Jewish Community Leader Reflects on “Labor Sabbath”
By Ari Naveh — Member, Carolina Jews for Justice
As we celebrate this Labor Day, members of the Jewish community join with other faith leaders and the North Carolina AFL-CIO to reflect upon the moral imperative that workers be afforded real human dignity.
On November 23rd, 1909, 15,000 members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, employed in shirtwaist factories all over New York City’s garment district, went out on strike. They walked out of their factories and onto the streets, demanding a 20 percent pay raise, a 52 hour (!) workweek, and extra pay for overtime. More importantly, they demanded that each factory become a union shop.
The woman who organized this walkout was 19-year-old Clara Lemlich, whose involvement in union organizing led to a brutal assault at the hands of factory owners. The evening before the walkout, after hearing hours of speeches by mostly male workers attempting to stall the strike vote, Clara delivered – in Yiddish – a fiery plea.
Clara Lemlich, with her impassioned Yiddish appeal, is but one example of the participation of the Jewish community in empowering themselves and many others to act on behalf of the whole working class. The Arbiter Ring, founded in 1900 as a result of the massive spike in Eastern European and Russian Jewish migration to the United States, sought to provide these new Americans with a wide range of necessary services, including helping them to advocate for the rights that were supposed to have been afforded to them as newly employed members of society.
Steeped in the roots of Yiddish culture that these Jews brought with them from their home communities, the Arbiter Ring sought to demonstrate the deep connections between Jewish tradition, the collectivism and solidarity espoused by the trade union movement, and advocating for the rights of workers. From the Torah to Maimonides, from the Talmud to the Shulkhan Arukh, it is clear: employers should pay their workers a fair, decent wage, in a timely fashion, and without undue burden or condition.
Even narratives within the Torah demand that workers be paid justly, given suitable time for rest – Shabbat was the original weekend! – and if they chose to leave their employ, furnished with a sizeable amount of the employer’s estate so as to give the former employee ample opportunity to thrive on their own.
We here in the Carolinas are now faced with a similar mandate to rise up, advocate, and act. Despite significant research that states that encourage union membership see significant increase in wages, greater access to a broad range of benefits, and overall financial stability, North Carolina remains one of the least unionized states in the country. As such, workers cannot suitably advocate for increased wages, better benefits, and more flexible hours. Research also shows that – like the women of the shirtwaist industry over 100 years ago – young women, and particularly young women of color, are the hardest hit by our state’s low minimum wage, lack of paid leave, and laws that undermine workers’ ability to join together in unions and collectively negotiate contracts.
According to the Durham Living Wage Project, wages adjusted just to the ‘Living Wage’ based on the federal poverty level can lead to lower turnover rates, higher motivation in the workforce, and of course a significant increase in consumer spending, as workers have more means to spend for themselves and their families. Nonetheless, these policies face an almost unprecedented opposition by those who see working people as inherently lazy, and say that higher wages will equal lower employment across the board. This opposition is anathema to the strong tradition we have within Judaism both to advocate for those in positions of vulnerability, and to treat one another always – including in our capacity as workers – as human beings with inherent worth and unlimited potential.
So what can you do? Please join Carolina Jews for Justice, Reverend William Barber and the Fight For 15 at a post-Labor Day “Moral Action” at 11:00am on September 12th at the State Capitol. We will continue our Jewish tradition, honor all that the labor movement has accomplished throughout our history, and stand together with our allies for fairness.
In his seminal text The Path of the Righteous, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato wrote that most people do not dream of stealing their neighbors’ property. However, in their business dealings, too many get a taste of stealing whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of someone else.
Clara Lemlich knew this in 1909 when she organized 15,000 women to join forces and fight for their rights. And today, over 100 years later, we must continue to heed these words, and fight for living wages and union rights for all of North Carolina.