Honor to the Worker
“Great is work, for it brings honor to the worker” (Ned. 49b). These are the words of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the second-century leader of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yehudah spoke these words as he carried a pitcher on his shoulder into the Beit Midrash, the House of Study, to show his students that as great as the study of Torah is, the work of one’s hands should not be dismissed. This weekend, we celebrate Labor Day, a day on which we should all make like Rabbi Yehudah and honor those who labor. First, a short history lesson: the first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882, when the Central Labor Union in New York City organized a parade in honor of the “working man.” Several more states celebrated similar holidays in the years following, and in 1894, Congress passed a law declaring the first Monday in September a national holiday to honor “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Since then, it has become a tradition to mark Labor Day with parades and speeches, end-of-the- summer barbecues and trips, and, most importantly, wearing all of our white clothes before we put them away for the winter. But it should also be a time when we take notice of those laborers who are not given the respect they are due, those who are instead underpaid, overworked, and abused by a system that oppresses rather than honors them.
Workers’ rights should be of interest to us not only as human beings and as Americans, but also as Jews. Jews have been concerned with economic justice for a lot longer than just this century or the last. Next week’s parashah, Ki Tetze, includes the famous commandment, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Eternal against you and you will incur guilt” (Deut. 24:14-15). The Torah acknowledges the inequality between the employer and the worker and demands that the employer not take advantage of his power. In addition, the Talmud outlines workers’ rights that seem downright modern, like a limit on hours in the work day, laws against underpaying for labor, the right for workers to organize and even the right for them to go on strike. Judaism calls us to take care of those like the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the day laborer who could easily be taken advantage of because of their powerlessness, and seeks to level the playing field by granting special protections and rights to them. As Rav Kook says, “Within the workers’ organization, which is formed for the purpose of guarding and protecting the work conditions, there is an aspect of righteousness and uprightness and tikkun olam.”
In America, labor rights have also historically been a Jewish issue. One hundred years ago this past March, 146 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire because the stairwells and exits of the building were locked to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. As a result, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, a predominantly Jewish organization, successfully fought for better working conditions and safety standards in factories. And throughout the 20th century, Jews like Emma Goldman and Samuel Gompers were leaders in the labor movement. Today, Jews in this country are more likely to be employers rather than low-wage workers. Now the question is, as Rabbi Jill Jacobs puts it, “How will we translate our historical connection to the labor movement into our new roles as owners and managers?” One step toward answering this question is to learn about what laborers face today.
For the past several years, Jewish community leaders across the country have raised concerns about the practices of the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Just this past June, a group of progressive rabbis released an extensive report, called “Open the Gates of Justice,” which is based on many hours of interviews with current and former Hyatt employees. The report outlines the unfair and unsafe working conditions that Hyatt employees face, from hazardous working conditions to unfair hiring and firing practices. According to a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the Hyatt had the highest rates of employee injury compared to other major hotels, and women were 50% more likely than men to be injured on the job. Hispanic women were twice as likely as white women to suffer work-related injuries. These injuries are due to the heavy lifting, bending over, kneeling, and scrubbing required, and the large number of rooms a housekeeper must clean every day. As one employee, Mary, says, “We all see each other getting broken; the longer you’ve been there the more broken you get.”
One reason that the Hyatt is such a dangerous place to work is because of its anti-union stance. In the few Hyatt hotels where the employees have been able to organize, it makes a difference. Housekeepers at Hyatts that do not belong to the union have up to twice the workload of those who are members of the union. In addition, the Hyatt uses outside companies to hire staff so that the Hyatt can pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits while shielding themselves from punishment for wage and labor violations. This outsourcing prevents workers from directly negotiating with their Hyatt employers. The Hyatt also continues to fight against unions through stall tactics, intimidation, and firing of employees who try to unionize. The rabbis’ report, which you can read at www.justiceathyatt.org, concludes that, “the stories of workers have led the Jewish clergy who have contributed to this report to find Hyatt’s practices to be oshek/oppression against workers. We have concluded that Hyatt must be treated as lo kasher/not kosher for events and celebrations until it treats its workers with justice.” The authors of the report call on all people to honor the boycotts called by workers at particular Hyatt hotels, including those in San Francisco and Santa Clara. Several Jewish organizations, including the rabbinical and cantorial associations of the Reform Movement, have issued statements in support of Hyatt workers and the boycott of these hotels.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the rights and needs of the least powerful come first, even before the employer’s profits, and even before our own comfort or convenience or fun. As we enjoy our big, cushy beds in sparkling, beautiful hotel rooms, we ought to remember the women who have to lift the 100-pound mattresses to make those beds, who kneel on their hands and knees, scrubbing the bathroom floors for hours every day. The least we can do is ensure that the hotels we visit treat their employees with respect, pay them an honest wage, provide adequate health care and benefits, and allow them to organize without fear of intimidation or reprisals. Great is work, for it brings honor to the worker. But only if we honor the worker too.