The controversy regarding Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate most of the collective bargaining agreements of public sector employees is, at the time of the publication of this blog, only a few days old. Yet this controversy has engendered heated debate, discussion, and disagreement on the issues.
For this Rabbi, it is difficult to understand the severity of Governor Walker’s proposal, as it runs completely counter to the history and direction of organized labor, and the benefits that organized labor has brought to our economy. The century-and-a-half stream of collective bargaining agreements in our country is a tide that has raised all boats: bringing the working class into the middle class; increasing the productivity and the profitability of the companies and public agencies that hire union workers; and providing lives of dignity for all participants.
The system of union representation has granted real human dignity to each person in our land, those who are union workers and others who have benefited – at some time in their lives – from a union agreement.
What is our connection?
Here is a brief synopsis of the Jewish position on labor and related issues, and perhaps hints as to why Jews can proudly support the stance of the labor union members who will be drastically affected by the proposed loss of the power of collective bargaining.
We Jews are heirs of a prophetic tradition that has ever sought to perfect the world that God gave to us. As the book of Genesis reminds us, we are all made in the divine image, and no one person is inherently better than another. That is why we honor the dignity of each person, for their being a member of the human family, and for their chosen work in the world.
The books of Leviticus [19:13] and Deuteronomy [24:14-15] demand that employers should be fair and honest in their relationships with their employees. From these Scriptures we specifically learn “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” And “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy…Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.”
And the book of Exodus [23:12] brought forth the ancient but sublime innovation of a day of rest. Specifically in connection with the laborer, it commands, “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household, and the foreigner as well, may be refreshed”.
The Talmud not only deals with working conditions and appropriate wages, but provides justification for the establishment of workers' unions and guilds. Later Jewish rabbinic tradition continues this trend, referring both to the need for people to work seriously and long, and the sanction for organizers to organize for their benefit and safety. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like information about specifics.
Textual references are important, but remember this: We in the liberal community follow the words of certain scripture passages not because God commanded them and/or out of a fear of punishment, but rather because they represent wisdom in building – together with God – a just world.
The American Jewish tradition of support for union organizing and collective bargaining began more than 100 years ago, beginning in earnest with the tragedy that we know of as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One hundred forty-six women lost their lives that March day, whose centenary anniversary we will observe next month. From that event we strove to correct the unsafe and unjust conditions at factories and sweatshops all across the country. We moved forward and continued to honor the dignity of all workers who daily toil for themselves and for their family.
What does all this mean?
Our Jewish religious and civil tradition demands that employers treat workers fairly, from providing adequate wages and benefits, to ensuring safe and appropriate working conditions. And the ability of workers to bargain collectively has allowed us to achieve a higher standard of living for workers, such as a fair and safe workplace; to raise the profits and benefits of employers due to the hard work of dedicated employees such as you; and to receive many other benefits for working people in our country.
We therefore move onward with work and workers' right as sacred , because, our tradition states, “Great is labor for it gives honor to the laborer” [Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 49b].