Difficult to get employers to pay their workers well – really- what a surprise!

Nathaniel Popper writes in the Forward that the Conservative Movement does not seem to be living up to their push for better wages for workers. I’m not entirely sure what the point of the article is; is it to point out that some congregations (and not just Conservative ones) underpay their workers? Is it say that the whole Magen Tzedek enterprise is hypocritical because not everyone in the movement lives up to it already?

If it’s the first, he’s a little behind – we already knew that; if the second, again, he’s a little behind the curve; I certainly have not backed off from critiquing the Conservative movement in the past – it certainly has plenty to critique, but I’ll have to say, I disagree. I don’t disagree because it’s not true, but because I think he’s missing the point.

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs says in the article, “It’s always easier to look slightly outside yourself rather than to look inside… There certainly hasn’t been any large-scale change.”

That’s true – but it’s a little premature to write off the whole project becasue it hasn’t been perfectly realised prior to beginning. Having Magen Tzedek has spurred some shuls to reexamine their own policies towards their own workers; Rabbi Jacobs is part of a movement of many people who turned to rabbinical school not necessarily because they loved to give sermons, but because they were driven to repair the world, and thought that a uniquely Jewish vision could help to do so. Rabbi Jacob’s tshuva is not the end; although it has gotten less press than Magen Tzedek, over time, I think both will be understood as the fulcrum for major change in the Jewish community as a whole.

Of course, there are still people like those quoted in the Forward citing the same tired arguments for why we shouldn’t do the right thing (they could work somewhere else; we’re doing important work that couldn’t get done if we paid our employees more; another variant of the “businesses might have to close and pay nothing at all if you made them provide benefits”…), but having Rabbi Jacob’s tshuva and the Magen Tzedek will help rabbis do their job better – and that job is to teach – to help people become knowledgeable, practicing Jews, and to have a relationship with God – which we achieve through mitzvot which include paying the matzah bakers enough to eat, and the people who clean the shul enough to not have to work two jobs or go on welfare. If we haven’t achieved it yet, well, even Moses couldn’t get Israel to quit worshiping idols. It’s a start and Baruch haShem it’s starting rather than not!

7 Responses to “Difficult to get employers to pay their workers well – really- what a surprise!”

  1. My parents each worked two or three jobs at certain parts of my childhood, and I’ve done the same to get through school. There is nothing wrong with hard work and working multiple jobs, especially at a time when unemployment, including part time workers, is nearing 20% nationwide. Overpaying for unskilled labor with other people’s hard-earned money is not praiseworthy. Creating bloated institutions that provide employment to many and accomplish very little is simply not acceptable. It is a symptom of self-indulgence and arrogant exuberance at a time of severe economic disruption to the Jewish community, not moral virtue.

    But hey, your shul, your rules. With so many worthy recipients of tzedakah these days, it’s not difficult to find one that matches our individual values. For me, efficiency and financial accountability are a core concern. I’m not giving tzedakah to employ people above market rates, but to meet my spiritual and community obligations and support a worthwhile cause or project.

    By the way, honestly, how many matzah makes do you know who are starving? The ones I know live quite comfortably off the rest of us paying a seasonal $18-20/lb of shmurah matzah, which is just flour and water.

    Good Shabbos!


    Avigdor · October 9th, 2009 at 3:47 pm
  2. It appears to be a lot sexier idea to get the Magen Tzedek products out into the marketplace as quickly as possible instead of making it a priority to do the real number crunching and fundraising and priority shaking to provide good wages and benefits to the support staff of Conservative Jewish institutions. Just like many Conservative synagogues have left the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism because they are sick and tired of the “trust us” attitude that has been the general public response to changes demanded by Conservative synagogues of the USCJ by the USCJ leadership, except that the trust has worn thin because the USCJ has continued to be an organization of little value to Conservative synagogues, compared to the dues money USCJ asks of its shuls, I have no trust in our Conservative Jewish leadership that only now say that we will implement positive wage and benefit changes in our institutions but just be patient because this will take time to change long standing positions. That way of thinking is dead to me and I believe it’s dead to the younger generation of Conservative Jews that the movement is begging not to leave its empty pews. Let’s fix our own ships first before we make demands of others. Not as sexy for sure but way more ethical and if and when we do this true introspection it would be a strong reason for me to say that I am proud to be a Conservative Jew. Sincerely, Jonathan Loring


    Jonathan Loring · October 11th, 2009 at 11:16 pm
  3. It’s always struck me as a little arrogant that a bunch of rabbis would decide that they have the knowledge or authority to go waltzing into a business and issue proclamations about how it should “treat” its voluntary employees. It looks like these same rabbis are now running into the same brick walls of reality that they presumed other businesses would somehow jump over.

    The standards in the “magen tzedek” paper are just arbitrary. Why 115% of minimum wage and not 120%? And what on earth is the basis for demanding that “benefits” be equal to 35% of wages? Why not 50%? Or 25%? Why not just pay that money as direct wage and let employees choose their own health insurance?

    The reality is that there’s a competitive job market out there. Employees who feel “mistreated” can easily apply somewhere else.


    Eric · October 12th, 2009 at 4:14 pm
  4. Gee, Eric, I didn’t realize that the solution to this country’s massive unemployment crisis was simply encouraging people to apply for jobs!

    It seems to me that it’s a little arrogant to assume that people working in service-industry jobs can just apply for better ones if they are being mistreated.


    dlevy · October 12th, 2009 at 4:19 pm
  5. Eric, it seems a little arrogant to me for rich people to say “well, its a competitive job market out there”, when the reality is that many people have not the skills nor the qualification to find any such jobs, and even if they do, often times the “competitive” job market pushes them out for, say, being mothers.
    I also think its a little arrogant that people who have no training in morals and ethics (like economists) suddenly make normative statements they are not trained to make (as any econ textbook can tell you). Rabbis are trained to make those statements, and they do that, and kudos to them for finally doing it.
    You can give up your weekends and healthcare if you like. I’m for a moral voice that tells employers that employees are people and they should take a responsibility for their wellbeing over that of their own wellbeing. I’m also for the same voice to petition government to finally take responsibility for reining in abuse of workers’ rights.


    Amit · October 12th, 2009 at 7:50 pm
  6. Amit: “Eric, it seems a little arrogant to me for rich people to say “well, its a competitive job market out there”, when the reality is that many people have not the skills nor the qualification to find any such jobs, and even if they do, often times the “competitive” job market pushes them out for, say, being mothers.”

    Fascinating that you profile me as “rich” based on nothing but my moral opinion. Of course rabbis are “trained” to make moral “statements” — but they’re not necessarily trained to have any understanding of the real world upon which their noble proclamations descend.

    “I’m for a moral voice that tells employers that employees are people and they should take a responsibility for their wellbeing over that of their own wellbeing.”

    Huh??? That’s a bunch of moralistic claptrap that means nothing. Note to all: America is a free society. Unlike North Korea and China, if an employee does not like the way he/she is being “treated” or becomes dissatisfied with their salary or benefits package they can go apply to another job. Employers know this and so are motivated to keep their employees satisfied.

    dlevy: “It seems to me that it’s a little arrogant to assume that people working in service-industry jobs can just apply for better ones if they are being mistreated.”

    Really? Why is that “arrogant” — isn’t that the way it works in every industry in America?

    Have you looked at ads lately for hotels hiring people? There are continual open positions everywhere. It’s like that in almost every service industry.


    Eric · October 15th, 2009 at 11:03 am
  7. Funny, in Boston there was a whole uproar just a couple of weeks ago because one of the major hotel chains laid off their employees and replaced them with outsourced workers who don’t get benefits. So yes, there are positions available, but that doesn’t mean they’re equivalent, or good, or enough to keep food on the table and a roof over one’s head.


    dlevy · October 15th, 2009 at 12:19 pm

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik