Jewish community should back collective bargaining rights

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) is the national public affairs arm of the organized Jewish community.

Since its establishment in 1944 by the Council of Jewish Federations, the JCPA has worked to safeguard the rights of Jews in America and around the world, promote the safety and security of the state of Israel, and promote a just, democratic, and pluralistic American society.

In May 5-8 in Detroit, the JCPA reaffirmed its dedication to these principles when an overwhelming majority of delegates to its annual plenum passed a resolution strongly supporting collective bargaining rights in the public as well as the private sector.

The resolution was sponsored by the Jewish Labor Committee, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Jewish community relations councils of Boston and Silicon Valley.

The timing of the resolution couldn’t be better. “In recent years,” it noted, “there have been significant efforts to eliminate or substantially narrow collective bargaining rights throughout the United States at local, state and national levels.

“According to the [bipartisan] National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2011 there was an eight-fold increase in the number of states” — Wisconsin among them — “seeking to restrict or eliminate collective bargaining rights of public workers.”

These attacks aim not only to deny workers a democratic voice in their workplaces, but also to diminish their voice in government.

Why should the organized Jewish community take a stand on the issue of collective bargaining rights? Jews may be divided about the issue today, as they initially were on the question of whether the community should actively advance black civil rights.

However, the same considerations that helped to push the Jewish community toward active support for civil rights should now push it to support workers’ rights.

 
‘Brickmakers Local One’

Like civil rights, collective bargaining rights are not merely a partisan issue; they are a moral issue.

As the JCPA resolution noted, these rights have been repeatedly affirmed as a matter of justice by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Wisconsin when it became the first state to extend bargaining rights to public employees in 1959, and by President John F. Kennedy who extended them to federal employees in 1962.

Moreover, just as national leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise worked in the 1940s to persuade American Jews that civil rights were a “Jewish” issue, the JCPA is right to make the same point today about the right of employees to bargain collectively with their employers.

This right is a Jewish issue, the JCPA points out, for two reasons. First, support for workers’ rights is deeply rooted in our tradition.

The Exodus from Egypt was, among other things, one of history’s greatest labor movements. Moses, it has been said, was the organizer of Brickmakers Union Local One. It is not surprising then, as the JCPA resolution puts it, that “religious commandments in the Torah and Talmud relating to the employment of workers are imbued with respect for labor rights.”

As Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El in Madison previously pointed out in The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (March 2011), Leviticus (19:13) and Deuteronomy (24:14-14) command employers to be fair and honest in their dealings with employees; Exodus (23:12) limits the working week to six days; and the Talmud regulates working conditions and wages and endorses the establishment of workers’ unions and guilds.

Second, the right of workers to bargain collectively is a Jewish issue because of past and current involvement of Jews in the labor movement.

“During the years of mass-immigration from the early 1880s to the second decade of the 20th Century,” the JCPA resolution notes, “when American Jewry was a predominantly working-class community, the majority toiled in difficult and often desperate conditions.”

The U.S. Jewish community supported worker and trade union rights, the JCPA points out, because the labor movement was “essential to the success and advancement of American Jewry.” This logic still holds today.

Most American Jews have advanced into white-collar and middle-class occupations, but this change in the nature of their work doesn’t annul their rights as workers, nor has it kept the labor movement from organizing some of these very occupations.

The right to bargain collectively remains a Jewish issue not only because our texts and traditions command it, but because it directly concerns members of our own community as well.

Many American Jews work in the public as well as the private sector, still belong to labor unions, or wish to exercise their rights to join a union and bargain collectively.

When the rights of any members of our community are attacked, the organized Jewish community should stand by them because all Jews are responsible for one another — or, as the labor movement says, an injury to one is an injury to all.

Chad Alan Goldberg is associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; vice president of United Faculty and Academic Staff, American Federation of Teachers Local 223;and a member of the Jewish Labor Committee; and he has served on the community relations committee of the Jewish Federation of Madison.