From the Triangle Fire through Madison Wisconsin: What is to be done?

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in New York City a century ago is now being memorialized in programs across the country. It took that fire on March 25, 1911, and the deaths of 146 innocent garment workers – mostly women, mostly Jewish, mostly immigrants – to bring about meaningful safety regulations, and to respect the call of workers struggling to secure the benefits of union membership.  Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents played a critical role in building a strong and vibrant labor movement with the hope that it would endure and remain a permanent feature of American life.  Through their actions and their struggle, our lives and the lives of most Americans were made better.  Today, those hard-fought gains are under threat in communities across the United States.

What has emerged in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and across America is an attack against working men and women in both the public and private sector. The targets are the public employees now, but their intention is to come after all unionized workers.

The federal government, using taxpayer money, bailed out the banks and saved Wall Street. Now, corporate leaders and the elected officials they support are saying thank you by demanding tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and budgets balanced on the backs of working people – including many in the Jewish community. It’s a perverse form of gratitude.

The budget deficits cited to rationalize the attacks on public service workers’ collective bargaining rights are nothing more than a diversion: the real aim is to debilitate the labor movement state by state, for political, not economic, ends, and in doing so, curtail fundamental rights for all working people. That is why all of us need to speak up, now.

Fortunately, the latest opinion polls show that a vast majority of Americans continue to support the legal right of working people to be represented by the union of their choice, and to engage incollective bargaining.  But as caring Jews, as thoughtful Americans, we must not become complacent – we must continue to speak out against the Governor of Wisconsin and others of his ilk trying to dismantle the unions founded by our forefathers and foremothers and erode the workplace protections they fought so hard to achieve.

Many Jewish texts, from the Torah through the Talmud, deal specifically with the treatment of workers. The Torah urges “justice, justice, shall you pursue.”  There is, then, a deeply moral, historical and theological basis for our efforts to close the widening gap between the rich and poor, and to prevent growing economic instability that will be detrimental for all Americans.  This demands that we strengthen, not weaken, private and public sector unions to ensure that current and aspiring middle class Americans attain a decent standard of living and greater economic security.

The history of the American Jewish community is one of upward mobility and expanding economic opportunity.  But upward mobility and shared prosperity cannot be achieved by lowering job standards and pitting workers against each other – which is what some would like to do.  The artificial divisions that are part of the attack against organized labor must be challenged – by unions and their community allies as well.  The Jewish Labor Committee is proud of our work to bring the Jewish community and the labor movement together in common cause – and we invite you to join us.  If not now, when?

Durable coalitions that include organized labor and the organized Jewish community need to support policies that will boost overall working conditions and lift up workers who are the least well-off.  We know from our own experience that the middle class was built not by making jobs worse but making jobs better: unions fought hard to raise standards across industries and occupations, and we were all better off for it.

Remembering what Jews once did and continue to do for working people and for a strong American economy should make us hopeful about our ability to safeguard a society that promotes justice, and ensures equality and fairness for all.

It took that terrible fire a century ago to shock many into finally accepting the need for reform, and to defend the interests of workers. Solidarity with garment workers, and among workers of diverse kinds, became a daily bond that fortified our own communities. We must remember this today as we remember those who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100 years ago, and now honor the courageous men and women of Wisconsin, and all working people whose basic rights are under attack.

Stuart Appelbaum is President of the Jewish Labor Committee and President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.

The Torah of Wisconsin

In the streets of Madison, we can hear the echoes of Torah. From Moses to Maimonides to modern day Rabbis across the country, Jews have a long and lively history of supporting the rights of working people. Rabbis Bonnie Margulis and Jonathan Biatch recently reported from Wisconsin that standing for worker’s rights is “absolutely” the Jewish thing to do. Now is a good moment to ask ourselves, why?

For the past 150 years, labor unions have formed the backbone of progressive movements for social change. In Egypt, the winds of change blew hardest when workers from Alexandria to Aswan joined the youth revolution. In America, unions are woven into the story of empowerment for countless generations of immigrant workers, Jews among them, and the struggle of American minorities—from the sanitation workers of Memphis in the 1960s to the janitors of Los Angeles today.

The issue in Wisconsin is no longer about budgeting or steep cuts in wages and benefits—the unions and Governor Scott Walker are in full agreement there. When Governor Walker began targeting the ability of public employees to bargain collectively for their common good, he targeted our country’s most fundamental labor right: the right to a voice on the job. Our Jewish tradition urges us to see this as a shofar call to action.

It is no coincidence that the first lessons we receive after being freed from slavery in Egypt are on the treatment of workers. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger… You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets… else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt” (Deuteronomy, 24:14-15). The third century mishnah and tosefta instructs employers to meet or exceed local custom in terms of wages and benefits, and the Babylonian Talmud gives town residents the right to intervene between a local employer and a worker to insure that wages are fair. All this is codified by centuries of commentaries, Talmud scholars and jurists.

Contemporary Halakhic (Jewish legal) decisions continue this strong tradition. 

In 1938, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uzziel, the Rishon le-Tziyon (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel), wrote: “It is obvious that the Sages, of blessed memory, recognized the regulations of a craftsman’s guild or union of laborers or clerks in the general labor federation, or other federations of professionals.” Rabbi Uzziel explicates this further: “Reason also dictates that we should not leave the worker alone, isolated as an individual, so that he would have to hire himself out for minimal wages in order to satisfy his and his family’s hunger with bread and water in meager quantities and with a dark and dank apartment. In order to protect himself the law gave him the legal right to organize, and to create regulations for his fellows for the fair and equitable division of labor amongst them and the attaining of dignified treatment and appropriate payment for his work—so that he might support his family at the same standard of living as other residents of his city.”

And Rabbi Uzziel was not alone. In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Ashkanzi scholar and posek (authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law), recognized the right of workers to organize and to have their regulations and rules seen as binding. He also recognized, in certain conditions, their right to strike. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek, concurred in a series of Responsa that extended Rabbi Waldenberg’s holding to include the right of workers to prevent scabs from doing their jobs and to include the rights of religious school teachers to bargain collectively, even though community funds and the religious obligation to teach Torah were at stake. In May 2008, a Responsa by Rabbi Jill Jacobs was passed by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, calling on Jewish organizations and synagogues to allow collective bargaining by their employees.

In sum, Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent—the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society. From the synagogue to the state house, Jews must therefore call on those who govern to find the path toward economic justice regardless of how difficult that road is to travel. Our heritage, as the sweatshop workers and copper miners of yesterday, bears witness to it. Our tradition compels it.

Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, author of the forthcoming Justice in the City: Toward a Community of Obligation (Academic Studies Press), is a past President and current member of the PJA board of directors, and an Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University.