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Labor Day and Living Wages

08/25/2023 03:58:45 PM


Shabbat Shalom!  This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ki Teitzei, which contains the most laws of any single parasha in the Torah. Among these lists of commandments are rules regarding fair labor practices. 


Next week is Labor Day. Often these national holidays lose their meaning in the excitement of simply having three day weekends. With Labor Day, I suppose it is a little less offensive than with Memorial Day (for example) but people died for the labor movement as well. And as I like to often remind everyone I know, those who fought and shed blood, sweat, tears for a basic wage, 40 hour work weeks, an end to child labor, and safe working conditions, were disproportionately Jewish women. 


On this day in history, August 25, 1950, President Truman issued an historic executive order for the US Army to seize the railroads and locomotives, in order to crush an impending strike. President Biden encouraged similarly devastating legislation last year when he signed a law that made railroad strikes simply illegal. Fortunately, this spring, more legislation was passed to address some of the safety concerns of the railroad workers, but the right to strike for fair working conditions is as American as the occasional three day weekend, and as Jewish as this week’s Torah portion. 


Among the many verses in this parasha is the injunction to pay wages each day, to pay workers fairly whether native or foreigner, and to refrain from exploiting the desperation of some laborers. The Torah compares wage theft and abuse of power in such dynamics to our ancestors' slavery in Egypt. Toward the end of the portion, the Torah also commands honest weights and measures, so that a merchant of some kind may not rig the weight or size of goods in order to squeeze greater profit out of the buyer. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, suggests that the first question one will be asked when arriving in the World to Come is, "Were you honest in your business dealings?"  


I don't know a lot about railroad strikes or barons, particularly. I just happened to come across the factoid about Truman's historic act on this day in history and remembered the frustration that Biden, despite claims of being the most pro-union president or candidate in history, still effectively stomped over the railroad workers union. But the core point of all strikes, of all labor demands, is that the common workers are often taken advantage of, while the ownership class gets richer doing less actual work. And Jewish tradition is clear that this is unacceptable. Obviously the Torah or the Talmud had no concept of unions. The business world was very different then, and even up until just a couple hundred years ago. Yet, the sacred do state, as explicitly as anything in such ancient and terse language can be, that all workers are to be promptly and fairly and equitably paid for their labor. It can be argued about what counts as a fair or equitable wage, but it seems that if someone is struggling to make ends meet while working a full time job and  trying to live modestly, but the owner or CEO of the company they work for is a billionaire, they are not being fairly compensated for the labor that generates such revenue. 


And while the American labor movement was never exclusively Jewish, and the Jews who were prominent in those progressive circles were largely atheists or at least secular Jews, I strongly believe that our over-representation in such causes is due to the common value derived from our shared texts, including but not limited to this week’s Torah portion. In the post-war era as many more Jews moved into middle class, were able to more fully assimilate, and the jobs they had been previously relegated to became more profitable (i.e. Hollywood), our representation in labor movements has faded. Now, as union busting and worker exploitation is again on the rise, as new local legislation is introduced in a few states breaking down barriers to child labor, as many systems of business are again in a state of reinvention akin to the industrial revolution and whose newness allows for loopholes in labor laws, it is time for Jews to again step up for what our great-grandmothers fought for in this country. For what our sages taught would be God's most pressing question. For what God commanded in the Torah. We may not all be as affected now as we once were, as the immigrants and communities of color who now predominately make up the labor movement already are, but eventually exploitative labor practices catch up with us all. And, in the meantime, there certainly are working class Jews, and another aspect of our tradition (even implied in some of the more nationalistic and uncomfortable verses in this same parasha) is that all Jews are responsible for one another. As long as a single member of our community is the victim of wage theft, it is directly our responsibility to fight for them. When no single other Jew in the world has to worry about it, we will still fight for the rights of others because that is what it means to uphold the commandments and to be a light unto the nations. 


This Shabbat, and throughout this week as we coast into Labor Day's final barbecues and summer apparel sales of the season, let us commit to taking note of the businesses around us. Support strikes and boycotts, and be aware of various picket lines that we might not cross them. Show support to small businesses that pay their workers fairly, and try to avoid those that don't. It is an impossible feat to do completely. But I believe trying is better than not trying. That each dollar spent makes some statement. That each rally we attend in support, each news story we uplift in solidarity, at least keeps us connected with the Jewish values and lessons of this issue. May we each live well, and ensure that others around us are able to do so as well. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

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Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784