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The Jewish community and the fight for 15
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The Jewish community and the fight for 15

Every spring, our community gathers around dining room tables and in living rooms to tell the story of the exodus from ancient Mitzrayim. One of my personal favorite parts of the Seder is “Dayenu” — “It would have been enough” — the song that thanks God for bringing us out of Egypt and ensuring our success as a people. But in this Labor Day season, as we think back on our collective history, we must also say “Lo dayenu,” it is not enough. We still have so much work to do to ensure a fair and just world.

Take the situation confronting Shantel Walker, who makes $9 an hour at the Papa John’s restaurant in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood where she’s worked for the last 15 years, almost half her life. Because her wages are so low, she often has to choose between eating lunch or buying a Metrocard to get to work. She shares a one-bedroom apartment with family members, but still worries about making ends meet every month.

But Ms. Walker is not staying silent and letting her challenges get her down. She is standing up and joining with other fast-food workers across the country in calling for fairness and respect on the job. Since late 2012, fast-food workers have been walking off the job as part of regular one-day strikes and their ranks have recently been supported by home health care aides, adjunct professors, airport baggage handlers and other low-wage workers. Their demand? $15 an hour and a union.

As Ms. Walker’s experience demonstrates, the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is nothing close to a living wage. If someone earning the minimum wage is fortunate enough to be able to work full-time hours (and many are not), they would earn only $15,080 a year, which is under the poverty line for a family of two. At the current minimum wage, workers struggle paycheck-to-paycheck, and if they are able to pay all their bills at the end of the month, they are not able to save anything for an emergency, let alone for their retirement.

Today’s rock-bottom federal minimum wage is holding millions of Americans back from being able to reach their highest potential. Sadly, many people who have started community college or career education programs have to drop out after getting their hours cut at work or when an unforeseen emergency made tuition impossible to afford. With a $15 an hour minimum wage, many would be able to finally afford to advance their educations.

Rising wages will allow millions of people across the country to lift their heads up and look towards the future with hope. But it will also benefit our economy at-large. A $15 an hour minimum wage will inject billions of dollars into local economies as many are finally able to buy new clothing for their children and other basic necessities. It will also ease state budgets, as millions who currently rely on state assistance will finally be able to afford groceries and rent.

The history of American Jewry demands that we join with workers in their struggle for justice. When many of our ancestors first came to the United States, they worked low-wage jobs in the garment sector and other industries. Their experiences of struggle and pain encouraged many to organize and form unions that then fought for and won many of the basic wage and safety standards that we now take for granted. These gains enabled our families to raise their standards of living to where they are now, but we must never forget what it took to get here.

The good news is that workers’ voices are having an impact. Already, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle have passed ordinances to raise their minimum wages to $15. Even more cities and states have passed smaller minimum wage increases that are an important first step for improving workers’ lives. But our obligation is not over until every working person has the ability to support their family without undue burden.

In order to expand the success of this movement, we must come together as a community and raise up the voices of workers who are fighting for justice in the fast-food industry. Our community must become a leader in the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and improve working conditions at the federal level. Where there are campaigns to raise the wage at the city and state level, we must also join in.

Again, we must say “Lo dayenu,” for the current federal minimum wage is simply not enough. We have so much work to do to ensure a fair and just world, and raising the federal minimum wage is part of it.

Jewish law and tradition are clear about our duty to fight for the basic rights of all working people. As it is said in the Torah, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” At the very least, that means that we need to stand in solidarity with people such as Ms. Walker, who are taking a stand for the chance for a better life.

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