Contemporary Jewish Labor Campaigns: The Labor Movement Begins at Home
Explore contemporary Jewish labor campaigns on issues such as the living wage and the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, and analyze how and why Jewish organizations are advocating in solidarity with oppressed workers.
- Mechanisms for protecting the rights of laborers found in the Classical Jewish tradition continue to serve us in the contemporary Jewish world.
- As employers, employees, and consumers, we are all engaged in labor relations and responsible for making sure working conditions are fair.
- What does Jewish tradition teach about fair and unfair working conditions and why everyone should be concerned, regardless of whether they experience harsh working conditions themselves?
- In what ways do unfair labor practices violate basic human rights and what approaches are currently being used to abolish them?
Notes to Teacher
In this lesson, students will learn about two contemporary labor issues that look at labor relations “at home” (both within the home and within the Jewish community) and why and how Jewish organizations are working in solidarity with oppressed workers. Students will use classical Jewish sources, as well as primary and secondary sources, to create contemporary labor “before” and “after” improvisational (improv) scenes. It’s important that students understand that being concerned about and responding to these social problems is not uniquely Jewish —domestic workers and low-paid workers have allies in many different communities. However, as Jews, we and our students can make use of traditional texts to remind us of our responsibility for these problems and their resolution. It’s also important for students to understand that while they themselves may not be victimized workers (although young employees are often subject to worker abuses), they may be witnesses to or beneficiaries of unfair, abusive, and illegal employment practices. For example, the cleaning staff in their school may be paid less than a living wage even if they are paid minimum wage; and the nanny looking after the kids next door may not be given a day off every week.
This lesson will work well in conjunction with Lesson 4, as both lessons look at the role of contemporary Jews as potential allies of workers. In addition, we refer you back to Lesson 2 for materials about origins of Jewish working women in the labor movement.
Additionally, Lesson 2 walks students through the process of writing their own personal work manifestos which will allow them explore their principles and intentions for their work lives. This activity could be a good way to wrap up Lesson 8 and to tie the larger themes and struggles of the labor movement to a piece of students' individual experience.
Contemporary Jewish Labor Campaigns: Introductory Essay
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 [lightbox:15065]teshuvah[/lightbox] 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
Pose the following questions to students to stimulate interest in and get a sense of what your students know about the lesson’s content. Some students may know a great deal about the topic and others very little. Give students time to write their answers to the questions, solicit their responses, and put the students’ responses on the board.
- What kinds of working conditions might be considered unfair, unjust, or abusive?
- What does Jewish tradition teach about why we should we be concerned with those who suffer unfair working conditions?
- Do unfair working conditions affect you personally even if you’re not the worker experiencing those conditions? Where do you interact with workers in your daily life?
- In what ways do unfair labor practices violate basic human rights and what methods are currently being used to abolish them?
- Who are some of the workers who may be most vulnerable to unfair conditions?
Allow students to share their responses without having judgments made about them, either by the teacher or fellow students. Responses may include such statements as “I don’t care about unfair working conditions” or “I’m not responsible for working to abolish unfair labor practices.” Students are more likely to see a role for themselves in solving these societal problems, or at least to come to appreciate society’s responsibility for fair labor practices, if they are not put on the defensive for making such statements early in the lesson.
Have students read the Lesson 8 introductory essay and/or do an internet search for more information on the topics of domestic work and the activism of Jewish organizations on behalf of domestic workers and on the topic of the living wage. They can start by visiting the websites of Jews For Racial Economic Justice, and looking at A Living Wage Teshuvah by Rabbi Jill Jacobs. Be sure that students gather and understand the following information:
- Summary of the problems that domestic workers experience or of the issue of a living wage
- Why Jewish organizations are working on these social problems or what Jewish organizations are advised to do regarding paying a living wage
- What the organizations are doing to help workers and what adopting Rabbi Jacobs’s recommendations would do for low-paid workers in Jewish organizations
Before and After Improv Scenes
- Explain to students that they are going to be working in groups to interpret and use the primary sources, which include both classic Jewish texts and a modern-day responsum written by Conservative Rabbi Jill Jacobs to create improv scenes about current labor conditions and how they are being addressed or might be addressed by Jews.
Create four groups of students, each with a minimum of two and a maximum of six students. Suggest the following roles to students as examples of whom they may choose to include in their scenes: domestic worker, janitor, home health aide, food service worker, Jewish organization personnel, employers of domestic workers, employer of shul cleaning staff, rabbis and synagogue leaders, and innocent bystanders like the students themselves who witness or benefit from the work being done. Explain that they will have 10 minutes to plan their scenes, and assign each group one of the following scenes:
- Domestic laborers before the establishment of a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights
- Domestic laborers who have achieved a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights
- Workers paid below a living wage
- Workers after their employer adopts the recommendations in the living wage teshuvah
- Read through the primary sources as a class and answer students’ questions about the sources to ensure their comprehension. Explain to students that each group must use examples in their scenes from at least two of the primary source excerpts on their sheets. They can quote directly or paraphrase.
- Go over the Improv Acting Guidelines. You can give an example or two to demonstrate such concepts as being aware of and using props in the space, working with scene partners versus stopping the action or making a joke that makes the scene partner look bad, etc. There’s no need to spend a whole lot of time on this, as students will likely have some experience with improv. Give students ten minutes to plan their scenes, reminding them to keep it simple and not to over direct it ahead of time.
Have students perform their scenes in the order suggested in the scene list above. Be sure that the groups watching do so respectfully and applaud those performing when they are done. After the scenes are over, lead a discussion about the concepts and values concerning Jews and modern-day labor issues that you and the students noticed in the scenes. Questions to pose to students can include the following:
- What does Jewish tradition teach about why we should we be concerned about unfair working conditions, even if it is not a problem we experience personally?
- In what ways do unfair labor practices violate basic human rights? What approaches are currently being used to abolish unfair labor practices?
- Why do you think formal guidance and rules about working conditions and payment (such as a teshuvah about living wage, or a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights) might be necessary?
- In what ways can we act in solidarity with oppressed workers in our midst?
Jewish Sources on Labor
Jewish Sources on Labor
20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
What is the implication for how Jews should treat non-Jews who are in their employ?
13 Do not oppress your neighbor and do not rob him. Do not keep the wages of the worker with you until morning.
Why does this text compare not giving the worker his/her wages on the day the labor was completed to oppressing and robbing one’s neighbor?
14 Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. 15 Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them, lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you.
- Why is the hired laborer assumed to be poor and needy?
- How should Jewish employers treat workers working for them who are not Jewish?
Mishnah, N’darim 49b
Rabbi Yehuda used to go into the beit midrash (house of study) carrying a pitcher on his shoulders. He would say, “Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it.” Rabbi Shimon would carry a basket on his shoulders, and would say, “Great is work, as it gives honor to the one who does it."
What is the value given to work by Rabbis Yehuda and Shimon?
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 83a
תלמוד בבלי - מסכת בבא מציעא
We need [this statement] for the case in which the employer raises the workers’ wages. In the case in which he says to them, “I raised your wages in order that you would begin work early and stay late,” they may reply, “You raised our wages in order that we would do better work.”
What does this say about how employers should treat workers?
Excerpt from the Living Wage Teshuvah
2) Jewish employers are obligated to treat their workers with dignity and respect. This obligation should include, but should not be limited to, prohibitions against publicly yelling at, mocking, or otherwise embarrassing workers; forbidding employees from speaking their native languages at work; banning all bathroom breaks; changing work hours or adding shifts without advance notice; or making improper sexual comments or advances toward workers.
3) Jewish employers must pay their workers on time, according to an agreed-upon schedule, and may not pay workers with bad checks. Employers must pay workers for the full time worked, including mandatory preparation and clean-up hours. Employers who hire workers through a contractor should make every effort to ensure that these workers are being paid on time.
4) Jewish employers may not knowingly put their employees’ lives at risk by failing to provide appropriate safety equipment and training, or by knowingly forcing workers to work under dangerous conditions.
5) Jewish employers should strive to pay workers a “living wage”… When deciding among the options available, employers should not select a wage level that, while technically considered a living wage (according to a local ordinance, for example), is so low that employers know that workers will certainly need to take on additional jobs, and/or to endanger their health by working an excessive number of hours.
6) In most cases, unions offer the most effective means of collective bargaining and of ensuring that workers are treated with dignity and paid sufficiently. Jewish employers should allow their employees to make their own independent decisions about whether to unionize, and may not interfere in any way with organizing drives by firing or otherwise punishing involved workers, by refusing workers the option for "card check" elections, or by otherwise threatening workers who wish to unionize. When hiring low-wage workers or engaging contractors who supply low-wage workers, Jewish employers should strive to hire unionized workers when possible.
7) The principle of dina d'malkhuta dina obligates Jewish employers to comply with federal labor laws, even when these laws are inconsistently enforced.
8) Jewish employees are obligated to work at full capacity during their work hours, and not to "steal time" from their employers. Jewish union leaders should similarly strive to ensure that workers uphold the halakhic obligations of employees to employers. The ideal worker-employer relationship should be one of trusted partnership, in which each party looks out for the well-being of the other, and in which the two parties consider themselves to be working together for the perfection of the divine world.
- Can you find any influences from Torah or Talmud not already cited on these pages that support Rabbi Jacobs’s recommendations?
- What are the implications from Rabbi Jacobs’s teshuvah for Jews’ responsibilities to help domestic workers and unfree workers?
Excerpts from "Who Cleans Your House?"
When Jews hire people to do household jobs—anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents—we are the ones who represent a privileged class, with funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than most other Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury… Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one… And it’s time to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and “the help” (almost always female) we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs. According to Domestic Workers United, virtually all domestic workers today (and “domestic workers” is the term they prefer) are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness…
Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to Domestic Workers United, some day workers receive as little as two dollars an hour; some live-ins are paid 250 dollars a month. Domestic Workers United recommends a living wage of 14 dollars an hour. Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination—all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers…
[Gayle] Kirshenbaum [of JFREJ] described hosting a [“living room”] meeting at a home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers. “There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, but no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.”
“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like light bulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?’”
“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”
- Why are domestic workers particularly vulnerable?
- What are the challenges associated with creating fair conditions between employers and domestic workers? Why?
- How does formalizing employment conditions in a contract change the situation of domestic workers? How might it change the situation for employers, too?
- Do you think the fair treatment of domestic workers is a Jewish issue? Why or why not?
Improv Acting Guidelines
Improv Acting Guidelines
Below are a few guidelines for creating believable and understandable improv scenes even if you’ve never acted before!
- IF YOU BELIEVE IT, SO WILL YOUR AUDIENCE. If you believe you are digging a ditch or scrubbing a floor, so will your audience. You just have to put it in your mind and body. If you believe yourself that you are actually doing what you are pretending to do, then your audience will have no trouble following your performance.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE. Keep your movements minimal enough so that your audience gets the picture and is not straining to understand what you are doing. While you should know that you are planting carrot seeds on a 40-acre farm in rural Georgia, all your audience needs to know is that you are planting seeds. Remember: be specific with your actions.
- COMMIT! If you are sewing shirts in a sweatshop, do not suddenly start playing a musical instrument. Finish what you start.
- CREATE YOUR PROPS AND DO NOT TRIP OVER THEM. If you need a table, allow there to be one in a particular place in the room. Do not forget it is there and walk through it when you get out of your chair and walk out of the room. If your scene partners create props like tables, be sure to remember where they are. If you walk through tables, walls, or bathtubs, your audience will not believe you.
- CREATE YOUR SPACE. If you are in a restaurant kitchen or an office suite, for example, be aware of your space: how large or small, how low the ceiling, is there a carpeting on the floor, and so on. Put imaginary props in the space to define it better.
- BE SPONTANEOUS. In improvisation there is no script. You know who you are, where you are, your relationship to the other players, and what the scene is about. Do not think about specifics; remember what the scene is about and make offers of dialogue, etc. to your scene partners and accept theirs.
- MAKE YOUR SCENE PARTNERS LOOK GREAT. Your scenes will be best if all of the players do their part and look good, so if someone offers you an imaginary cup of tea, take it and drink! Don’t be a talking head; use as few words as possible with as much physical action as possible. Be respectful of scene partners’ bodies: no rough shoving, hitting, or other hurtful actions. If you are trying to show an employer’s abuse of an employee, be sure to do so without actually touching the person.
 Adapted from Lori Shaller, “Learning About Human Rights and Slavery,” Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, http://www.rhr-na.org/documents/Slavery-Teaching.pdf
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Contemporary Jewish Labor Campaigns: The Labor Movement Begins at Home." (Viewed on January 22, 2018) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/labor/contemporary-jewish-labor-campaigns-labor-movement-begins-at-home>.