The last few weeks have been rough for the union movement in the United States. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, ignited a major workers’ protest when, in an effort to balance the budget, he moved to eliminate collective bargaining rights. And New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie, also a Republican, declaring that such bargaining rights “didn’t come down from tablets on the top of the mountain,” criticized his state’s teachers’ unions for “ruining our education system.” Union leaders across the country declare the movement under attack.
For a Jewish take on this issue, The Jewish Week turned to Arieh Lebowitz, associate director of the Jewish Labor Committee, which calls itself “the voice of the Jewish community in the labor movement and the voice of the labor movement in the Jewish community.”
Q: Are teachers protesting in Wisconsin a Jewish issue?
A: It’s not just teachers — public sector workers of diverse professions are protesting the threats to their collective bargaining rights. And private sector workers are protesting as well, in solidarity. Is it a Jewish issue? Yes. Not only out of self-interest — a significant proportion of public sector employees, from educators to social workers to government employees of all sorts are Jews — but primarily because our history in this country, and our longstanding commitment to workers rights as manifest in a strong labor movement are all of a piece.
Is this — a climate of recession and economic cutbacks — a bad time to be a union supporter?
On the contrary, it is a good time to be a union supporter. … precisely the time when people committed to basic justice in the workplace have to speak out. Rabbis in Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin have spoken out in defense of the workers under threat. Rabbis and congregation have been among those offering sanctuary to the Wisconsin senators who have left the state rather than be party to the governor’s draconian restrictions on legal and internationally recognized labor rights.
Unlike the early days of unions, most union members today are not Jewish; many are minority group members. Do you find that most Jews are sympathetic to unions’ concerns?
We’ve found that in terms of unions’ basic concerns, many Jews are sympathetic. If the concerns of unions are represented by how union members vote, it’s clear that Jews and union members have similar voting patterns. While there are fewer Jewish union members than six, seven or eight decades ago, there are still a significant number of staff people in unions, locally, regionally and nationally. And there’s a new crop of explicitly Jewish social justice activists that sees in the labor movement a vehicle for tikkun olam [repairing the world].
What is the Jewish Labor Committee’s role in the Wisconsin controversy or next door in New Jersey?
When a rabbi in Madison was approached by the labor movement to make a statement in support of the threatened workers, he reached out to us. We helped with relevant resource material. A JLC member who is an academic in Madison was one of the early demonstrators in the state capital. As a Jewish Labor Committee staff person, I was proud to rally in Trenton last week together with our executive director, Martin Schwartz, and the director and chair of our Los Angeles-based JLC Western region schlepped by bus to Madison to add their voices.
Union issues are seen as a secular issue. What does Jewish tradition say about the workers’ treatment issues that unions raise?
There are passages in the Torah and the Talmud as well as responsa [rabbinic edicts] — going back centuries and as recently as a few years ago — that note that workers should be paid on time, that acknowledge that workers need to be treated respectfully by their employers, that they are allowed to join collectively to defend their basic interests, that they have the right to strike, to self-regulate prices so as not to have a situation where some workers undercut other workers.
This month we’re commemorating the 100th anniversary of the fatal Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. What are the tragedy’s contemporary lessons?
Synagogues and temples across New York — and across the country — are commemorating the fire by dedicating a Mourners’ Kaddish to the memory of those women and men who died as a result of this disaster. The contemporary lesson is that we should not forget that workplaces are often dangerous places, from garment workers laboring in today’s sweatshops in New York and Los Angeles and Bangladesh, to poultry workers in Iowa and restaurant workers closer to home preparing the food that we eat. They need decent working conditions, and decent pay and benefits. They deserve the benefits of union membership, today as a century ago.