Sunday, March 20, 2011

Op Ed in the Baltimore Jewish Times

Attached is a link to my Op Ed which has recently appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times concerning Organized Labor and Jewish Tradition.

Unions and the Jews

Or you can read it below:

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
Special to the Jewish Times

I was born into a union family. My grandfather Izzy, z”l, spent his whole career in the newspaper industry, back in the days when this meant security for one’s whole working life. My mother, now retired, was a public high school teacher for nearly 20 years. She dedicated her life to helping her students understand the significance and relevance of events that have taken place in our country’s history. She did this both to help them understand where we have come from and where we are going as a nation.

Because of this, I am very much troubled on a personal level by events transpiring in Wisconsin with the call to take away public school teachers’ rights to collectively bargain. I began to wonder if our tradition also has a perspective on this issue of singular importance.

Historically speaking, Jews very much were at the forefront of the labor movement. From the time of emancipation to the rise of early socialist leaders such as Karl Marx — who came from a long line of rabbis — we led the way intellectually.

European Jews also began to form their own bunds (labor leagues) at the turn of the last century. From these organizations, many of their principles and their drive to organize in Eastern Europe found their way into the United States at the turn of the 20th century, arriving on these shores with many of our forefathers and foremothers.

Upon their arrival, Jews became heavily involved in causes for workers’ rights by participating in such strikes as the capmakers strike of 1905 and the shirtmakers strike of 1909. However, it was really the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 that brought the issue of workers’ safety, and later issues such as hours and wages, to the forefront.

So though we have moved primarily from blue-collar to white-collar professions in subsequent generations, we Jews have at least a historical connection to the labor movement.

We also have a halachic (legal) relationship to it as well. The Babylonian Talmud states, “The residents of the community (b’nei ha’ir) are at liberty to fix weights, measures, prices and wages, and to inflict penalties for the infringement of their rules” (Bava Batra 8b).

One way this talmudic passage is interpreted is that members of the b’nei ha’ir are allowed to legislate on matters relating to working conditions and wages. To take it even one step further, it is understood that these principles apply not only to the community but also to the worker.

Hence according to this understanding of the Talmud, Halachah not only allows, but appears to encourage workers to collaborate collectively to secure their rights. In addition, the community is obliged to work with them to better the workers’ economic interests.

No matter where we might fall on this issue politically, it appears Jewish legal tradition and Jewish historical tradition are both fully in favor of workers’ rights to organize as well as to be able to bargain collectively for their rights.

This makes sense. As a people we have always banded together, be it as a nation in worship, in community or even in the workplace. Also, we come from a strong prophetic tradition that compels us to stand on the side of those whose voices would otherwise be ignored at best, and trampled at worst.

Or as it is stated in a responsa titled “The Synagogue and Organized Labor” by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, “Like all institutions, they [unions] can be corrupt, rapacious or discriminatory. There are times, in other words, when cooperation with a labor union may not serve the public interest and the cause of tzedakah. All we can tell you is that, in general, Jewish tradition … perceive(s) unionization as an indispensable tool in the long struggle for social justice and the rights of workers.”

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, the spiritual leader for Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, is a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. Opinions expressed in the column do not necessarily reflect those of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis or its members.


Phyllis Millman said...

Your grandfather would have been very proud to read your blog (though I'm sure he never heard of a blog.) He never crossed a picket line and I don't think I have either. Your grandmother used the $60. a month union pension she received after he passed away to get cigarettes which I had to buy since she never learned how to drive.) I have done my share of marching in union parades (United Teachers of Los Angeles) and have even been involved in 3 strikes. It is sad to see the demonizing of unions. I am hoping to see the pendulum swing the other way but I am not holding my breath.

Rabbi Sharff said...

I didn't know the story about the cigarettes. But thank you for your kind words, and I was thinking of Grandpa the whole time when the story broke in Wisconsin.

Paul Kipnes said...

Nice blogpost, with an important teaching on Judaism and Labor Unions. Bravo.