Standing up for workers — and Jewish tradition

Standing up for workers — and Jewish tradition

Since the 2010 election we have witnessed an explosion of partisan, ideologically driven behavior in state politics unlike anything experienced in our lifetime. Governors and legislators in 11 states have introduced, or announced plans to introduce, legislation deceptively called “Right to Work.” These laws are designed to eviscerate worker rights to form or join a union, bargain collectively, or negotiate for pensions and benefits. At the core of this ideological disagreement is a false choice: it’s “them” (overpaid public employees) or “us” (taxpayers).

In fact, as we learned from the comic strip character Pogo long ago, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” The “they” are our neighbors, our children’s teachers, public safety officers, public health officials, social workers, and others who provide the services necessary to keep society functioning. They do a great job. Just ask recent immigrants from any other country in the world.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average public employee earns less then his or her counterpart in the private sector. In exchange for accepting a lower salary, these workers, in better times, struck a bargain with legislators: in place of a competitive private sector salary, they agreed to a compensation package that included a lower but fair wage, health benefits, and a pension. Now, in a poor economy with lower tax revenues, conservative legislators want to create “a new normal.” It’s like having the dealer at a poker game change the rules after the cards have been dealt and the workers have already anted up. The majority of Americans feel changing the rules is unfair, not to mention unethical.

Nobody questions the reality — indeed the necessity — of a profitable business sector. Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor, said in 1908 that the worst crime against working people is a company which fails to make a profit. That is a sine qua non for the rabbinic observation “ein kemach ein Torah”: no sustenance, no law for society.

Likewise, we can only afford the government we can afford, and we get what we pay for. Americans, including our union neighbors who work for state government, understand that. We must balance the realistic need for a safe and healthy society with the ethical interest of fair and equitable treatment of those who work for us. Jewish tradition has much to say about how we should treat these workers.

Halacha — Jewish law — is explicit and unequivocal in its support of the rights of workers to organize and be protected in their work. A worker’s right to quit (or strike) is clearly protected (Baba Metzia 6:2). At the same time, employers are explicitly forbidden from breaking labor contracts (Tosefta Baba Metzia 7:6). Workers who are laid off and who cannot find similar paying work are entitled to half-pay “idle wages.” (Baba Metzia 76b) Talmudic support of workers’ contractual rights provided protections against arbitrary dismissal more than 1,500 years before contemporary trade union collective bargaining agreements.

The Talmud also prohibits employers from strike-breaking and hiring scab workers. This is based on the principle that workers may not offer services whenever there are other workers on the job because that would endanger the livelihood of the original workers. By extension, the unemployed are forbidden to scab (Baba Kama, 119a).

There is, then, an imperative not just in Jewish tradition, but in Jewish law as well, to support workers’ rights. Workers today need protections — now more than ever — to survive in this era of partisan political fighting.

Right to Work laws have been aptly called “Right-to-Work-for-Less” legislation, and for good reason. In states that have enacted Right to Work legislation, the average employee — private sector or public — earns about $5,333 a year less than workers in other states that allow employees to bargain. Twenty-one percent more people lack health insurance in Right to Work states compared to states where workers can bargain collectively. Infant mortality is 16 percent higher in Right to Work states and, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 51 percent higher in states that have enacted Right to Work laws.

Finally, a recent survey of business executives found that of 26 factors considered when locating a business, Right to Work laws ranked near the bottom at 24th as an issue influencing their decision. Compare, for example, two states with similar population sizes and economic bases. North Carolina, a Right to Work state, has an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent. Indiana, a state that allows collective bargaining, has an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent. Those who claim that collective bargaining negatively impacts business expansion are empirically wrong.

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem workers sat and prayed together by trade. Our sages explained they did so so fellow tradesmen who came to the city would be able to find work and provide for their families. Many of our sages had other professions from which they made a living. Rabbi Yochanan was a shoemaker, Rav Papa a brewer, Rabbi Meir a scribe, Hillel a woodcutter, Shammai a carpenter, Rashi a vintner, and Maimonides a physician. They knew about the rights of workers.

Banding together to ensure fair treatment for all is an idea that dates back at least to the time of Solomon. It was valid 2,000 years ago and it is valid today. Jewish values are not transient. Denying workers the right to organize violates this principal and as such violates Jewish law, ethics, and beliefs.

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