By Rabbi David Saperstein
This Shabbat falls at the beginning of the Labor Day holiday weekend, which traditionally marks the end of summer. Labor Day today often finds us at barbecues or enjoying the beach one last time before fall, but the holiday originally was created to celebrate unions and the role of workers in our society.
Jewish tradition strongly supports the right of employees to be treated with dignity by their employers. The Torah teaches us: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer…You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it;” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).
Later tradition expands on this teaching by addressing not only wages but also working conditions. In Sefer Chasidim, the Book of the Pious (13th century), Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Ratisbon asserts that an employer is not permitted to oppress an employee: “When someone hires a worker, he should not burden the worker too much or give him more than he can do… Even though the worker may seek it, it is forbidden to burden him more than he can handle.”
Carrying on this tradition, the Reform Movement often has affirmed its commitment to the rights of workers. Over the years we have spoken out on behalf of farm workers, denounced sweatshops and child labor, opposed wage discrimination and supported living wage campaigns. Our Workers Rights Resolution affirmed that workers are entitled to organize and bargain collectively, and reiterated earlier resolutions that called for workers to be treated with dignity, to be paid a living wage and to work in a healthy, safe and secure workplace.
Jews have played a heroic role in building the North American labor movement, most prominently in the garment unions in major urban centers—from Montreal and Baltimore to Philadelphia, Chicago, and of course, New York—where immigrants escaping pogroms and other oppression came in search of a better future for themselves and their children.
Although Jews were union leaders and organizers, they also were concentrated on both sides of the aisle in the apparel industry. At the turn of the last century, most Eastern European Jewish immigrants worked in the garment shops; at the same time, more than 95 percent of New York City’s garment manufacturers were Jewish. Prominent Jews such as Louis Brandeis and Jacob Schiff were instrumental in negotiating collective bargaining agreements that set the standards for decent workplaces and created the framework for the United States to promote the New Deal and the Great Society.
For decades, Jewish union and business leaders stood together to create and promote fair standards in industry and government support for these initiatives. Throughout, there was a civility on both sides—among workers and employers alike—that reflected levels of decency and caring about which we can be exceedingly proud. Proponents of a guaranteed minimum wage, an eight-hour workday and unemployment compensation, Jews advocated for such legislation, enabling countless immigrants—Jews and others—to take advantage of union education programs that promoted their integration into American society. Immigrants of the day also benefited from public education and many young Jewish women, especially, whose parents worked in sweatshops, garnered education that led them to careers as schoolteachers, in turn educating newer waves of immigrants.
Today’s immigrants deserve the same advantages our grandparents and great grandparents enjoyed: the right to dignity on the job, including safety, and a living wage. Indeed, recent images of young undocumented immigrants—brought here as children—lining up to register for President Obama’s “deferred action” so that they can study and work legally in pursuit of their dreams exemplify the same yearnings for a better life that brought our own ancestors to these shores.
Although unions today may be weaker than in the past, the issues they address are more critical than ever. With the workplace and the workforce in transition—and with an ongoing global recession that continues to create severe hardship for so many—the most vulnerable among us especially need the support and solidarity of others to ensure that their voices are heard. This Labor Day, let us recall our tradition’s teaching to “Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:9)
Rabbi David Saperstein is director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.