Not to be confused with Workers Defense Project, a Texas-based labor activist group.
The Workers Defense League is a New York-based group which represents workers with unemployment insurance claims. The League was once a prominent institution in the American socialist movement, with the organization claiming six-time Socialist Party of America presidential nominee Norman Thomas as one of its co-founders.
In recent years, the Workers Defense League has declined in prominence. The organization continues to represent unemployment insurance claimants and holds an annual awards dinner at which it honors national and New York City labor union bosses.
The Workers Defense League is closely aligned with the United Steelworkers labor union; the Steelworkers’ international president, Leo Gerard, serves as president of the League. Leon Lynch, a former Steelworkers vice president, preceded Gerard.
In 1936, Socialist Party of America leader Norman Thomas—then running for U.S. president—and three other Socialist Party activists, David Clendenin, Aron Gilmartin, and Sidney Hertzberg, organized the Workers Defense League to advocate on behalf of labor unionism. Throughout the organization’s existence, it has remained close to the socialist movement; Michael Harrington, an alumnus of the League, later served as editor of the Socialist Party official newspaper, as authorized biographer of Thomas, and as co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The Workers Defense League maintained a staff pipeline into major institutions on the American Left. Bertrand Seidman, formerly the League’s assistant executive secretary, later served in numerous roles for the AFL-CIO union federation; Rowland Watts, a former League president, also served as legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Hertzberg, a League co-founder, would serve as editorial director of Consumer Reports.
During its early history, much of the Workers Defense League’s activities involved supporting the developing Civil Rights Movement by organizing African-American sharecroppers and domestic workers and litigating on their behalf.
Despite the Workers Defense League’s former prominence, the organization has receded in recent years. The group’s principal activism now involves engaging in litigation on behalf of workers denied unemployment insurance; in describing the League’s activities, executive director Jon Bloom said the League would “represent everyone from proletarians to professionals.”
The most prominent activity of the Workers Defense League is its annual anniversary dinner which makes awards to labor union leaders. The dinner raises funds for the League; in the organization’s 2015 fiscal year, the dinner raised $179,850 of the League’s total contribution receipts of $230,108. Dinner honorees have included Maida Rosenstein of UAW Local 2110, Robert Martinez Jr. of the International Association of Machinists, James Slevin of Utility Workers Union Local 1-2, Tefere Gebre of the AFL-CIO, Ernest Logan of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrations, and Christopher Shelton of Communications Workers of America District 1.
The organization has received funding from labor unions, including UAW Local 2110, 1199SEIU, the Utility Workers Union, the Ironworkers Union, Unite Here, the American Federation of Government Employees, the Communications Workers of America, the International Association of Machinists, and the United Steelworkers. The League has also received funding from the Atran Foundation.
Jon Bloom is the executive director of the Workers Defense League. He has taught labor studies at a handful of universities.
The organization’s other officers include United Steelworkers international president Leo Gerard, AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee-affiliated labor lawyer Larry Cary, and National Organization for Women-New York City activist Noreen Connell. The group’s advisory council includes a number of prominent far-left scholars including Joshua Freeman, Herbert Gans, Alice Kessler-Harris, William Leuchtenburg, Deborah Meier, and Cornel West; celebrity activist Ed Asner; Democratic politician Eleanor Holmes Norton; far-left journalist Barbara Ehrenreich; former Carter administration official Ernest Green; and AFL-CIO officials Elizabeth Shuler and Richard Trumka.