Jewish Values and Labor Day
By fortuitous coincidence, this year Labor Day falls on Erev Rosh Hashanah, a time of internal and public moral reckoning and our vows to do better in the coming year. The Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics each year urges congregations of all faiths to observe the sabbath before Labor Day as “Labor Sabbath,” to lift up the plight of workers and act faithfully to seek justice for workers.
From the global pandemic, to racial and political strife, to the politicization of health protection measures, this year has highlighted existing injustices for workers in an unprecedented way. Millions of workers face unemployment, lack of healthcare and paid medical leave, the threat of eviction, and unsafe working conditions. Small businesses have closed, reopened, and may have to close again, throwing their owners and employees out of work. Essential workers are putting themselves in harm’s way for less than a living wage, and the impacts of racism are devastating for workers of color. All this, while the stock market soars and many large companies and executives thrive.
How will we pledge to do better for the working people in this nation? What do our Jewish values have to say about that?
Labor Day is a day to remind ourselves that, as Jews, it is our duty not only to refrain from oppressing workers ourselves, but to work to create a society free from exploitation. The duty to care for workers has a special resonance in our tradition. On this point, the Torah is explicit:
The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.
— Leviticus 19:13
Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them . . .
— Deuteronomy 24:14-15
Rabbinic commentary interprets the phrase “his life depends on them” as meaning that anyone who denies a worker his wages “it is as though he takes his life from him.” (Bava Metzia 112a.)
The corollary to these teachings is that if a worker’s life depends upon her wages, then those wages must be sufficient to sustain life. Yet we know that in contemporary America, that is not the reality. We have enacted laws that require payment of a minimum wage, but those wages are insufficient to sustain life without outside assistance. They are not living wages.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. A fulltime worker who is paid only the minimum wage earns $15,072.00 annually before taxes. That is lower than the federal poverty line for a family of two. The Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics has calculated that in 2021, a true living wage rate for Buncombe County is $17.30 per hour without employer-provided health insurance or $15.80 with insurance.
The situation is even worse for workers in the food industry, from farm to restaurant table. If you do nothing else after reading this column, please watch this video that starkly illustrates the behind-the-scenes injustice even at upscale restaurants. The minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13 per hour, provided the tips are enough to meet the $7.25 minimum wage. When this subminimum wage was enacted in 1966, it represented about half of the minimum wage; now a worker must make up in tips two-thirds of her hourly pay to reach the federal minimum wage. The regulation is difficult to enforce and leads to wage theft by employers. One in three table servers in North Carolina earns at or below the federal poverty level. Seventy-eight percent of these workers are women. And as the video illustrates, the rest of the kitchen staff does not generally share in the tips. Restaurant workers are organizing against these injustices; visit Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United to learn more.
It’s even worse for the workers who harvest the food that the wait staff brings to your table. American labor laws largely exempt growers from having to pay minimum wage to farmworkers. Accordingly, workers who pick tomatoes, for example, are paid by the pound, not by the hour: $0.50 for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked in backbreaking labor, yielding an average annual income of about $10,000.00, well below the minimum wage. This injustice is the subject of a campaign by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, whose representatives spoke at Congregation Beth Israel a few years ago. (Incidentally, in 2021 you, the consumer, would pay the grocer between $64 and $128 for those 32 pounds of tomatoes.
So what can you, the individual Jew concerned about social justice, do? Here are some steps you can take:
- Arm yourself with the facts. Visit the websites mentioned in this column to learn more.
- Vote with your shopping dollars: visit the Just Economics website, to learn which local businesses pay a living wage (both Congregation Beth Israel and Congregation Beth HaTephila are certified living wage employers), and to learn why paying a living wage makes good business sense.
- Get involved in CBI’s robust Social Action Committee, led by Marlene and Jay Jacoby.
- Join the Economic Justice Working Group of Carolina Jews for Justice/West, the WNC chapter of Carolina Jews for Justice. CJJ works with Just Economics and with Raising Wages NC, a statewide advocacy organization.
- Write or call management of the grocery chains at which you shop and ask them if they have joined the program of the Alliance for Fair Food to pay tomato workers fairly (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market, and even Wal-Mart have joined the program; Publix has not; other grocery chains may not yet have been approached).
- Support the right of workers to form unions to advocate collectively for their interests, as did the nurses at Mission Hospital;
- Support Medicaid expansion, so that more people have access to health care.
- Advocate for legislation increasing the minimum wage and the subminimum tipped employees’ wage.
- Tip generously when you dine out; your server counts on it.
Our Sages stipulated that workers must be compensated sufficiently to at least cover their most basic needs (Bava Metzia 87a). Maimonides codified that a business may not profit at the expense of its workers and customers (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Thievery 8:20). It is no less incumbent upon modern Jews to seek fair payment for the labor of all.
The parashah for Labor Shabbat, September 4, is Parashat Nitzavim, which contains the famous admonition:
Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” . . . No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.
All workers should have the opportunity to chose life and prosperity. It is incumbent upon us, as Jews, to observe this Torah, this teaching, and to put it within the grasp of each, to the end that all may live and prosper.
Frank Goldsmith is a member of the CBI Social Action Committee and of Carolina Jews for Justice.