Here in the US, Labor Day is approaching. Got this nice piece that ties in traditional sources and the Jewish involvement in the development of the American Labor movement, from Eli Fishman and Arieh Lebowitz of the Jewish Labor Committee. Take a read, and think about what we need to be doing to help workers have decent lives now.
(if anyone knows how to fix the hebrew, great, if not, I’ll delete it shortly as I don’t know how to fix it.)
Take it away, gents:
Jewish Labor Committee
September 2, 2006
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LABOR DAY MESSAGE
In describing the Laws of Equity, Humanity and Kindness, the Torah’s most elemental precept with respect to the treatment of one’s fellow man is found in the first chapter of the Torah’s first book, Genesis, verse 26. It is written: ‘…åðúåîãë åðîìöá íãà äùòð íéäìà øîàéå.’ “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’ Remembering that all people are made in God’s image, we are reminded that treating all employees with dignity that befits their humanity is a biblical injunction. More specifically there is an important passage in the Torah that unequivocally explains responsibilities towards labor: (ãéÓãë íéøáã) ‘Óêéøòùá êöøàá øùà êøâî åà êéçàî ïåéáàå éðò øéëù ÷ùòúÎàì.’ “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he be of your brothers, or of your foreigners who are in your land within your gates.” (Deuteronomy 24:14) The Torah also explicitly calls for the prompt payment of a worker’s wages: “On the same day as his work, you shall give him his wages: the sun shall not go down without this, for he needs these wages, and sets his heart on it; lest he cry against you to God, and you will incur the guilt of a sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:15)
The first, and in many ways most important, labor law, is, of course, the commandment to observe Shabbat as a day of rest (Exodus 20:9, 10). This was a source of puzzlement to the rest of the ancient world. In recent years, it has been claimed that the two-day weekend, when one rests from one’s labors, a creation of the labor movement, has echoes of the original day of rest. After all, “By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:2).
Moving beyond the Five Books of Moses, it is written in the Talmud that any wages for contracted work spanning more than one day must be paid the day that the contracted period of labor ends (Baba Metzia 110b, Babylonian Talmud); work must be paid in currency, even though other debts can be paid in-kind (Baba Metzia 118a); and wage debts, if they occur, cannot be cancelled during the Sabbatical year, when all other debts are canceled. (Shevi’it 10:1) Other passages in the Talmud affirm the dignity of labor: Understanding a need for balance in employer-employee relationships, Tractate Baba Mezi’a 77 notes that “the Rabbis hold that the workers [always] have the advantage.” The Talmud also enjoins employers to pay workers suffering a sickness or bereavement (Baba Mezi’a 77a), set reasonable work hours (Baba Mezi’a 83b), and provides for forms of sick pay, disability pay, and unemployment compensation [workers who become ill even for up to one half of their contracted period of labor are entitled to receive their full salary for the job (Kiddushin 17a); workers who are injured on the job when the employer is negligent are entitled to compensation (Tosefta Baba Mezi’a 7:10); if a laborer is laid off while a labor contract is in effect and the laborer finds a lower paying job, he or she can ask for the difference in wages from the first employer (Chosen Mishpat, 333.2).] And if the laborer cannot find any job of comparable difficulty at the same pay, he or she is entitled to an “idle wage” of one half of the normal wage. (Baba Mezi’a 76b)
From its earliest days, the U.S. labor movement has had deep roots in America’s Jewish communities, large and small, from coast to coast. This is still true today: the Jewish Community has been broadly supportive of worker rights for many years, even as it evolved from a predominantly working-class community in the first part of this century to a predominantly professional and entrepreneurial community today. This support comes from many sources, including a collective memory of a period of mass immigration, when Jewish workers toiled in difficult and often desperate conditions in the garment industry, and the social justice imperative that is so important to Judaism.
The history of the U.S. labor movement and our history as an immigrant-based community have overlapped many times. Samuel Gompers, who helped found the American Federation of Labor and was its first president, was born in England in 1850 into a Jewish family of Dutch ancestry. His family emigrated from London to New York’s Lower East Side in 1863, where he began work making cigars. Gompers joined the Cigar Makers Union, was elected president of the union local in 1875, and helped organize the AFL 11 years later. Throughout his years as a national – and international — labor leader, Samuel Gompers was committed to trade unionism as essential for bringing about social reform.
Sidney Hillman was another early leader of the U.S. labor movement. Hillman was founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (now UNITE-HERE) and its president from 1914-1946. Born in Lithuania in 1887, Hillman left home at 14 to attend rabbinical school. Caught up in the revolutionary ferment then sweeping Russia, he left school after less than a year, took a job and organized an underground Jewish trade union. Arrested twice for political activity, Hillman spent several months in Czarist prisons. After the revolutionary uprising of 1905 failed, Hillman fled the country, immigrating to Chicago in 1907. Hillman began work as a cutter at the famous garment manufacturer Hart, Schaffner and Marx. In 1910, when a dozen women workers walked off the job, sparking a citywide garment strike of 45,000 workers, Hillman, too, put down his tools. In Chicago, he met his future wife, Bessie Abramowitz, one of the original leaders of the strike. Hillman was one of the founders and the first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. In 1937, Hillman was among the founders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations—the CIO. He was elected the CIO’s first vice-president.
Another early Jewish labor leader was David Dubinsky, who was born in 1892 in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, but grew up in Łódź, where his family moved when he was three years old. Working as a baker in his father’s shop, at age 14 he joined the bakers’ section of General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland and Russia [Jewish Labor Bund], and soon was elected assistant secretary within the union. Arrested his activism within the bakers union in 1906, and banished for his union work by Czarist authorities in 1907 to a Siberian prison camp, Dubinsky escaped from prison, where he was being kept until he was old enough to trek to Siberia, he escaped in the winter of 1910, and he reached the United States in 1911. He became a cloak cutter in New York and joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union [ILGWU]. He rose rapidly through the ranks of the union and served as president from 1932 until his retirement in 1966.
Over the past 40 to 50 years, the economy of the U.S. has changed radically: many of the sectors of trade union strength, including textiles, garment work, and other manufacturing labor has moved to other lands. Partially as a result, organized labor in the United States has declined precipitously. Over the same period, the proportion of Jews in the U.S. has gone from a high of about four percent of the population as a whole to slightly under two percent, and the proportion of Jews working in industries of the historic Jewish labor movement has declined to a much greater degree. Nevertheless, in 2006, the commitment of the U.S. Jewish community to basic principles of the labor movement, to basic workers’ rights, remains strong. Organized labor is grappling with diverse challenges, from the virtual elimination of manufacturing jobs to internal debate over how best to respond to the diverse problems confronting it. In 2006, however, organized labor is still the only collective voice for working people, whether or not they are union members.
A significant challenge to both the Labor movement and the American Jewish community has been the rise of a consumer culture, in which many define their relationships more by consumer lifestyles than by identification with one’s background, or any belief system rooted in cultural, ethnic, religious or historical identity.
Sustaining the strength of organized labor and the future of American Jews to continue to Americans are intrinsically interwoven. Founded on principles of social justice and recognizing the value of each human being are common elements that bind the two groups. The Jewish community and organized labor can and must stand firmly united for fair and equitable treatment of working people everywhere.