Paper on Labor Issues Falls Short in Conservative Vote

By Rebecca Spence

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.

A rabbinic opinion calling on Jewish business owners to pay their workers a living wage and hire union employees was stymied by the Conservative movement’s top lawmaking body after the opinion received fewer than the minimum number of votes needed for a paper to be approved.

At last week’s meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s 25-member Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the opinion, “Work, Workers and the Jewish Owner,” came up three votes shy of reaching the six-vote threshold required for adoption. But according to the paper’s author, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, it still stands a chance of being passed at a future plenum.

The fierce debate over Jacobs’s living wage opinion — and its recent defeat — opens a window onto the precarious place that labor issues have come to occupy on the Jewish community’s agenda in recent years. As American Jews have ascended the ranks to employers from employees, memories of earlier Jewish labor activism have faded into the background. Concerns by some members of the law committee that Jacobs’s pro-labor paper would create an undue hardship on Jewish business owners seem to reflect what some observers describe as the growing gap between American Jews and the union movement. Jacobs, a labor activist who is the education director of the left-wing group Jewish Funds for Justice, rebuffed the argument made by some on the law committee that paying workers a living wage could put Jewish-owned companies out of business. “We ask people to do all sorts of things that put them at an economic disadvantage,” Jacobs said. “That’s because we believe in Jewish law and we don’t believe that making money is the highest Jewish law,” she added.

According to Jacobs, 30, studies have shown that when American cities have adopted living wage ordinances, profits have, in fact, increased.

Rabbi Paul Plotkin, religious leader of Margate, Fla.’s Temple Beth Am, leveled the harshest criticism at Jacobs during a contentious discussion of her paper, which took place at last week’s law committee meeting. Plotkin, who chairs the subcommittee on kashrut, asserted that the paper fell short of even constituting a legal opinion.

“It would have been a lovely sermon, but I would never have translated the idealization of how it should be for workers into a halachic argument,” he said in an interview with the Forward.

The vote, which included an unusually large number of abstentions — 10 — and seven nays, could come up again during a March 2007 law committee meeting, Jacobs said. She added that she was buoyed by the fact that many who abstained did so based on minor gripes, not on a wholesale dismissal of her paper’s ideas.

“I’m hoping to be able to revise it in a way to answer some of their concerns,” Jacobs said.



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