This is a guest post by Dasi Fruchter, an organizer with Uri L’Tzedek‘s Civic Engagement Campaign.
“…and it is rationally compelling that a worker should not be left solitary and alone, to the point that he needs to hire himself out for a pittance to satisfy his hunger and to feed his family stale bread and house them in a dark and lowly hovel. To give them the capacity for self-defense the law grants him the right to organize, and to make regulations that will assist his peers, distribute work fairly and justly, and achieve a respectful employer-employee relationship and appropriate wage, thus enabling him to provide family with a standard of living equivalent to that of his neighbor” (Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uzziel, Hoshen Mishpat 42:6)
When I tell people what I do, I am often proud to include my identity as an activist and community organizer in the description. Also included in a very substantial way is my commitment to Torah-observant Judaism. Only several years ago, those two identities seriously clashed, but since I’ve become involved with Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Social Justice organization, fusing my commitments to both halacha (Jewish Law) and to social justice was a logical and seamless step.
My activist story is a long one, but I wanted to share an integral part of it with you. Every Shabbat in my childhood home was a fantastic event. Everyone was invited and the table bubbled over with joy, song, my father’s homemade challah bread, and stirring conversation. The personal engagement, the energy, and the palpable feeling of community were present every week. I particularly remember my mother’s commitment to inviting people that were different from us to our Shabbat table–the synagogue janitor or the school security guard. In retrospect, I now understand the communal space that we created at our Shabbat table – a combination of celebration, reflection, and earnest conversation across difference– was and is a radical space, a space that I try to foster every day in my commitment to Jewish spiritual leadership.
As I grew up, I learned that these workers, who I learned later were classified as “low-wage” workers, were not treated by society with the same dignity as people in professional positions. It was particularly striking to think about the workers who attempted to work on the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Though they were working 40-hour weeks, they still sunk more than $5,000 below the poverty line, while attempting to live on $15,080 a year, often without benefits. If the wage had kept up with inflation over the last 40 years, it would be $10.55. Nineteen states have already raised their minimum wage to keep up with the high cost of living, and New York State is the most recent addition to this group, though the bill faces immense resistance from the New York State Senate.
Sometimes, when I tell people about the type of work I do with Uri L’Tzedek, I’m immediately dismissed for my “left-wing” politics. I understand that there are different fiscal arguments for raising the minimum wage, maintaining it, or taking it away all together. What I don’t understand, however, is the acceptance that there are people working more than 40 hours a week who have no chance of making ends meet. I try to explain that this is not a partisan issue–it is a moral issue. Uri L’Tzedek seeks to achieve its social justice goals through not only ensuring that the minimum wage standard is upheld in kosher restaurants, but also through the constant struggle to achieve a higher standard for workers in the service industry. We want to limit poverty. This is not about the social safety net. This is a step forward to a living wage. When people work, they should be able to live dignified lives based on their labor.
So when I had the opportunity to represent Uri L’Tzedek as a part of a coalition of 60 faith organizations, workers, labor groups, and community members working on raising the minimum wage in New York, I jumped at the opportunity with gusto. Uri L’Tzedek, which serves as a part of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, chose to be involved in the minimum wage effort as a part of a wider Civic Engagement project across the country.
It has been an honor to serve on a coalition with pastors, workers, and organizers–coming together to seek dignity for workers in the fastest growing sector in our country. Tuesday marks the three-year anniversary of the last time the minimum wage was raised in New York.
The coalition of workers, businesses, and community members will come together on July 24th for a National Day of Action for Low Wage Workers. The goals of the march from Herald Square to Union Square are twofold. The first is explicitly legislative and seeks to put pressure on prominent members of the State Senate to raise the minimum wage. The second goal seeks to plant the seeds for a vibrant and unified movement of low wage workers. Due to the fact that low-wage workers are spread across industries, they often face difficulty when trying to organize for higher standards or basic rights. This historic coalition and day of action will attempt to convey that if necessary, workers in the rapidly growing low-wage sector will stand up as a group against exploitation.
Following the march will be my favorite part–where Uri L’Tzedek will facilitate pop-up Batei Midrash (houses of study) all over Union Square. These small groups, facilitated by Jewish community leaders and Rabbis in the tradition of Jewish Torah learning, will study both ancient and contemporary Jewish texts together about ethical treatment of workers and responsibilities to the poor.
I hope you can join me there on Tuesday to create a strong and unified Jewish voice to advocate for the dignity of workers.
An article about this coalition was published in the New York Times earlier this week. More details for the National Day of Action for Low-Wage workers can be found here. Please email [email protected] for more information.