The American labor movement is founded on the deeply held religious principles of our people yet many understandably associate labor with the Left.
Marx, after all, was a champion of labor and many labor organizers sympathized with the egalitarianism of theoretical communism. Yet it is the Bible and subsequent religious teaching that informs our celebration of labor on this final weekend of the summer.
While we grill our burgers and shuck sweet corn and suck a pull of Bud Light with family and friends we should pause to remember why we dedicate this day to those Americans who earn their living with their hands. The reason lies in the Bible, not the Communist Manifesto.
When early labor leaders sought protections for workers from abuse by factory owners they had Deuteronomy on their side: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute worker… You must pay the wages owed on the same day, before the sun sets, because the worker is needy and urgently depends on it” (Deut. 24:14-15).
But it was not only a fair income that the labor movement sought for its workers. Especially after the Triangle Shirt-waist Factory fire, where the conflagration and horrifying deaths were the consequence of the owner intentionally locking exit doors, labor leaders also fought for safe working conditions.
Whose should prevail? Does the owner have the right to run his factory as he or she wishes and if you don’t like it, work somewhere else? Or do workers have a right to conditions that promote health and safety—even at the involuntary expense of the factory owner?
This is not just a modern controversy. In the 13th century Judah, the son of Samuel of Ratisbon wrote in The Book of the Pious that an employer may not oppress an employee.
Asserting his authority as a rabbi, he taught, “When someone employs a worker, he should not burden the worker too much or give him more than he can do… Even though the worker may seek it, it is forbidden to burden him more than he can handle.” Eight hundred years later we still value statistics about “productivity” over “quality of life.” We forget that the word “economy” means “quality of life” not “profit.”
The most vulnerable workers in America today are not, thanks to OSHA, those who labor in factories, but those who work in fields. They often lack clean water to drink, somewhere to rest in the shade, or even a place to pee.
They do backbreaking work and if they get sick or hurt they return to the field the next day for fear of otherwise losing their job. Is the fruit of such labor “kosher”? The liberal branches of Judaism say No and forbid the eating of food that comes to the table as a result of oppression.
In 1978 I stood with César Chavez in San Benito, Texas (representing the American Reform rabbinate)—along with religious leaders from churches across the region—in a three-day convocation dedicated to addressing the myriad problems of migrant workers. A religious nation cares about the working conditions of its laborers, about the education of their children as parents follow harvests north from Arizona to the Canadian border, and about the possibility of their rising above this lowest rung of the American ladder.
Today, our guaranteed minimum wage, eight hour work day, child labor laws, and unemployment compensation reflect American’s effort to make religious values real in our society. Labor unions educated their members and helped immigrants to become integrated into American society.
Many of today’s teachers and other professionals are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of these laborers. As they benefited from increasingly fair labor conditions in America—giving them health, safety, dignity, and a living wage—so should we today dedicate ourselves to nurturing this American dream, this religious vision, to a new generation of immigrants, migrant workers, and factory laborers—who are made more vulnerable than ever by a weaker union movement.
With the globalization of labor that is accompanying an increasing concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, workers need us, more than ever, to follow the teaching in Proverbs, to “Speak up, judge righteously, and champion the poor and the needy” (31:9).