Why Labor Issues Are Jewish Issues

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 02, 2011, issue of March 11, 2011.
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There are moments when I envy America’s Roman Catholic Church. I felt that way back in 1983 when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a remarkable pastoral letter on war and peace, and again in 1986 with the USCCB’s “Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” These are authoritative documents, bold statements of the normative beliefs of the church.

I felt the same twinge of envy as I read the words of Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a February 23 letter to Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee. Blaire wrote: “You and our brother bishops in Wisconsin are offering a timely reminder of what the Church teaches on the rights and duties of workers, including the right to form and belong to unions…. these are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions. The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice.”

It doesn’t work that way for Jews. We are blessedly non-hierarchical, often indeed bordering on the anarchical. And on the issue at hand, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s effort to neuter his state’s public employee unions, we have taken a pass. As JTA reports: “The Jewish federations of Madison and Milwaukee have decided not to take a position on the issue. ‘It’s really due to the diversity of our donor base,’ said Jill Hagler, executive director of the Madison federation…. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee also is refraining from taking a position, and for the same reasons, according to director Elana Kahn-Oren.” Which means that on the noisiest and perhaps even the most consequential domestic quarrel of the day, we are officially mute.

That’s not to say that some Jews and Jewish organizations are not engaged. It is a safe bet that among Jews involved with the issue, there’s overwhelming opposition to Walker’s proposed legislation. Perhaps they react as viscerally as I did to a sign at the Tea Party rally in Madison the other day, a sign reading “Unions Are Un-American.”

There’s ample and unfortunate precedent for Wisconsinites to determine who is “un-American.” But even Joe McCarthy might have thought this sign absurd. There’s a middle class in America (albeit badly wounded) principally because of labor unions and the GI Bill. There’s a middle class because unions fought to ban child labor, to establish a 40-hour workweek, to provide health insurance and pensions for working people.

There’s a middle class because in 1909, 20,000 shirtwaist makers, mostly women between the ages of 16 and 25, called a strike that made the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union a major force in the labor movement and led, a year later, to another New York strike, this time of 65,000 cloak and suit workers. A Boston lawyer named Louis Brandeis was invited to mediate the dispute, and the workers won, and so did the garment trade workers in Chicago just three weeks later, striking 50 different manufacturers and becoming soon after the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. (Full disclosure: My late mother-in-law was a piece worker at Craigmore Clothes in Chicago; without the onsite Amalgamated clinic she’d have had no way of dealing with the frequent punctures she experienced as she worked with basting needles.)

The preposterous notion that it is the pension and health benefits of public employees rather than a brutal recession and the persistent impact of corporate greed that have brought Wisconsin and other states to impossible deficits is contemptible. The arithmetic doesn’t work — and, in any event, the unions Walker has targeted have already indicated their readiness to accept cutbacks in their benefits. What they resist, and what the battle is about, is the governor’s effort to destroy collective bargaining.

All this is “a Jewish issue” because, hierarchy or not, Jewish texts and teachings on worker rights are strikingly and unambiguously progressive. It is a Jewish issue because of people like Sam Gompers, David Dubinsky, Irving Bluestone, Sidney Hillman, Morris Hillquit, Ralph Helstein and Albert Shanker, to say nothing of Morton Bahr, Andy Stern, Randi Weingarten and a host of others who have played — and still play — central roles in America’s labor history. It is a Jewish issue because when last spring the International Trade Union Confederation dealt with an effort to label Israel an apartheid state, it was the Jewish Labor Committee and the American labor movement, joined by unions in Australia and Germany, that successfully derailed the measure. It is, finally, a Jewish issue because justice is everywhere and always a Jewish issue.

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