The Jewish Case for Unions

From the Torah to a long history of Jewish labor activists, Judaism has always made it clear that employers must pay and treat their workers fairly.

Jewish religious law, known as halakha, requires that employers pay their workers fairly. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where every employer follows Jewish law.

Right now in Bessemer, Alabama, near Birmingham, union organizers in the BHM1 Amazon warehouse hope to make history by becoming the first Amazon warehouse employees in the United States to successfully unionize. Unionization is one tool that can help workers secure and maintain just working conditions including fair pay. And there is a strong Jewish history, and imperative, to support unions and labor justice.

One of the earliest stories in the Torah is about an employer who mistreats his employee and refuses to pay him what he is owed for his work (Gen 29). Jewish forefather Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, the daughter of a man named Laban. As a dowry, Laban required Jacob to work for him for seven years. Laban’s fortune grew under Jacob’s labor. It’s not exactly the type of just compensation we would champion today, but as the plot thickens, so does the malfeasance.

At the completion of Jacob’s contract, Jacob is duped by Laban and instead married to Rachel’s sister, Leah. Jacob had to work another seven years under Laban to finally receive his originally promised compensation and wife, Rachel. It is because of this ancient story of labor exploitation, garnished wages, and sexism that Jewish law requires that employers pay their workers fairly.

Today, as the thousands-years-long fight for labor justice continues, Jews must turn their eyes to places like the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The union organizing leaders believe that becoming members of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) will allow their facility’s workers to collectively bargain for “safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits, and other important issues that would make our workplace better,” according to the official BAmazon Union campaign.

support amazon workers
Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Workers and third-party observers allege egregious workplace injustices at Amazon facilities, inspiring the BHM1 unionizing efforts. They allege employees are forced to urinate in bottles because they are not allowed to take adequate bathroom breaks. There are also frequent on-the-job injuries and, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James in a recent lawsuit, “flagrant disregard for health and safety requirements” by Amazon in facilities in New York during COVID-19. A more complete assessment of Amazon’s working conditions and anti-union efforts is enumerated by RWDSU.

While several high-profile unionization efforts and anti-union actions have occupied the news in recent years, the history of labor organizing is long and Jewish — and I’m not just talking about the Torah.

One of the most famous and important leaders in the labor movement of the late 1800s, Samuel Gompers, was Jewish. He founded and led the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a foundational American labor organization that’s modern incarnation, the AFL-CIO, is the central organizing body for most unions in the U.S today.

Countless non-famous Jewish voices also helped shape modern U.S. labor standards. The Uprising of 20,000 in 1909 saw thousands of mostly young, Yiddish-speaking Jewish women who worked in shirtwaist factories take to the streets in New York City. The 11-week-long general strike was a precursor to the more famous organizing in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that killed 145 people.

Women on strike
Two women strikers on picket line during the “Uprising of the 20,000”, garment workers strike, New York City. (APIC/Getty Images)

The Jewish women who helped organize labor reform throughout this period were instrumental in eventually improving working conditions for garment industry workers. They also helped prove to the male-led labor movement that women were an indispensable part of the movement too, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

The Workers Circle is an organization that bridges the early and modern history of Jewish labor organizing in the U.S. Founded in New York City in 1900, The Workers Circle was first founded as a mutual aid society, and remains an incubator for labor justice advocates as well as a cultural center for Eastern European Jewish life and history. “Our immigrant founders… were shocked by what greeted them in America: a land of opportunity, but one, too, of exploitative labor practices,” Ann Toback, CEO of The Workers Circle, tells Alma.

Many Eastern European Jews arrived in the United States armed with experience from the Jewish Labor Bund, a socialist movement influential throughout Eastern Europe and Russia in the early 20th century. Organizations like The Workers Circle were instrumental in organizing these Jewish immigrants. Today, The Workers Circle continues to embody the classic Passover refrain, “We were once strangers,” as their activists continue to fight for labor justice, especially for immigrants and communities of color.

Toback implores that to fully address labor injustice, activists must explicitly combat systemic racism. For The Workers Circle, this includes campaigning for voting rights protections, organizing with immigrant farmworkers, and participating in the Green Light NY campaign, which helped ensure equal access to driver’s licenses for all residents of New York State, regardless of immigration status. “Just as our early founders organized for their rights and in solidarity with other immigrant workers, we must continue that tradition today,” says Toback.

Of course, the Jewish labor movement is bigger than just the more well-known history of white, socialist, Yiddish-speaking immigrants in major cities. Organizations such as the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Jews of Color Initiative are working to amplify the work of Jews of Color across the U.S. and more deeply integrate racial justice into the Jewish fight for labor and social justice.

In Pirkei Avot, a traditional Jewish book of wisdom and ethics, Rabbi Tarfon wrote, “Faithful is your employer to pay you the reward of your labor.” Jews of every race, locality, and religiosity share the obligation to advocate for the reward of their labor, and fight to ensure others are rewarded theirs.

The Workers Circle offers the following five ways anyone can support labor justice, in Bessemer, Alabama and beyond:

1. The single most important thing we can do is follow the leadership of workers who are organizing and respond to their calls to action. Our role is to get ready to bring our voice and our power to buttress that of the workers’. This includes supporting efforts in-person when organizers ask for it, as well as boosting information from official sources on social media.

2. Respect strikes. Don’t cross picket lines. And when you see picketers, make connections; ask workers what their protest or strike is about and how you can support them.

3. Harness your power as a consumer. Workers may ask you to boycott certain businesses and spend at others. Let your dollars do the talking and purchase in accordance with your values.

4. Support elected officials whose legislative agenda favors unions, universal childcare, universal healthcare, and a living wage. These policies uplift all workers.

5. If you are fortunate to belong to a union, become an active participant. Pay your dues! Attend meetings! Get involved!

“When consumers and workers partner, we can amass the power we need to win the labor advances we must have,” Toback tells Alma. Jews of all backgrounds have championed labor rights since the beginning, and that imperative must continue today.

Jason Flatt

Jason Flatt (he/him) is an educator working with music, food, and writing to strengthen communities and invite justice. When he’s not laboring over what to write in his bio, he’s probably playing a different game of “on the other hand” that would put even Tevye the Dairyman to shame.

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