As a kid, I thought there were three (not ten) COMMANDMENTS in our family. I’m not sure anymore what elevated these three over “be honest,” “no playing on the stairs,” or “stay away from my peonies,” but here they are:
1. Thou shalt vote.
2. Thou shalt not cross a picket line.
3. On Friday night, thou shalt turn off the TV and come to Shabbat dinner, even if Star Trek is on.
For Labor Day, I’d like to look at number 2. Should Jews still support labor unions?
Here are some Jewish reasons I think we should:
1. Power: Our prophets knew the dangers of economic power. Employers exercise enormous power over workers. Unions provide a counterbalance.
2. Voice. Our tradition is big on voice. “Hear, O Israel….” “Doing Torah” is all about voice. Shouldn’t workers have a voice in their working lives?
3. Covenant. The prophetic opposite of power relations is covenant relations. We band together. We relate to each other in ways we’ve mutually agreed upon.
4. Our ancestors were slaves who rebelled against Pharaoh and garment workers who rebelled against oppressive bosses.
5. It’s a mitzvah to do what’s good for our country. Labor unions are good for the country. Studies show they increase productivity. They help keep more people more comfortably middle class and help prevent extreme income inequality that tends to crash economies.
It’s true that unions, like corporations and democratic government, can become greedy and corrupt. We need safeguards against that. And 21st century modes of work require 21st century methods of organizing folks to give them power and voice in their own lives. But organized labor is still necessary for the ethical and economic well-being of the country. The second of the Three Commandments still applies.
To learn more about Jews and the Labor Movement or to get involved, here are some links:
Rabbi Jeremy Schwartz is the rabbi at Temple Bnai Israel in Connecticut and a 2012-2013 Brickner Fellow.