Culture, Justice

“Rabbis for Workers’ Choice” debuts in Philadelphia

The Jewish Labor Committee – JLC – a national organization that promotes labor and related social justice causes within the Jewish community and Jewish issues within organized labor – has been working both nationally and locally to support the Employees Free Choice Act (EFCA). Hundreds of people across the country have signed onto the JLC’s petition {you can add your name here}.

In Philadelphia, the traditionally secular organization has organized something distinctive: a rabbinic appeal to Senator Arlen Specter. JLC Philadelphia Director Rosalind Spigel has enlisted 25 local rabbis plus rabbinical students to sign an open letter urging Pennsylvania’s newly minted Democratic senior senator to put Jewish values to work and help safeguard the rights of employees who wish to secure union representation.{Additional signatories are of course welcome – see here.} Congress is currently considering the Employee Free Choice Act. While Sen. Specter previously supported the legislation, most recently he indicated a disinclination to support this legislation.
On Tuesday, June 9, a rabbinic delegation of the Philadelphia JLC is meeting Senator Arlen Specter to urge his support for the Employee Free Choice Act. That day also marks the official launch of the website of Rabbis for Workers’ Choice. The rabbis who wrote Specter urging him to stand with working families will hold a short ceremony to reinforce their message at his Philadelphia office.

The rabbis’ open letter begins by characterizing biblical references about the Sabbath, the day of rest from daily labors, as an affirmation of human dignity for the worker. It goes on to quote D’varim/Deuteronomy [24:14-15]: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, but you must pay him his wages on the same day, for he is needy and urgently depends on it.”
Under the proposed EFCA legislation, workers would be empowered to choose between a secret ballot and a majority sign-up process. Under current labor law, employers often use a combination of legal and illegal methods of intimidation to silence employees who attempt to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions. When faced with union organizing drives, up to 25 percent of employers fire at least one pro-union worker. [See Kate Bronfenbrenner, `Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages and Union Organizing’ (September 6, 2000).] Currently, during the run-up to elections on whether to join a union, workers’ free speech rights are often squelched. Employers may practice various forms of economic coercion and the existing rules allow them to indefinitely delay recognition through drawn-out appeals. [See John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer, ‘Dropping the Ax: Illegal Firings During Union Election Campaigns, 1951-2007’ (March 2009).] Penalties for employer transgressions are too weak to deter violations. For example, an employer found guilty of illegally firing an employee for union activity must only give back pay to that employee – and is allowed to deduct whatever that worker earned elsewhere in the interim. Many employers find the punishment for breaking the law a bargain if firing a pro-union employee scares off others from supporting the union.
Even if workers successfully form a union despite such tactics, their employer is allowed to repeatedly appeal the results – which can take years to resolve, by which time some employees may no longer be working there, and momentum of any organizing campaign may well be depleted. Such delays mock the democratic process and weaken union support by inviting more opportunities for employee turnover, harassment, and firings by management.
In the course of elections to secure union representation, workers are twice as likely (46 percent vs. 23 percent) as those in sign-up campaigns to report that management coerced them to oppose the campaign to unionize. Whereas less than one in 20 workers (4.6 percent) who signed a card in the presence of a union organizer reported feeling pressured to sign the card. Currently, 91 percent of employers faced with organizing drives force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors; 34 percent of employers coerce workers into opposing the unionization drive with bribes and favoritism; and 51 percent threaten to close a work site if unionization prevails.
The proposed Employee Free Choice Act was crafted to remedy these pernicious practices and outcomes. Moreover, the implications for social justice are clear: the resulting growth in the unionized work force would produce better wages and working conditions for many of America’s society’s most impoverished and hard-pressed workers. Supporting the Employee Free Act is the right thing to do.

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