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The Workers Circle Fights Injustice with Activism—and Joy

A conversation with CEO Ann Toback: "Dissent is one of the great privileges of being a patriot."

Ann Toback, CEO of the Workers Circle, speaks at the Women's March rally in New York City on January 18, 2020. (Photo: The Workers Circle)

Ann Toback, CEO of the Workers Circle, speaks at the Women's March rally in New York City on January 18, 2020. (Photo: The Workers Circle)

If you’re not Jewish or not involved with organized labor, there’s a good chance you may never have heard of the Workmen’s Circle—recently renamed the Workers Circle, a gender-neutral nod to the hardworking activism of its members, Jewish men and women, young and old. It’s worth getting to know about them: what they do is not only important but inspirational as well.

This 120-year-old organization, self-described as “a social justice organization that powers progressive Jewish identity,” has its roots in organized labor and the immigrant experience. Theirs is a “360-degree approach,” utilizing action and education, as well as cultural events and travel, all to build awareness and solidarity. Members have played a vital role in the history of America’s unions, and among other issues have stood in forthright support of immigration reform and free speech and strongly against income inequality and bigotry.

Ann Toback is the Workers Circle’s CEO, a fourth generation union activist who began her professional career in publishing, then attended law school. We got to know each other when she was a labor lawyer and assistant executive director at the Writers Guild of America East, AFL-CIO, where I served as president for ten years.

We spoke last week. Our wide-ranging conversation covered everything from labor and religious tolerance to education and of course, Donald Trump. It has been edited for length and clarity. You can read below or listen to the entire interview here:

Ann, there were three things that prompted me wanting to have this conversation with you. One was seeing you speak at the Women's March in New York in January. Another was the renaming of the organization from Workmen's Circle to Workers Circle. And the third, and perhaps most important, was the Workers Circle's efforts for social and economic justice—including the Fight for 15—and your work against the rising tide of antisemitism in America and the world.

First, the Workmen's Circle, now the Workers Circle. Celebrating its 120th anniversary this year.

Yes. It's a very important year in Jewish and Yiddish folklore. There's a saying, "You shall live to be 120." And it's a sign of great esteem, it's a compliment, and we have lived to be 120, it's a wonderful moment, and we're really looking to the next 120 years.

Why was it created?

The Workers Circle was founded by eastern European Jewish immigrants. We were founded in 1900 as a society to help eastern European immigrants become Americans. But we didn't just do it in such a way that we gave you money, or we gave you whatever your immediate needs were. We were a community-based organization that helped these immigrants become Americans with their values intact, and it was really a 360 degree approach. We helped them find housing, and we helped teach them English, and we helped educate their children. Ultimately, we even had networks of health centers. But we helped them organize around work and rights. We became a backbone of the American labor movement in the early 1900s.

Many of our founders were members of the Jewish Labor Bund in eastern Europe, in Lithuania and Poland and Russia… These were members who had been fighting union activist fights before they came to the United States. And they brought their union solidarity and activism with them. So, we had some truly great leaders. Sidney Hillman, one of the great founders of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers [now UNITE], was a Workers Circle member.

Clara Lemlich, my own personal hero, sparked the Uprising of the 20,000—20,000 women garment workers, immigrant women, not just from eastern Europe, but also from Italy and Ireland, went on strike in 1911. It’s a significant episode which has been mostly ignored in so many history books. Clara Lemlich was a firebrand who came from eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish, and tired of being treated as a second-class citizen in her union, tired of the treatment she received in the sweatshops where she made shirtwaists. She called for a general strike, and really, history was made after that. It took years of very, very brutal striking to get them some of the rights that we all enjoy today, including a weekend and women workers recognized alongside male workers.

I had Steve Greenhouse in here a few weeks ago. And we were talking about his book Beaten Down, Worked Up. Clara Lemlich is also one of his heroes.

And Rose Schneiderman who brought us “We Want Bread and Roses.” All of these workers need to be highlighted more and more. Especially today, when we can recognize they were young women in their teens and early 20s, and immigrants, immigrant workers who fought these battles. Not so dissimilar to the battles we're seeing immigrant workers fighting today in the United States. So, using their example is a good thing.

He also writes about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and Frances Perkins watching it from the corner, and later becoming our first secretary of labor. But I know that the tragedy was also very much a part of Jewish labor history.

Very much—from both sides, because unfortunately, the factory owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were Jewish, and the workers had a significant Jewish population. The Workers Circle was intrinsically connected to that terrible tragedy because we were very much on the ground with the organizers of the Uprising of the 20,000. And one of the few factories that refused to sign onto the agreements that came out of that strike was Triangle Shirtwaist. They were some of the most vicious, anti-union employers, hiring goons to literally beat the women.

Clara Lemlich was hospitalized multiple times, had many bones broken… [The Triangle Shirtwaist factory] was one of the few that had no union protections, and of course the doors were locked and a fire started, and all the workers were caught inside. The aftermath led to some of those enormous health and safety regulations that we still cling to today, because many of them are now under attack with the Trump administration. But they've really served to protect workers.

The Workers Circle at the time buried many of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire for free. And I have in our offices a ledger—it was a fraternal benefit society and one of the things we offered was burials to the members. In those days we had a very young membership, so it wasn't as regularly used, but on that day, and the day after, you see these inscriptions, one after another, women who mostly were 16, 17, 18. It's a heartbreaking sight.

So, what was the impetus for the name change [from Workmen’s to Workers’ Circle]?

We're now a 21st century organization, and we've gone through a complete revisioning process. We're a social justice organization, as we were just discussing, and we're organizing young people. That's a significant part of what we do today. We have something called Youth Standup for Justice, where we're organizing teens around activism, the traditions of activism. Activism as it exists amongst teens today, because we have some amazing examples of kids today making a difference in the world. And activism along the lines of Clara Lemlich and the Jewish traditions. And to the kids in particular it was very important that our name reflect the openness, and the welcome that our organization stands for. They didn't want a gender-specific name. Honestly, I thought they were right. I heard them, our leadership heard them.

You had kids in Washington at the March for Life after the Parkland shootings, right?

Yes, we had two buses of kids who went, and in fact some of the kids in Parkland were connected to The Workers Circle.

And you've also been taking kids on civil rights tours in the South.

We do. Each year…. We meet, we go behind the scenes of some very famous episodes, some very troubling episodes in our nation's history. You started off asking me about antisemitism. And one of our responses is to show our kids how bigotry and hatred have existed in the United States that they live in.

Because antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant, and I can continue, the list unfortunately is quite long, all come, in our view, from the same place. It comes from white nationalism, it comes from bigotry, a hatred that is intentionally trying to divide people. Divide, conquer and isolate people. And our immediate response is not to exist in isolation but to understand the roots of hatred and bigotry… The civil rights movement is a very important part of our country's story. And our story.

We've gone to Selma. Last year, we went to Charlottesville... I don't know how many people remember that the Charlottesville riot in many ways started as a reaction to a synagogue. There were chants of Jews not welcome here, you won't take our jobs. Some tropes that are very chilling to Jews today…

“Jews will not replace us.”

That's what it was… And they met with a rabbi of that synagogue. They met with activists who were on the streets, they took a walking tour of Charlottesville to see some of the monuments. They also went to an interesting historic site called Glen Echo Park, which was the first integrated amusement park, in Maryland. That's interesting for us as the Workers Circle because our members, a branch in Maryland, participated in some of the actions that led to that park being integrated…

This being an election year, what are the Workers Circle's priorities? What are the challenges this year?

Our challenges are to continue to fight for immigrant rights and economic justice, even as the very important election in front of us is taking up a lot of people's attention and time. That's all very appropriate, but we don't want to forget the issues that are very much on the ground in front of us. We are certainly committed to making sure everybody votes, people are registered and that voter rights are respected, so that's another piece. We're a 501(c)(3)

So you don't endorse candidates… but the group has been critical of White House policies.

Yes. We have a history of being critical of elected officials who make decisions that we think are very problematic, and right now we're in a time where the Trump administration has made some terrible, terrible decisions, and terrible rules, and put forward pieces of legislation that are just hurting people. Hurting people who are very important to us.

I know that you have supported DACA.

Yes, absolutely.

… Allowing the kids of the undocumented to remain here in America. And you've been critical of the caging of children at the border.

One of the worst things we're seeing is what's happening at the border. And I do see it as a form of concentration camp. We were one of the first Jewish organizations who said that, upfront and center. We see the tactics being used against innocent people whose "crime" is seeking refuge in the United States. And I don't even know what words we have to describe it… chilling. There are ICE agents using attack dogs against people in lockdown. There are the reports of abuses of people being put in cold cells without any protections, any blankets. Children being deprived of basic nutrition. There's talk about depriving entire camps of flu shots. I mean, this has to be beyond everyone's capacity. And yet, I mean, last week here in New York, we had ICE agents shoot two unarmed people, one in the face. And then they proceeded to the hospital and prevented the mother of one of their victims from approaching her son.

I mean, we're seeing tactics that should never be happening in the United States, and I hope at some point people are being held accountable for this violence being perpetrated under the auspices of our own government.

Workers Circle has also spoken out in support of New York State's new Greenlight Law, which allows the undocumented to obtain drivers licenses and has prohibited the Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing information with ICE and the border patrol.

Yes.

[The law] created a situation last week where New York State residents were told [by the Trump White House] that they could no longer apply for Global Entry.

Right. A punitive measure… It wasn't even thinly veiled.

… We have a situation here where we have hundreds of thousands of immigrants in New York, many of whom are in the process of attempting to apply for citizenship, who were unable to obtain a legal driver’s license. And they really had no means of getting around. They couldn't work, they couldn't get their children to the doctor. The basic needs of life, including groceries, were beyond their easy ability to do.

I mean, there are so many stories out there of immigrants, many of whom work in agriculture, who were injured on the job and unable to get to proper medical attention. People who suffered breaks of bones and cuts and couldn't get medical attention. And many of these people are working in substandard conditions. Beyond that, many of them had to make a choice to drive without a license. And that's not in the New York public interest at all. We really don't want people driving who haven't taken a test and shown they have the capacity.

So, all of this led us to want to become a state that gives immigrants the ability to legally drive, and protects our own citizens, people who are not immigrants, who should not be on a road with a lot of people who don't have licenses.

But also, so many immigrants were finding themselves as the result of a traffic stop being picked up by ICE and deported. I mean, you had families being broken up because somebody was stopped because of a taillight or driving through a stop sign. And we don't want to live in a state where a traffic stop results in deportation and a family being broken apart.

I know you also wanted to talk about the public charge rule. Explain to people what it is.

Public charge is a racist wealth test. That's all it is. It's a rule that the Trump administration has now put into effect. It's being challenged by different courts, including here in New York. And the Supreme Court, I think it was two weeks ago, said that the rule could be put into effect even as the challenges wend their way through the court system. [After a second Supreme Court ruling on Friday, February 21, public charge went into effect in all 50 states, even as challenges continue. mw]

And it's a wealth test for immigrants who are coming into the United States and who wish to become US citizens. It basically gives our immigration facilities, the officers, the ability to deny someone entry if they say that within the next two years, they may access public funds. So, you have to make the case that you won't, in two years, access public funding. And how do you make that case? The United States is basically asking immigrants to have significant bank accounts, but so many people who are coming here looking for protection from violence don't have big bank accounts.

It's worth noting that there's an exception that you can buy your way out of the public charge test, by showing by paying an $8,000 fee. So, it really is a fee for a pay to play opportunity.

What happened to the old “I came to this country without a nickel in my pocket?”

Well, that's it. The Workers Circle sees immigrants today and are welcoming them, and public funds are an investment in them. I mean, immigrants built our country. If you just look at the New York skyline, without immigrants, it wouldn't exist. The Empire State Building was built by immigrants.

Trump Tower…

(laughs) Yes. That, too.

He didn't pay them, but…

He didn't want to. So, we're in a country that, until recently, we were proud to say has been made stronger by immigrants, by our brothers and sisters who come from elsewhere. My grandparents came from Poland and from Russia. And they came with very little in their pockets, I assure you. So, today we're saying that the public charge has to stop. Right now, there's a terrible crisis [caused] by this public charge -- not only have they put these rules into effect, but there's an open attempt to spread disinformation and scare immigrants living in the United States into not accepting any form of aid. That includes SNAP, it includes aid that is supposed to assist in feeding children, medical aid, and there's misinformation being put out there that if they go to a hospital, they may find themselves disqualified from future US citizenship.

This is not true. I want to urge anyone who hears this -- Immigrants should go to hospitals. They can be treated in New York hospitals. In fact, they're welcomed. They should call groups like the New York Immigration Coalition, Make the Road New York, and get the facts on the ground. Because many of these benefits have been grandfathered, and this public charge rule will not impact you if you are accepting certain funding.

So, that's just one piece of it. But the other piece is that it's basically saying, "You're not welcome here," to most people from South America, Central America, from Syria—where of course we have many refugees trying to get into the United States—from Iraq. It's a terrible, terrible rule that is hurting people.

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The last time we saw public charge put into effect as it is now, or in a similar way, was in 1930. And the group that was being kept out, intentionally kept out, were eastern European Jews. And that was as Hitler rose to power, and it effectively trapped millions of Jews in eastern Europe and sentenced them to death.

And what is Workers Circle doing to combat public charge?

We're working very closely with immigrant rights partners, including the New York Immigration Coalition, and Make the Road New York. And we ourselves are working on a campaign that we hope ultimately will both educate people today, and lead to the repeal of this rule in the future.

We were talking about people not having much in their pockets: one of the victories with which you've been very much involved was the Fight for 15.

Yes, that was an incredibly exciting campaign. It continues in other states, but there was a great victory here in New York. And I'm still incredibly moved when I still see signs about it as each year has come about and different populations have reached the $15.00 threshold. What a great moment for workers, and what a great campaign to have been a part of. And to have seen fast-food workers really take a lead in fighting for their own rights.

I think it's one of those things that a lot of people thought was a great idea but would never happen.

I was hopeful, of course. I won't say I thought it wouldn't happen. But I didn't know how fast it would happen, and I was ecstatic. It was very impressive, and it continues to really make a big difference in hundreds of thousands of people's lives.

Over the last few years there's been an upsurge in antisemitism around the world, and here in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports a record number of hate groups and hate crimes in the US. What do you think is responsible for this increase, and how are you at Workers Circle trying to combat it?

Well, I think it's a sign of a national discourse that really is being propagated by elected leadership. It's really coming from the Trump administration and allies, and a growth of white nationalism in the United States. I mean, when Charlottesville happened, and you say that “both sides” had responsibility, that's untenable. Until now, it would've been an untenable thought for a US president to not condone white nationalists who had just incited violence and murder. That's the kind of language that is emboldening, empowering people on the streets to take action… to make both threats and perpetrate violence against Jews, against blacks, against Muslims, against many populations that are marginalized and at risk. So, the Workers Circle speaks out and we are seeking to create meaningful work in coalition with our brothers and sisters in other marginalized populations.

Because the way to fight antisemitism, it's the same fight as each of the groups I mentioned, and so many others have. It's also the immigrant fight, because immigrants you see are also being marginalized, isolated, harassed, and subject to violence. It's about creating connections between different populations and standing together and holding everyone around us to a standard of appropriate behavior and calling out anyone who maligns anyone. So, it's unacceptable for anyone to be name-calling, whomever. Not just [against] Jews. We have to stand as equally strong when our brothers and sisters, and other groups are being persecuted.

Right. Because we've seen not only synagogues, but mosques, and other places of worship attacked.

We're seeing a wide scale attack. I think it started with the Muslim ban. But even before that, during the last four years ago we started hearing terrible rhetoric about Mexicans, and immigrants. And even now, we're hearing lies perpetrated. Lies about immigrants being violent, or immigrants looking for free rides, and we're seeing these tropes, these bigoted tropes being made into something that would sound like truth. So, we, the people, have to stand here and say, "It's not true. These are lies and it's unacceptable for anyone to perpetrate these, to advocate, to put these lies out there." And we have to stand together and make sure we all feel protected. So, creating coalition work, creating bridges between different communities, I think couldn't be more important today.

And then, creating systems where we can stand together, and not feel alone. It's not enough for us to stand amongst ourselves. So these are some of the pieces we work on, and this is one of the reasons we do take our civil rights trips, and we connect with other organizations and really create opportunities for our kids and adults to meet with different communities and engage.

It feels as if any opportunity at bigotry is being seized on at the moment, to the point that NPR and others have reported the last few days about discrimination against Asians here because of the Coronavirus. It's extraordinary.

It's extraordinary. And I'm hearing that Chinese restaurants in the city are taking an enormous economic hit, even as there's no evidence of the Coronavirus in the city. People are angry when they see a person wearing a mask on the subway, and very often it does seem to be Asian people who believe in these face masks. Now, I understand that they're wearing it in part because they want to protect people around them. Not that they're sick, but it's almost like an enhanced sense of decency that should I have a germ, I don't want to share it with you. That's what they're doing. Meanwhile, the rest of us are there coughing on each other with impunity, right?

But that being said, it's horrific. It's just the regular bigotry that we've been experiencing for hundreds of years, unfortunately. Let's blame somebody for all of the problems that are affecting us. So, there's a virus that's scaring us, so we're going to blame fellow citizens for this virus when there's no evidence ...

First of all, there's no one to blame here. There's a virus out there that needs to be dealt with. People should be more afraid of the flu. That's just my own two cents (laughs) The flu is killing thousands of people in the country right now. Get your flu shot. Don't even bring up the Corona virus unless you have a flu shot.

You wrote an op-ed in the Brooklyn Eagle back in late December, which I was very interested in because it was critical of Donald Trump's executive order, purportedly designed to fight antisemitism on college campuses. And Workers Circle has disputed the meaning of that order, and you wrote that “censoring free speech is not the answer to antisemitism. We promote freedom of expression as an essential part of a healthy society.”

Right. It appears that part of their goal was to prevent discussion about Israel, free discussion about Israel. And in particular, they're looking to silence a movement that's very controversial in the Jewish community, which is the Boycott Divest Sanction Movement, BDS. And while the Workers Circle does not support BDS, we do believe that free speech is very important. It's one of our rights, and we believe everyone has a right to talk about it.

You wrote in that same piece that Workers Circle “rejects the idea that if you express opposition to Israeli government policies, you're an anti-Semite.”

Absolutely. Just as if you object to a policy of the United States government, then you're anti-American. I'll speak for myself, I am a great patriot, and dissent is one of the great privileges of being a patriot.

… It's important to have dialogue, and it's important in colleges that people feel free to talk about everything, including the state of Israel and their government. And it's okay to be critical of the government. It's not okay to threaten violence, it's not okay to do things that leave other people feeling unsafe. But… I don't believe that's the intent of this order.

You think it's just to stifle speech.

Yes, I think that was the intent, and I think the approach is to have more speech, not less, right? I mean, we need to talk about this. Imagine what we would say if there was an executive order preventing us from talking about our own government's positions. I mean, what would we say that was?

“A second term,” I think.

Oh no (laughs). So we are critical of that order [but] what we're really looking for is for our president and his administration to stop … using antisemitic tropes, which he's done on many occasions. To stop using anti-Muslim tropes, to stop using the language of bigotry and scapegoating that's empowering the people that he purports to want to stop. So, that would be a great beginning, and we want to hold everyone accountable, as I said in this case, for their language. But legislating an end to antisemitism, even as you yourself are using language that's encouraging anti-Semites, is a problem.

Any position on the so-called Kushner peace plan?

No, we don't have an official position. But I will say that the Workers Circle's position is that there needs to be a two-state solution that recognizes Palestine and Israel and is based on the '67 borders.

We're Jews, so Israel is part of our DNA, but we're an organization that was built on a domestic agenda. We were built by founders who came to the United States very much focused on changing the world you live in. And that's still very much a part of who we are. We're focused on changing the United States, and we see that even as one organization we can help make an impact. So, a domestic policy is really our sweet spot.

We touched on education a bit, and its role in combating antisemitism, or any kind of bigotry. You also have been organizing educational trips to Poland and Lithuania, to Eastern Europe.

We have been taking heritage trips every year. I lead them, along with a scholar in residence and guides at every stop. We start in Lithuania, we start in Vilnius, and then we go to Warsaw and we end in Krakow. They're a Jewish journey that gives people the opportunity to literally touch their heritage.

It's a passion of mine, and it's really a passion of the Workers Circle...

We're also the largest Yiddish language program in the world… We teach over 1,000 people, we do it online in real time so you can join classes that meet online. And then you can do it in person at our West 37th Street Garment District headquarters. It's all part of connecting our Jewish identity to our values and how we live our lives every day.

Something we experience as diaspora Jews in the United States is a disconnect, very much so when it comes to Eastern Europe. I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust as so many people did… There was 1,000 years of life, followed by five years of abject devastation beyond most of our imaginations. And that five years has really dominated how we've seen our past.

When I look at who we are as Jews in America, I see a rich cultural heritage in Eastern Europe that we need to celebrate and engage with and touch. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to go back to where it happened. To see the remnants of that 1,000 years of life, of rich culture, of hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature, and art, and culture, and activism, resistance, that still exists mostly in Yiddish, which is another reason to have the largest Yiddish language program. We still have many, many books to translate. And to stand literally where our ancestors stood. Our trip starts in Vilnius, the birthplace of the Jewish Labor Bund. Vilnius was called the Jerusalem of the East. It was a center of thought and scholarship.

When you walk the streets, and many of them still stand today as they once did, you see site after site where a gymnasium, those great centers of learning, existed. One of the greatest rebbes known, the Vilna Gaon, lived in Vilnius.

Sharing those stories, and sharing your impressions of those places, I think goes a long way to combating [intolerance]...

I think seeing who we are, understanding where we come from, and of course understanding the five years when it came to such a terrible end -- and those five years were really one of the outcomes of unrestrained hate speech, followed by actions, followed by isolation. And we need to understand what happened, but we also need to remember the lives. Something we did last year in Vilnius, was we meet the last survivor of the partisans who escaped from the Vilna Ghetto on the last day before the ghetto was liquidated. With a friend, she traveled about 30 kilometers, I think it was, to this fort in the forest.

She's 97 years old, an absolutely awe-inspiring woman, along with some other very famous partisans, including Abba Kovner who led the resistance in the Vilna Ghetto, and then led the partisan fight out of this fort, and ultimately fought for Israel's independence. So, we really experience history, we sang the partisan hymn, in Yiddish. But we also see the evidence of the lives that were lived for 1,000 years. And we go into some great synagogues. We walk along streets where you can still see remnants of a Yiddish world.

And we also traveled to Warsaw where my family is from, and there's a spectacular museum of the Jewish people. And of course, we go to Mila 18, the last stand of the Warsaw Ghetto partisans. And we end in Krakow, where Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, has stood for centuries. Krakow wasn't bombed during World War II, and as a result you really see history as it once was.

I've been reading the book On Tyranny, and one of the 20 lessons in the book, is that Americans should have passports. Not because we may need to escape (!), but because we need to hear these other voices and see these other things, and it really freshens one's view of a democratic republic.

It absolutely does but another piece of this trip is to give you back a piece of the past. Giving people this connection and opportunity is maybe one of the most meaningful pieces of my job. It's so exciting to see people realize you have a history to be proud of, to celebrate, to learn from.

I also I want us to remember the lives that were lost. I feel that we do a disservice to victims of any genocide by only thinking about them as victims. Every person whose life is so brutally taken, and that's still happening today, unfortunately. Genocide isn't exclusive to my people. It has continued, which is heartbreaking. Every life lost had birthday songs sung to them, were loved, were hugged, had favorite foods, did work, in some cases had some amazing artistry and made marks on the world.

Every life needs to be remembered for what it was. And not simply for how it was ended. So, we go there to really experience life. And also to see what happens when hatred isn't reined in… It’s an important experience to bring back to the United States… when we see things happening here that so remind us of what happened only 75 years ago. Not so long ago.

We also, though, should talk about the other ways that activism expresses itself in the Workers Circle, the great ways that you have of expressing the Jewish culture. I think that's huge.

For me, that's one of the many things that makes us special. We understand that we're whole people. We're not just one thing. I mean, we're activists, we do prize our progressive values above everything, I think. But it's all about being people who celebrate our identity, and we do in different ways.

So, we have a Taste of Jewish Culture festival each year where we celebrate Jewish foods. And we've done it in the past, by challenging vendors to create foods that both reflect Jewish foods and their own cultural identity. So, we've had tacos with cream cheese and lox tacos. They were actually quite delicious. We've had Matzo ball soup dumplings. People have been incredibly creative. I did like the cake pops that looked like corned beef on rye. They didn't taste like it, which is probably for the best.

You also gave awards to [the playwright] Tony Kushner. And to [actor] Seth Rogan and his dad, Mark.

It was really an amazing experience for us. So yes, we have a door-to-door activist award, and that's about generation to generation activism. When we were revisioning the organization, we asked, "We've existed for a century, what's the next century?" We really drilled down and we came to understand that our greatest gift to pass on to each generation was our values and our activism.

Tony Kushner inspires activism, and he also inspires it through a Jewish lens. When you see his work, you can't help but be moved and think about the experiences I've been talking about. His musical Caroline, or Change is about to come back… It has resonated with me since the first time I saw it, and it's about a Jewish home in the South, and their African American maid, and the relationships and the issues that arise. So, it's a phenomenal show and everyone should run and see it.

As for Seth Rogan and Mark Rogan, Mark Rogan is actually an activist who has worked for the Workers Circle. And Seth, the humor Seth conveys in his movies, you're going to see there's a lot of Jewish humor there. And in fact, in a movie coming out soon, The American Pickle, he plays a Yiddish-speaking immigrant in the 1900s….  He was trained by some people connected with the Workers Circle. Not us, but people who we know and who are connected to our programs.

I wanted to finish by talking a little bit about you and your family. I mentioned that you're a fourth generation activist.

It really started with my great-grandparents. My great-grandparents who came from Europe became involved in the union movement, and then my grandfather, my father's father, was a shop steward in a sweatshop in the '20s. And he met my grandmother at a union hall. So, my father's parents met when his mother, who was in a millinery guild, her union hall burned down and his hall said, "Come on in." And a new dynasty was born. And my sister is the director of the New York professional nurses’ union. So, unions are our family business. Four generations now. And we're quite proud of it.

It's a legacy that I continued at the Writer's Guild, very proudly, and I came to the Workers Circle, because I felt that I could make even a greater difference in the world. I truly adored my work at the Writers Guild. I'm a very lucky person that I've always loved my jobs. I loved being internal with a union, but I felt I could effect change by working with new populations and teaching activism. Hopefully training young people who will then grow up and want to join unions and become the next union leaders. Among other things. I mean, the kids we’re training are just changing the world every day.

Ann Toback, CEO of the Workers Circle. Thank you very much.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship

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