Workers rights, Labor Day and Jewish values: U.S. labor faces daunting challenges

When Congress declared Labor Day a public holiday in 1894, workers had more to lament than to celebrate: an economic depression, a growing concentration of corporate wealth and power, and the brutal suppression of their unions. Also that year, a momentous national railroad strike to protest deep wage cuts with the summary firing of workers who dared to voice their griev-ances was ruthlessly broken with the help of the U.S. attorney general and federal troops, leaving more than 30 workers dead and the strike’s leader, Eugene Victor Debs, in jail.

Nevertheless, in those bleak times, there was something for workers in the U.S. to celebrate: a broad notion of solidarity had begun to take root, defining an injury to any one worker as an injury to all. That solidarity, directly countering the forces that divided working people, sustained and strengthened the labor movement in the years to come. A strong labor movement, in turn, worked to build the middle class and strengthen our democracy.

This resonated with the Jewish communities of the day, largely immigrants and children of immigrants who knew what communal solidarity and mutual aid were all about. And it was no accident that Jewish workers were among the ranks of the U.S. labor movement. Jewish labor activists made a lasting impression on the development of the U.S. labor movement, such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the American Federation of Teachers, and my own union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

On this Labor Day, U.S. workers once again face tough times: persistent high unemployment and a concentration of wealth and economic power not seen since the 19th century. The Jewish community, of course, is not immune to the hardships this has caused — just ask anyone working at a Jewish family service agency or vocational service.

And this growing inequality, not surprisingly, has coincided with organized labor’s decline. Today, the country’s union membership rate is under 12 percent, the lowest in more than 70 years. But that trend is not driven by the hostility of workers toward unions — in poll after poll a majority of nonunion workers say they would like to join a union if they could — but rather by hostility of some employers and state and local governments.

Since the 2010 midterm elections, legislatures in dozens of states including Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin have moved to eviscerate collective bargaining rights, care workers leave the job each year due to low pay and difficult working conditions. Efforts like A.B. 889 are critical in maintaining skilled, quality in-home care.

How we treat these workers, who are so much a part of our intimate lives, ought to be an essential part of our social and political agenda. Jewish texts clearly mandate the fair treatment of workers and the building of just communities. And the issue is deeply personal — regardless of our financial means, few of us escape the need for assistance from caregivers at some point in our lives.

The domestic workers campaign is about more than decent and respectful working conditions. The goal of the campaign reflects a longer-term vision of a society in which every person receives the care he or she needs and every worker receives respect and healthy working conditions. The strategy of organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Bend the Arc and Hand in Hand, among many others, is to create a cross-generational, cross-class, cross-gender and cross-race alliance of workers and their allies who share the vision of a caring community.

As a result of much organizing and lobbying, AB 889 stands a strong chance of passing the state Senate. We must make sure that Gov. Jerry Brown signs it into law. Even if the bill becomes law, however, there will still be a lot to do. It will take a tremendous amount of work to inform the 200,000 domestic workers in California of their rights, and to educate employers about best practices.

This is a campaign for workers’ rights that touches each of us personally, and now is the time for the entire Jewish community to rally behind it and help make history.

To get involved, email, phone or fax your support for AB 889 to the governor if and when the bill gets to his desk at Strengthen your own employment practices with these simple steps:

resources/justice-begins-home. And talk with other employers about the campaign and how domestic workers impact your lives.

Stuart Appelbaum
is president of the Jewish Labor Committee and of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, representing workers in the United States and Canada.