenny (GMB London Regional Secretary)