Contemporary Jewish Labor Campaigns: Introductory Essay
Lori Shaller and Judith Rosenbaum
Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Labor, Lesson 8
Throughout history, Jews have been in the roles of both workers and employers, working alongside Jews and non-Jews and employing Jews and non-Jews. Yet about a third of the way through the twentieth century a significant economic and cultural shift took place in the American Jewish community. Whereas the majority of Jewish workers until the 1930s and 1940s had been skilled and unskilled “blue collar” laborers, after the 1930s and 1940s the majority of Jews became “white collar,” professional workers. While Jews weren’t the only immigrant group to experience this shift, it marked a profound change for the American Jewish community. Often within just one generation, the level of education achieved among many Jews, the professional status accessible to them, and the standard of living it afforded Jews as a group increased substantially. Parents who worked in the factories and shops of the Lower East Side were able to see their children go to college and move into the professional class.
In some fields, becoming white collar workers meant moving away from the labor movement, since many white collar professions are not unionized (with the major exceptions of teachers, writers, and some engineering jobs). However, many of the children of unionized, blue collar workers retained the values about fair treatment of workers that they had learned from their parents. Even those without personal union experience often remembered that they had been taught never to cross a picket line and retained a sense of collective solidarity with all workers.
In 21st century America, Jews fall on all sides of debates about labor and the role of unions. Many still feel a sense of Jewish identification with the labor movement, even if they are not personally involved with it; some advocate specifically as Jews on behalf of oppressed workers today. Others, however, do not feel that the historic relationship between American Jews and the labor movement has any relevance to labor conditions today and to their own position within labor relations.
Many of today’s Jewish labor activists—whether they are religious or secular—recall not only their historical predecessors but also the texts of the Jewish tradition that address fair labor practices. For example, Deuteronomy 24:14 and 15 state: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.” The Talmud discusses the meaning of work—whether or not some kinds of work are more valuable than others, for example—and the role of a place’s custom regarding the treatment of workers. However, a dissenting opinion preserved in the Talmud suggests that even more important, perhaps, than the custom of the place can be “the inherent dignity of the workers [which can transcend] any entrenched customs.” If the custom of the place is ungenerous to or abusive of workers, the dignity of the workers may be the higher value to which employers should be held.
Two examples of contemporary campaigns in which Jews have advocated in solidarity with workers who are struggling against unfair labor practices are the campaign for a domestic workers bill of rights in New York State, and the campaign to support workers in the hotel industry. (See Lesson 4 for information about a similar campaign, which advocates on behalf of unfree agricultural laborers.) These are two industries in which immigrant (sometimes undocumented) workers predominate and in which workers are particularly vulnerable to the unjust demands of their employers. Here is the stated goal of the Shalom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers Campaign of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ):
Since 2003, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice has been organizing employers of domestic workers and other allies in the New York Jewish community in solidarity with Domestic Workers United (DWU). In 2010, DWU and JFREJ won an enormous victory—the first ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the country! It was a tremendous win not just for domestic workers but for women, immigrants, people of color, low-wage workers, the Jewish community, and many more. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights victory is reverberating nationally and internationally, paving a road for dignity and recognition for all excluded workers. JFREJ’s work organizing synagogues, rabbis, Jewish legislators, employers, and Jewish community organizations was instrumental in this landmark victory.
In this campaign, JFREJ, a progressive organization drawing on a secular Jewish justice tradition, focuses on a labor issue that is literally “at home” in the Jewish community: the conditions of domestic workers. JFREJ’s Shalom Bayit campaign seeks to improve conditions for domestic workers (e.g. housecleaners, nannies, home health aides) by educating their Jewish employers in ethical treatment and creating models for discussing and standardizing contracts that include a living wage, provisions for hours, vacation time, and sick and holiday leave. JFREJ also worked alongside Domestic Workers United to advocate for state legislation to guarantee basic work standards and protection for domestic workers, which was achieved in 2010. JFREJ’s campaign focuses on educating and organizing the Jewish community, given them tools to create fairer employment conditions, rather than on organizing the domestic workers; the workers are doing this for themselves.
Similarly, in the campaigns to support hotel workers striving for more just working conditions, Jewish allies are targeting their fellow Jews who patronize those hotels, asking them to boycott hotels that treat workers unfairly and to let the hotels know that they will withhold their business until the hotels change their practices. They have also joined the workers on the picket lines to express their solidarity. The Jewish Labor Committee and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, for example, issued petitions and appeals to Jewish organizations to boycott Hyatt hotels until the hotels ceased unfair practices, such as using staff members to train new staff who then replaced them at a lower pay rate.
Jews have also used traditional Jewish legal forms to encourage fairer labor practices within the Jewish community. For example, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote a teshuvah (responsum) regarding paying workers a living wage, and it was adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement. Rabbi Jacobs argues that Jewish organizations need to do more than pay the minimum wage to employees in their hire, and she finds Talmudic support for going beyond the letter of the law regarding fair business practices. Rabbi Jacobs surveyed Torah, rabbinic literature and modern-day commentaries to propose standards by which Jewish organizations can determine whether or not they are paying their workers a living wage. Rabbi Jacobs's teshuvah reminds Jewish organizations to examine their own employment practices in light of Jewish values and Jewish law.
 Jacobs, Jill, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Law and Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009)108.
 Jacobs, Rabbi Jill, “Work, workers and the Jewish owner,” JSpot.org, May 30, 2008, http://www.jewishjustice.org/download/section72/Jacobs_Living_Wage_Teshuvah.pdf
Full text is now available online on the Rabbinical Assembly Website