Joe Zuken's family immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine when he was still an infant. Raised in a secular Jewish environment in Winnipeg's working class North End he was educated at a secular Yiddish school in a socialist environment. He joined the Communist Party of Canada as a young lawyer and intervened in struggles for workers rights and in anti-fascist movements during the Great Depression.
In 1941 Zuken was elected to Winnipeg's school board and was one of the few Communists to win re-election through the Cold War. He fought for the establishment of kindergartens, free textbooks, and higher salaries for teachers.
After serving on the school board for twenty years he was elected, in 1961, to Winnipeg's city council on behalf of the North End ward which had been represented since the 1930s by fellow Communist Jacob Penner. As an alderman he fought for public housing, public hospitals and rights for the poor.
Although Zuken's membership in the Communist Party was controversial, he was respected by politicians across the political spectrum for both his intelligence and his political commitment. In early 1969, he won the unanimous support of his colleagues on city council for changes to Winnipeg's Tenant Act. The reforms included the establishment of a landlord/tenant review board, restrictions on eviction notices, and improvements to the privacy rights of tenants.
He remained an alderman until his retirement in 1983 due to poor health.
Though a loyal member of the Communist Party he expressed public criticisms of the Soviet Union in the 1970s for its restrictions on Jewish emigration and official anti-semitism in Poland in the late 1960s.
- Doug Smith, Joe Zuken, Citizen and Socialist, James Lorimar and Company, Toronto, 1990,ISBN 1-55028-305-7, pg. 8 and pg. 256
- http://www.mhs.mb.ca/info/pubs/timelines/v38n6/index.shtml#zukenplaque Manitoba Historical Society article on plaque
- Winnipeg Free Press, 13 February 1969, p. 3.
- Jewish Humanists Remembered: Joseph Zuken
- "Remembering the Legacies of Joe Zuken" at Manitoba Federation of Labor
- Doug Smith (1990). Joe Zuken, Citizen and Socialist. James Lorimer & Company. ISBN 1-55028-303-0.