Teamsters and college professors broke bread — or, more accurately, matza — at the 11th annual Labor Seder, a Passover-themed celebration of the union movement sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee and other Jewish and organized labor groups.
Held this year at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, the April 7 seder brought together more than 60 labor leaders, including machinists, service workers, turnpike employees, immigrant labor groups, teachers, Rutgers professors, and Jewish community activists.
At the seder, leaders and members of the organized Jewish and labor communities shared in the Exodus story and its relationship to the struggles of working people to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and others in their respective communities.
Organizers said the seder provided an opportunity for the Jewish community to share its history in the struggle for freedom and human rights.
With immigration reform on the horizon, many participants agreed that the country would benefit from improvements designed overhaul the current immigration system and to end the exploitation of immigrant workers.
“This seder was attended by diverse community representatives and highlighted the importance of coalition building in addressing a number of timely and critical issues, including Comprehensive Immigration Reform and pressing economic concerns facing our society today,” said Joy Kurland, representing the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, a sponsor of the seder.
Although the event was not intended to have partisan political overtones, many of the labor officials present took the occasion to express personal perspectives on the impact of statewide budget cuts on organized labor. In his March 15 budget address, Gov. Chris Christie vowed to “end public union excesses.”
Organizers stressed these were the speakers’ own perspectives and do not represent the views of the organizers or all the representatives present.
Ira Stern of Piscataway, project coordinator for the corporation for re-employment and safety of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, summed up the sentiment expressed by many participants.
“Labor is under attack,” he said. “Labor unions are under attack, and we’re not going to take it. We are going to fight back. We have been made the symbol of greed. We understand there is a problem, a big budget deficit, but there is no reason for the scapegoating of labor unions by Christie.”
Stern drew an analogy between the Jewish immigrant sweatshop workers of several generations ago and “the immigrant day laborers right here in the city of New Brunswick.”
In addition to the MetroWest CRC, the seder was sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee in partnership with Anshe Emeth, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, Essex-West Hudson Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, the Labor Education Center of Rutgers University, and Service Employees International Union NJ State Council 32BJ.
“It is important for the Jewish community and labor unions to come together,” said Kevin Brown, president of the 45,000-member Local 32BJ SEIU and a former member of the MetroWest CRC.
SEIU council executive director Lizette Delgado-Polanco described herself as a first-generation American whose parents, “like Jews, came here to find a better place, to find freedom.”
“So do most immigrants who come here,” she said. “Unfortunately, Latinos have become the face of immigration. But we are not criminals. We do not take other people’s jobs, but to find a better life and freedom for our families.”
Howard Lipoff, a member of the NJ Education Association’s government relations committee and a special education teacher at Fort Lee High School, said he believed sexism was partially behind the attacks on teachers, most of whom are women.
Christie is “not attacking police or firefighters the way he’s attacking teachers,” said Lipoff. “I believe the concept that the work of people who take care of children is not valued very much is at play.”
In the Labor Seder’s early years, both Democratic and Republican governors attended the event, but, according to Stern, in more recent years, governors have not been invited.
Janice Fine, a Rutgers assistant professor of labor studies and employment relations and an American Federation of Teachers member, helped lead the seder with Brown and Rebecca Epstein, assistant rabbi at Anshe Emeth.
As Fine led the assembled in singing the civil rights anthem “This Little Light of Mine,” she added, “This is for you, Gov. Chris Christie.”
Indeed, the first cup of wine was dedicated to stopping the scapegoating of public sector unions; the second to stopping the exploitation of immigrant workers; the third to child nutrition, urging Congress to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act funding school lunch and breakfast programs; and the fourth to eradication of wage theft by unscrupulous employers.
The seder’s Ten Plagues segment was also given a new twist. After Epstein led in the ritual of removing 10 drops of wine from the cups, she asked others to suggest modern plagues affecting society, citing destruction of the environment as one. Other suggestions included racism, sexism, AIDS, and union busting.