Perhaps it was reading in the Torah about God's compassion for the Hebrew slaves. Perhaps it was hearing the prophets exhorting the people to treat everyone justly. Perhaps it’s the history of Jews who helped shape the US labor movement that is in my bones. I’ve never belonged to a union and I’ve never been arrested. I stood in my first picket line outside the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge just three years ago. Now I notice workers who used to be invisible to me: the housekeepers who change the sheets in my hotel room, the migrant workers who pick the tomatoes in my salad, the hospital staff who keep patients clean and comfortable. More than ever, I am committed to using my cherished Jewish values to improving the lives of everyday workers .
Norman Thomas. Eugene V. Debs. Martin Luther King, Jr. These were names I heard in my home growing up in the 1960s. Not many kids growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City heard their parents talk of socialists, union leaders and civil rights leaders (at least, not in positive terms). My father voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president, for many years before becoming an ardent supporter of the Democratic Party. I know he had a lump in his throat when he and my mom registered as Republicans in Kansas in order to have any voice in the political process in a state that was red long before we talked about politics in primary colors.
My parents were not rabble-rousers. The most shouting I ever heard was my mother shouting at the TV during the news. But they talked about politics at home, in “Great Decisions” groups, and often at the Passover Seder, which my father, an avowed atheist, led every year. He taught me, and my three siblings, the importance of participating in the political process: voting, campaigning and advocacy.
Today, Jews are well-represented in political circles and are leaders in advocating for many social justice causes. Name an issue on the liberal agenda, and there’s a Jewish organization working on it: fighting poverty in America and abroad, ending gun violence, fighting human trafficking, supporting civil rights, reforming health care and many more.
The one issue that falls off the table among Jewish groups today is labor. While many Jewish groups support those in need, the Jewish community has only one organization that consistently stands for the rights of workers: The Jewish Labor Committee. I am proud to be a leader and supporter of the New England Jewish Labor Committee.
I often wonder what happened to the Jewish commitment to organized labor. After all, Jews were prominent in the labor movement for much of the early twentieth century. Many of us remember parents and grandparents who worked in the trades, built the unions and fought for child labor laws and the forty-hour work week. What has changed?
One important shift is that more Jews are managers today than laborers. But that shouldn’t keep us from caring for workers. Costco, a Jewish-owned corporation, has demonstrated that there’s good business sense in treating workers fairly.
I would argue that fewer people in management have relationships with the people who work for them, knowing who their families are and what their lives are like. If we did, I believe that more Jews would want to support fair labor practices to help working people succeed as our parents and grandparents did.
In today’s financial climate, many businesses are owned by multi-national corporations who have no relationships with their janitors, hospitality or security workers. Just as these management companies are faceless to us, their workers are invisible to the people who run them.
That’s what made two victories for hotel workers in 2014 so exceptional. In July, Hyatt Hotels reached an agreement with hotel workers across the nation (with some exceptions, including the three Hyatts in Boston and Cambridge, still under boycott). That agreement ended a year-long global boycott of the Jewish-owned hotel chain. In December, the year-long boycott of Le Meridien Hotel in Cambridge ended with an historic agreement with HEI Hotels investment group. In both cases, large corporations with no personal connection to their lowest-paid employees decided to give the workers a place at the table. The Jewish Labor Committee played an active role in both victories.
My father also taught me what I came to understand later as a basic organizing principle: the power of relationships. My dad knew how to tell a joke to make people comfortable. Then he would draw them out, listening warmly and intently. He was better at selling than at any other aspect of running a business, because he thrived on relationships—with his distributors, colleagues, and his employees. And he treated them all fairly. For him, this was a way to live his Jewish values.
Likewise, Aaron Feuerstein, who was lauded for continuing to pay his employees after a devastating fire at the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence in 1995, insisted that his Jewish upbringing compelled him to treat his workers with justice and compassion, saying:.
I have a responsibility to the worker, both blue-collar and white-collar. I have an equal responsibility to the community. It would have been unconscionable to put 3,000 people on the streets and deliver a deathblow to the cities of Lawrence and Methuen. Maybe on paper our company is worthless to Wall Street, but I can tell you it's worth more.
As we teach in the Jewish tradition, all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. That means that we are not only equals, we are equally responsible for each other’s welfare, for the people who clean our hotel rooms, pick our fruit, throw out the garbage in our offices, teach our children, care for our elders, or do any number of jobs that make our lives comfortable. It’s a Jewish moral imperative.
That’s why I support the Jewish Labor Committee.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner is the incoming Co-Chair of the New England Jewish Labor Committee. She serves as rabbi of Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, a Reconstructionist congregation. In 2011, Rabbi Penzner was honored as a Rabbinic Human Rights hero by T'ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, for her advocacy on behalf of Hyatt workers.