Contemporary Labor Issues (Module #4)

This module is intended for use with the game Jewish Time Jump: New York. It allows students to explore contemporary labor issues and consider their own places within current labor justice struggles.

SPOILER ALERT: To avoid spoiling some aspects of the game, this module should be completed after playing Jewish Time Jump: New York. It references several ideas and articles students will encounter during game play.

Jewish Time Jump: New York lesson plans and activities were developed in partnership with ConverJent: Games for Jewish Learning and made possible with generous support from the Covenant Foundation.


Enduring Understandings

  • Jews are present on all sides of the struggle for labor justice.
  • As employers, employees, and consumers, we are all engaged in labor relations and share responsibility for shaping labor practices.
  • Guidelines about work and the responsibilities of employees, and employers found in traditional Jewish texts continue to serve us in the contemporary Jewish world.

Essential Questions

  • How are labor struggles of the past similar to contemporary labor struggles and how are they different?
  • How do Jewish texts and history teach us to respond to contemporary labor issues as employers, employees, and consumers?

Notes to Teacher

Each section of the lesson outline includes instructions for alternate activities to help you adapt the material for students at different reading levels and groups of various sizes. If you have feedback—positive or constructive—after teaching this content, please let us know.

Introductory essay(s)

Contemporary Labor Issues

by Etta King and Paula Sinclair, Jewish Women's Archive

Introductory Essay for Jewish Time Jump: New York, Module 4.

Throughout history, Jews have been both workers and employers, working alongside Jews and non–Jews and employing both Jews and non–Jews. Yet about a third of the way through the 20th century, a significant economic and cultural shift took place in the American Jewish community. Whereas the majority of Jewish workers until 1940s had been either skilled or unskilled “blue collar” laborers, after that time the majority of Jews became “white collar” professional workers. Many Jewish parents who worked in the factories and shops of the Lower East Side watched their children go to college and move into the professional class.

In 21st century America, Jews join all sides of the debates regarding labor and the role of unions. Today, many Jews still identify with the values of the Labor Movement, even if they are not personally involved with it as owners or workers. Some consciously advocate as Jews on behalf of oppressed workers; others, however, do not feel that the historic relationship between American Jews and the Labor Movement has any relevance to labor conditions today or to their own position on labor relations.

Many of today’s Jewish labor activists—both religious and secular—recall not only their historical predecessors but also the texts of the Jewish tradition that address fair labor practices. In the Torah, for example, Deuteronomy 24:14–15 states: “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 also touches on labor issues in commentaries about the meaning of work—whether some kinds of work are more valuable than others, for example—and how the customs of a place should inform the treatment of its workers. A dissenting opinion preserved in the Talmud suggests that even more important, perhaps, than the custom of a place can be “the inherent dignity of the workers [which can transcend] any entrenched customs.”1 If the custom of the place is ungenerous to or abusive of workers, the dignity of the workers may be the higher standard to which employers should be held. (Additional examples of labor–related traditional Jewish texts can be found in Jewish Time Jump: New York—Judaism and Labor (Module #3).)

There are many examples of contemporary campaigns in which Jews have advocated in solidarity with workers who are struggling against unfair labor practices. Many of these campaigns target industries that predominantly employ immigrant (sometimes undocumented) workers who are particularly vulnerable to the unjust demands of their employers. The New York–based Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) has organized employers of domestic workers—those employed to work in homes, often to clean or provide childcare—and other allies in the New York Jewish community in solidarity with Domestic Workers United (DWU). By galvanizing Jewish legislators, community organizations, and synagogues, DWU and JFREJ helped pass the first–ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the country, “a tremendous win not just for domestic workers but for women, immigrants, people of color, low–wage workers, the Jewish community, and many more.”2

In addition to working in partnership with workers, Jews have also leveraged their power as consumers to fight for labor justice. Jewish allies targeted their fellow Jews who patronize hotels that treat workers unfairly, asking them to boycott the companies and withhold their business until the hotels changed their practices. The Jewish Labor Committee and the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued petitions and appeals to Jewish organizations to boycott Hyatt hotels in particular until the hotels ceased unfair practices, such as using staff members to train new staff who then replaced them at a lower pay rate3. Through the Fair Food Program organized by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), rabbis and Jewish communities have learned about the unfair treatment of people picking tomatoes in Immokalee, FL and then put pressure on businesses they patronize (including Trader Joe’s and Wendy’s) to buy tomatoes at a higher price so higher wages could be passed to the workers.

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, which the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement adopted4. Rabbi Jacobs argued that Jewish organizations need to do more than pay the minimum wage to their employees, and she finds Talmudic support for going beyond the letter of the law regarding fair business practices. Rabbi Jacobs's living wage teshuvah reminds Jewish organizations to examine their own employment practices in light of Jewish values and Jewish law.

Consumer–driven activism through boycotts and lobbying is one way to achieve justice for workers. Another approach is to build and run businesses that attempt to address these issues from the outset. One example is Costco, which pays workers $17/hour on average (42% higher than its closest competitor, Sam’s Club) and also provides health care for its employees5. When a fire broke out in Malden Mills (the company that invented Polartec) in 1995, no one was killed, but many workers could not work and the town of Lawrence, MA was devastated. Jewish owner Aaron Feuerstein had some tough decisions to make. Should he take the opportunity to move his factory overseas where labor was cheaper? What should he do about the hundreds of Malden Mills employees who were suddenly out of work? Feuerstein decided to rebuild the factory in Lawrence and to pay all of his workers their full salaries while the plant was under construction—two decisions that earned him the title “The Mensch of Malden Mills.”6

Sadly, Jewish businesses do not always follow ethical practices. Agriprocessors, Inc. is an extreme example of a Jewish, privately–owned company that not only violated Jewish law regarding the humane treatment of animals, but also in their appalling treatment of undocumented employees. The largest supplier of kosher meat in the United States, Agriprocessors, Inc. was at the center of a massive human and animal rights scandal that came to light in 2008. Hundreds of Agriprocessors, Inc. workers were not legally allowed to hold jobs. Because of this, and because many were also undocumented immigrants to the US, organizing or making demands for fair pay and safe working conditions was virtually impossible (because they could be reported to immigration authorities or simply fired). As the story unfolded, a more complete picture of their experience evolved, including information that “the workers had been paid some of the lowest wages in the nation, and were allegedly forced to work up to 17–hour days with 10–minute lunch breaks in a freezing–cold, dirty hallway. Workers as young as 16 were said to have been operating meat grinders and power shears, often without any safety training.”7

Other, non–Jewish–owned businesses have recently been called out for unjust labor practices as well (as referenced in the game Jewish Time Jump: New York). One is Foxconn (a supplier for Apple), whose factories in China make most of the world’s iPads and iPhones. Foxconn was cited for poor working conditions and long overtime hours that were blamed for causing several workers to commit suicide in 2010. In 2013, the now–infamous Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world and the tragedy brought attention to the terrible conditions that run rampant in Bangladeshi garment factories and continue to be investigated.8

American Jews play a wide variety of roles in today’s labor economy. As such, there are myriad opportunities for Jews to perpetrate injustice or fight for just and dignified work opportunities for all people. Traditional Jewish texts and historical stories provide many ways for contemporary Jews to understand our roles as workers, employers, or consumers.

1. Jacobs, Jill, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Law and Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009) 108.
2. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice website, “Campaigns” “Shalom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers” page,
3. The Jewish Chronicle online,
4. Jacobs, Rabbi Jill, “Work, Workers and the Jewish Owner,”, May 30, 2008. Full text is now available online:
5. Greenhouse, Steven. “How Costco Became the Anti-Walmart.” The New York Times. July 17, 2005.
6. Leung, Rebecca. “The Mensch of Malden Mills.” CBS. July 3, 2003,
7. Dwoskin, Elizabeth. “The Fall of the House of Rubashkin.” The Village Voice. December 3, 2008,
8. Yardley, Jim. “After Disaster, Bangladesh Lags in Policing Its Maze of Factories.” The New York Times. July, 2 2013,

Lesson plan

Part 1: Self Check-In: Understanding My Own Knowledge Base

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(20–30 minutes)

If you did not teach any of the Jewish Time Jump: New York lessons or play the game, feel free to skip to the second part of this lesson plan. If you did teach other Jewish Time Jump: New York lesson plans, or play the game, begin by re-capping the main points of the game and lessons as a class, including:

  1. Many Jews immigrated to the United States looking for a better life despite the fact that living and working conditions in New York at the beginning of the 20th century were very difficult and often dangerous.
  2. Garment workers found comfort and community through their coworkers and labor unions. Organizing into unions was a central tool workers used to fight for better pay and working conditions.
  3. Many factory owners had immigrated to the United States earlier than their workers, giving these owners the opportunity to save money and build their own businesses. In this way, factory owners achieved a lifestyle and place in society to which many garment workers aspired.
  4. While factory owners may have had a much better standard of living than those they employed, the creation of unions and strikes created challenges and problems for factory owners who were trying to keep their businesses afloat amidst tight competition and rising costs of labor.
  5. Traditional Jewish texts can give us new insights into historic events related to labor issues as well as into our own lives today.

After the discussion, direct students to complete the Self Check-in Worksheet individually.

Alternative Methods for the “Understanding My Knowledge Base” Check-In Activity

Method 1: World Café

For a more interactive introduction, use the following activity instead of a group discussion or recap. This method may take longer than the activity described above.

  1. Label four whiteboards or large pieces of paper with the following prompts:
    1. What have you learned about workers and unions?
    2. What have you learned about factory owners, businesses, and unions?
    3. What does Judaism say about how workers and employers should act?
    4. How do you think labor issues of the past relate to our world today?
  2. Ask students to write down responses to each question on the piece of paper. Students may write as many things as they want, as well as draw pictures. Each student must write at least one thing on each paper.
  3. When students have finished responding, ask them to spend a few minutes looking at each paper.
  4. End by coming together and asking students to each share one thing that they felt was most important or surprising about what they have learned so far.

Method 2: Word Web

Use the following activity for a large- or small-group alternative to the self check-in.

  1. Draw an oval on a whiteboard or large piece of paper. From that oval, draw four lines connecting to four more ovals, leaving plenty of room between them. (For an example, and for small groups, feel free to print this handout on 8.5x11” paper.) Each oval should contain one of the following prompts:
    1. Middle oval: What do we know and think about labor and justice?
    2. Outside ovals: Jewish ideas, labor history, modern labor issues, the role of consumers
  2. As a large group or in small groups of 3–6, choose one or two students to scribe.
  3. Brainstorm and list as many ideas as possible, adding smaller circles off of each oval, forming a web of ideas that captures what students know about the topics at hand.
  4. If necessary, ask questions and prompt students to elicit some of the main ideas or important themes you would like to emphasize.

Part 2: Modern Day Case Studies

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(35 minutes)

  1. As a class, read the excerpt from “The Mensch of Malden Mills” article from CBS News or watch the YouTube clip about “The Mensch of Malden Mills.” Talk through the accompanying discussion questions as a class.
  2. Students should then refer back to the self check-in worksheet or word web and discuss how learning about “The Mensch of Malden Mills” may have changed their understanding of the check-in questions or their responses.
    1. Ask: Do you want to add anything to what you wrote after reading this article or seeing the video? Do you have any questions?
  3. Next, divide students into pairs or small groups. Each group should be provided with one source. You may choose to have everyone read the same article, or to have half of the groups read one and half read the other. (Note: Both of these articles were referenced during game play of Jewish Time Jump: New York):
    1. Excerpt from “After Disaster, Bangladesh Lags in Policing Its Maze of Factories” from The New York Times
    2. Excerpt from “Work Conditions Said to Improve at Apple Supplier” from The New York Times
  4. Ask students to read the second article and talk through the discussion questions in their pairs or small groups.
  5. The teacher should then lead a full-group discussion encouraging students to connect the information from both articles to their own opinions and experiences reflected in the self check-in.
    1. Ask: What more can you/we add to your/our check-in/brain web? What questions do you have?

Alternative Method for Modern Day Case Studies

Tableaux Vivants (“Living Pictures” in French)

  1. Divide students into groups of 3–6 students.
  2. Assign each group one of the three texts in this lesson. If you would like to use only two texts, use “The Mensch of Malden Mills” article or video and one text from The New York Times:
    1. “The Mensch of Malden Mills” article or video
    2. The New York Times article about Bangladeshi garment factories
    3. The New York Times article about Apple and Foxconn
  3. Ask each group to read the article together and discuss the accompanying questions.
  4. Next, have each group create 4–6 tableaux vivants depicting the story or events in the article (to be presented to the other groups).
    1. What would a painting or photograph illustrating this event look like? Students should create that picture by posing with members of the group representing the characters and events in the article.
    2. Students should also prepare a short description (to be narrated by someone in the group while others pose in their places) for each tableau.
  5. Have each group present their tableaux vivants to the other groups. Allow students to ask clarifying questions.
  6. After each tableau, or after all three have been performed, pause and have a short discussion.
    1. Ask: What more can you/we add to your/our check-in/brain web after learning about this story? What questions do you have?

Part 3: Applying Knowledge

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(Time for these activities will vary. The “Being an Agent of Change” activities will take longer and necessitate access to the Internet to do research. The “Investigative Interviews” activity could be done in 20–30 minutes if necessary.)

  1. There are two options for closing activities. Educators may choose to assign one activity or allow students to decide which they would like to do. Educators may also choose whether to have students work individually or in groups.
  2. Explain the activity to students and answer any questions they have.
    1. Being an Agent of Change: Educators can assign, or students can choose, one of two areas on which to focus.
      1. Activism: Students will select a social justice cause about which they feel passionate. Then, students will conduct research on the cause. Finally, students should formulate a plan for contributing their talents and efforts towards furthering the social justice cause, organization, or campaign of their choice.
      2. Better Business: Students will select a business or company about which they feel passionate. Then, students will conduct research on the business/company to evaluate its labor practices. Finally, students should formulate an analysis of the business/company’s practices, highlighting opportunities for change and recommendations for improvement.
    2. Investigative Interviews: Students will create a skit highlighting the experiences and perspectives of a key player or players from a contemporary labor justice scenario. This could be a one-on-one news or documentary style interview or a talk-show type skit with multiple characters and perspectives.
  3. Allow students at least 20 minutes to work on their projects. Students will need more time for the “Being an Agent of Change” activities as they require Internet research.
  4. Educators should decide whether to have students present their work to the class, to one another in small groups, in pairs, or not at all.
Document studies

Mensch of Malden Mills

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Mensch of Malden Mills Article from CBS News (Modified)

Background: In the winter of 1995, a massive fire broke out at Malden Mills, a textile company in Lawrence, MA. Though no one was killed, Malden Mills was one of the largest employers in the community. At a time when many people were already struggling financially, hundreds of people lost their jobs and livelihoods.

“The only thing that went through my mind was, how can I possibly recreate it,” says owner Aaron Feuerstein, the third generation of his family to run the mill.

“I was proud of the family business and I wanted to keep that alive, and I wanted that to survive. But I also felt the responsibility for all my employees, to take care of them, to give them jobs.”

He made a decision—one that others in the textile industry found hard to believe. Feuerstein decided to rebuild right there in Lawrence—not to move down South or overseas as much of the industry had done in search of cheap labor.

He also made another shocking decision. For the next 60 days, all employees would be paid their full salaries.

“I think it was a wise business decision, but that isn't why I did it. I did it because it was the right thing to do,” says Feuerstein.

Some might have said the proper business decision was to take the $300 million in insurance and retire.

“And what would I do with it? Eat more? Buy another suit? Retire and die,” asks Feuerstein. “No, that did not go into my mind.”

He kept his promises. Workers picked up their checks for months. In all, he paid out $25 million and became known as the Mensch of Malden Mills—a businessman who seemed to care more about his workers than about his net worth.


“I got a lot of publicity. And I don't think that speaks well for our times,” says Feuerstein. “At the time in America of the greatest prosperity, the god of money has taken over to an extreme.”

For guidance he turns to the Torah, the book of Jewish law.

“You are not permitted to oppress the working man, because he's poor and he's needy, amongst your brethren and amongst the non–Jew in your community,” says Feuerstein, who spent $300 million of the insurance money and then borrowed $100 million more to build a new plant that is both environmentally friendly and worker friendly. And it's a union shop that never had a strike.

Update: In 2001, Malden Mills filed for bankruptcy. In 2007 the company eventually collapsed.

Source: Leung, Rebecca. “The Mensch of Malden Mills: CEO Aaron Feuerstein Puts Employees First.” CBS News. July 3, 2003. Retrieved January 10, 2015 from

Discussion Questions about the Mensch of Malden Mills

  1. Describe the events that took place at Malden Mills.
  2. How is this story similar to or different from labor issues in New York City in the early 20th century?
  3. After the fire, what were Aaron Feuerstein’s main concerns?
  4. Why were so many people in the business world surprised by the action Aaron Feuerstein took after the fire?
  5. What informed his decision-making process?
  6. What were the consequences/results of Aaron Feuerstein’s decisions?
  7. What lessons could we learn from these events?

Bangladeshi Factories

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New York Times Article about Bangladeshi Factory Inspections (Modified)

Background: On April 24, 2013, an eight–story clothing factory called Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over 2,500 people were injured and 1,129 perished in the disaster, considered the deadliest garment factory accident in history. Though the factory was overseas, several American brands were associated with the factory including Walmart, J C Penney, as well as the Swedish retailer H&M.

DHAKA, Bangladesh—Not even two months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building claimed more than 1,100 lives, a team of engineers arrived to assess another factory in the center of the capital. It was named Al–Hamra Garments, and it was one of hundreds of factories undergoing post–disaster inspections as Bangladesh sought to prove that its critical apparel industry was safe.

But this inspection, conducted in mid–June, was startling. The two engineers discovered that the eight–story factory was partly propped up by temporary cast–iron pillars placed on the ground floor. Several original beams and columns were cracked or disintegrating. And the factory was open for business, with more than 1,000 workers producing clothing for a Bangladeshi apparel conglomerate whose customers include Walmart and Gap.

“Considering the severity of the building condition it is recommended that the use of the building be discontinued immediately,” the two inspectors, professors at the country’s top engineering college, concluded in their preliminary assessment report.

Yet last Saturday, nearly two weeks after the inspection, Al–Hamra Garments was still open. “The factory is fine,” said an administrator, Shafiul Azam Chowdhury, on Saturday afternoon. He said two other inspection teams had concluded that the temporary propping made the building safe enough to continue operations during structural repairs.

Julfika Ali Manik contributed reporting.

Source: Yardley, Jim. “After Disaster, Bangladesh Lags in Policing Its Factories.” The New York Times. July 2, 2013. Retreived on January 10, 2015 from

Discussion Questions about Bangladeshi factories

  1. What situation is this article describing? What are the issues that factory owners and workers need to address?
  2. How is this story similar to or different from labor issues in New York City in the early 20th century?
  3. Think back to the traditional Jewish text from Mishnah, Bava Metzia 7:1 that talks about treating workers according to the “custom of the land” (minhag hamakom)? What does this article teach us about the “custom of the land” in Bangladeshi garment factories in 2013?
  4. As American citizens, do we have a responsibility to change labor practices in other countries? Why or why not?

Foxconn’s Apple Factories

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New York Times Article about Foxconn’s Apple Factories

Background: Foxconn Technology Group is a Taiwanese company that contracts with Apple to make iPads and iPhones. In the mid–2000’s, several serious allegations of poor working conditions led Apple to review the labor practices at many Foxconn factories. These audits uncovered poor working conditions, reports of unpaid overtime, employees working far too many hours, and a rash of suicides brought on by work-related issues.

Apple and its main supplier, Foxconn, have improved working conditions at Chinese factories that make most of the world’s iPads and iPhones, according to auditors the companies enlisted to monitor the process, but tough tasks still lie ahead.

The Fair Labor Association said local laws would require the companies—which came under fire because of conditions at the plants blamed for a series of suicides in 2010—to reduce hours by almost a third by 2013 for the hundreds of thousands working in Foxconn plants across southern China. Foxconn said Wednesday it would continue to cut overtime, aiming for fewer than nine hours a week instead of the current 20, even though that could raise labor costs while making it difficult to attract workers.

“It is a challenge. When we reduce overtime it means we need to hire more people and implement more automation, more investment on robotic engineering. More workers also mean more dormitories and recreational facilities; it takes time,” said Louis Woo, special assistant to the chief executive of Foxconn.

“But I expect more loyalty from workers as a result, and then we can save more costs on recruitment and retainment,” he said. “Yield rates will also improve. Efficiency in terms of productivity, yield gain, retention and lower turnover rates should be able to improve next year.”


“A lot of workers have clearly come to Shenzhen to make as much money as they can in as short a period as they can, and overtime hours are very important in that calculation,” he said. Mr. Woo said Foxconn had been constantly telling workers about the importance of the quality of life and health.

“This is the thing we need to continue to communicate with workers, especially young migrant workers, that anyone who works more than a certain number of hours will feel tired and not well,” he said. “If we can improve the work environment and benefits, they can enjoy their life better.”

Source: Reuters. “Work Conditions Said to Improve at Apple Supplier.” The New York Times. August 22, 2012. Retrieved on January 10, 2015 from

Discussion Questions about New York Times Article about Foxconn’s Apple Factories

  1. What situation is this article describing? What are the issues that factory owners and workers need to address?
  2. How is this story similar to or different from labor issues in New York City in the early 20th century?
  3. Think back to the traditional Jewish text from Mishnah, Bava Metzia 7:1 that talks about treating workers according to the “custom of the land” (minhag hamakom)? What does this article teach us about the “custom of the land” in these Chinese technology plants from 2010–2013?
  4. As American citizens, do we have a responsibility to change labor practices in other countries? Why or why not?

Self Check-In

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This is a handout for teachers to use when teaching Jewish Time Jump: New York, Module 4.

Word Web Worksheet

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Handout for teachers to use when teaching Jewish Time Jump: New York, Module 4.

Being An Agent of Change Handout

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This is a handout for teachers to use when teaching Jewish Time Jump: New York, Module 4.

Handout by Etta King and Rachel Kest.

Investigative Interviews Handout

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Handout for teachers to use when teaching Jewish Time Jump: New York, Module 4.

Teacher resources

Jewish Time Jump Game: Parent and Teacher Guide


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The Rana Plaza building, located in Savar, a sub-district of Dhaka in Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24, 2013. Photo by Flickr user rijans.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Contemporary Labor Issues (Module #4)." (Viewed on April 14, 2024) <>.