In a pitch to enlist tomorrow’s attorneys in the fight for workers’ rights, two Jewish lawyers who represent individual employees and trade unions urged Rutgers Law School students to consider labor and employment law as their specialties.
Appearing at a session sponsored jointly by the Jewish Labor Committee and Jewish Law Students Association on Feb. 24, employment lawyer Bruce Gitlin told his audience his practice gave him “the joy of giving voice to someone who has some type of injury, whether it is a physical or emotional injury, or discrimination, or an attempt to be a whistleblower.”
Gitlin is the founder and executive director of the New York Center for Law and Justice and chair of the board of Cornell University Hillel. He is a board member of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and a past member of the board of directors of the Abraham Fund.
Joining him at the event was Bennett Zurofsky, a Newark-based lawyer who represents trade unions as well as individuals in employment disputes. Wearing a large “Sanders for President” button on his lapel, he appealed to the students’ consciences as he tried to recruit them for what he called “not a promising field.”
“It is a difficult field for a young lawyer to get into, largely because the labor movement is shrinking. Very few attorneys in New Jersey are practicing labor law at more than 50 percent of our practices,” he said.
Arieh Leibowitz, associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee, said there were once many more Jews connected with the labor movement than there are today. “As the Jewish community has moved ahead economically, it has moved away from places that have been unionized, so we are working to reestablish connections between the Jewish community, Jewish students, and the labor movement,” he said.
The JLC runs an educational program, “From History to Action,” engaging Jewish college students in the contributions of American Jews to the labor movement.
Gitlin said his profession represents the core of his Jewish values.
“My own faith tradition talks about social justice values — the dignity of the individual, a sense of fairness, and the requirement to actively pursue justice,” he told NJ Jewish News after his presentation. “Those values, passed on from one generation to another, helps inform my work in striving to pursue justice from others who don’t have a voice or aren’t able to represent themselves.”
Zurofsky said there is much satisfaction to be gained in fighting for workers’ rights in a culture focused on profit.
“When we talk about a successful company, we talk about ‘what is the return to the shareholders.’ The unions say the measure of a productive enterprise has to include ‘how well are the workers doing? What standard of living are you providing for your workers?’”
Asked about the Jewish influence in his practice, Zurofsky told NJJN that “culturally there is a very strong Jewish component, going back to the seders I attended as a child. The Exodus was the first strike. All the workers walked out. Many of the great labor leaders over the years have been Jewish. The labor movement is about getting greater justice for ordinary people and insisting they be treated with dignity and treated fairly by their employers. It is a question of human rights over property rights.”
Bari Guttman of Old Bridge, a third-year student who is president of the Jewish Law Students Association at Rutgers, said 20 of the school’s 50 Jewish students belong to the organization. Rutgers Law’s total enrollment is 450.