As Jews, most of us value equality and fairness, human dignity and a vibrant democracy in which all sectors of society have equal access to power. Unions are one of the strongest mechanisms by which these values are served, giving voice to the interests of working- and middle-class people. So an effort to silence unions should register as an alarming threat to our values and the common good. Proposition 32, the deceptively named “paycheck protection act,” is such an effort.
These days, a common narrative has it that unions had their day in America, during which they helped masses of people — including many Jews — who suffered from Industrial Age labor exploitation. This makes organized labor seem like a nostalgically pleasant, possibly even inspiring, history lesson. Our jobs today mostly don’t look like those dark, sooty factory jobs; we don’t see a lot of children working in mines; and most of us don’t belong to unions. But unions and their ability to organize powerfully matter to all of us, affecting the lives of most Americans for the better.
Even before the recent recession, income inequality had been growing and wages had been stagnant for decades. Nearly a quarter of the labor force in America does not earn enough to keep their families out of poverty, even working full time and year-round. Meanwhile, corporations and the wealthiest Americans have seen their fortunes rise. These opposing trends are not unrelated. Most of the rise in corporate profits between 2000 and 2007 is due to lower employee compensation, despite rising productivity. Declines in union rolls have contributed to these trends, including a fifth of our current income gap.
Even where the decline of union membership isn’t directly responsible for the trouble we’re in, its resurgence could help get us out of it. Unions not only improve their members’ wages and benefits, they set standards that entire industries follow. As the largest organized group of middle- and lower-income people in the country, unions form the backbone of many political efforts that benefit an otherwise unorganized and therefore silent majority of Americans. We owe widely enjoyed protections, from the weekend and eight-hour day to the Family and Medical Leave Act, to the exercise of political muscle by organized labor.
In light of all these benefits, a strong labor movement seems less like a quaint tale from the past and more like a critical part of our present and future. This understanding has undergirded the work of Bend the Arc (formerly Progressive Jewish Alliance and Jewish Funds for Justice), as we have partnered with low-wage workers fighting for basic rights, living wages and the right to organize and unionize. Our visible Jewish presence and partnership has strengthened their efforts, and invigorated and inspired Jews of all ages.
Proposition 32 would steer California sharply in the other direction, as part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to kill unions. By preventing union members from using voluntary paycheck deductions to make contributions to their unions’ political organizing funds, it would eliminate the largest single mechanism for marshaling resources to support causes and candidates that help middle- and lower-income Californians.
Proponents claim Proposition 32 promotes individual freedom, but current law already allows employees to opt out of these deductions. What it would really do is fundamentally alter the political balance of power in a way that would damage the interests of all middle- and lower-income Californians. The influence of corporations and the super-rich would be left unchecked.
The rights of workers are well supported by Jewish tradition and law, beginning in the Torah with exhortations such as “You shall naot abuse a needy and destitute laborer” (Deuteronomy 24:14-25), and continuing with a long record of legal rulings establishing rights to fair living wages and to unionize to negotiate with employers.
Yet our concerns with this proposition go beyond just workplace rights to a fundamental question of power — who has it and who needs more of it. Equity in civic life is a foundational Jewish value. The Torah tells us “do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich” (Leviticus 19:15). Jewish tradition is pointed in its critique of hoarding of power by elites, and clear-eyed about its consequences: “If you see in a province oppression of the poor and suppression of right and justice, do not wonder at the fact; for one high official is protected by a higher one, and both of them by still higher ones” (Ecclesiastes 5:7).
Those of us occupying the middle and lower rungs of the hierarchy must have the means to band together to protect and expand our own modest interests. Our history, our tradition and our deepest values demand that we protect these means in the name of equality and fairness, and oppose Proposition 32.
Josh Weisman is a Bay Area native and a member of the Bay Area regional council of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.