We Must Celebrate Labor Organizing and Its Long History in Jewish Tradition

Labor organizing is deeply rooted in Jewish culture and texts.
September 1, 2023
Western Union strike in New York City, 1946. (Photo by European/FPG/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the late-19th century, labor rights activists across the United States, entrenched in the depths of the Industrial Revolution, began to advocate for a national holiday that recognized the sacrifices and contributions of American workers. Following a robust advocacy campaign led by a coalition of preeminent labor unions, President Grover Cleveland officially declared Labor Day a national holiday on June 28, 1894.

But over a century later, many people who reap the benefits of Labor Day by taking the day off from work or school are unaware of its significance. With Labor Day approaching, it’s even more important that we, as Jewish people living in Los Angeles, understand the impact that labor organizing has played in our history, city and traditions.

Jews have been entrenched in labor organizing since the early years of the U.S. labor movement. In the late 1880s, many Jews, largely immigrants from Eastern Europe, joined labor unions. Jews played a central role in an 1886 strike for the eight-hour work day and founded the United Hebrew Trades in 1888. In 1909, the mostly Jewish women-led Uprising of 20,000 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) sought higher wages and better working conditions.

Female garment workers in Cincinnati sell newspapers to support their fellow workers in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, who are striking in New York, circa 1910. (Photo by Paul Thompson/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While the dramatic strikes and drawn-out labor disputes of the Gilded Age may appear distant, many similar struggles exist today, several of which impact Angelenos. The ongoing strikes by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) are omnipresent in our city as writers and actors seek, among other things, better residual pay from streaming services.

The Torah states that “workers are entitled to eat as much as they like, provided that the food comes from the field in which they are actually working.”

Jewish texts actually set a standard for such an issue. The Torah states that “workers are entitled to eat as much as they like, provided that the food comes from the field in which they are actually working.” In other words, an employee has the right to receive a share of the money that the company earns. Beyond residual pay for actors and writers, this standard applies equally to more modern forms of compensation such as employee stock ownership options and tip sharing.

Members of Writers of America East and SAG-AFTRA hold signs while walking a picket line on August 29, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

While the plight of those who supply our never-ending flow of streaming content is currently top of mind, many recent labor fights in Los Angeles have been overlooked. One such effort has been driven by UNITE HERE Local 11, a union of hotel, food service, laundry, warehouse and casino workers. Formerly led by renowned Jewish labor leader Myra Wolfgang, this major union has been striking for higher wages and better working conditions since their contracts with area hotels expired in early July.

Another labor struggle that can be tied to Jewish values comes out of Amazon. On strike to protest unfair and unsafe labor practices, Amazon delivery drivers and dispatchers are asking the company to install AC units in their trucks and to nix regulations on the amount of water allowed on a route. Further, those responsible for getting our coveted online orders from the warehouse to our front door want policies that prevent them from being overworked.

The Torah and Talmud both famously outline an ancient form of a “Fair Labor Standards Act,” which dictates that workers not continue labor at night. It goes on to indicate a limit on the amount of work an employee can do by designating a day of rest each week. This, of course, is known as the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest built into the Jewish calendar.

While major labor disputes continue to rage across the country, some unions have seen recent success. The Teamsters UPS Package Division, which was set to go on strike at the end of July, recently signed a new contract that affords drivers higher wages and better working conditions. This momentous achievement is a quintessential example of the power of organizing and collective bargaining, actions strongly supported by Judaism.

From our ancient texts to the Jewish-led strikes of the 20th century, labor organizing is deeply intertwined with Judaism. This Labor Day, I encourage my fellow Jewish citizens, particularly those in my teenage cohort who will have the day off while likely not understanding why, to explore this history and tradition. For in order to respect labor organizing, we need to first understand who and what came before us.

Simon Bank is a senior at Geffen Academy at UCLA and legislative fellow at the Jewish Center for Justice. He is a labor rights activist and is currently working with UCLA’s Professor Tobias Higbie on labor history research.

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