What Happens After Postville - Seth Winberg
Labor Day 2008 is a good time to reflect on what has been a busy year for Jews and labor. In June, the Union for Reform Judaism's Board of Trustees adopted a resolution on Ethical Employment Practices, calling on Reform Jews to "seek out businesses that pay a living wage, provide benefits for their full-time workers and engage in fair and ethical employment practices." Similarly, Conservative Judaism's Committee on Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (legal responsum), Work, Workers and the Jewish Owner, obligating Conservative Jews and their institutions to pay employees a living wage, to allow employees to decide about unionization without interference, and when possible, to hire unionized workers.
And then there is Postville. Agriprocessors Inc., the leading supplier of kosher meat in America, has been accused of more injustices than I can list in ten minutes—but to name a few: low pay, wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and participation in the falsification of documents for immigrants. On May 12, Immigration and Enforcement officers raided the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, rounding up hundreds of workers, many of them Guatemalan immigrants, into a converted 60-acre cattle fairground.
Strong communal response followed, especially from an Orthodox student activist organization, Uri L'Tzedek. One of the reasons for this was the recognition of profound religious injustice: abused workers, some of them children, have been producing the ritually slaughtered meat eaten at our Shabbat tables. Postville reminds us that the cost and value of a product go beyond the sticker price.
Following Postville, we need our institutions to commit to supporting the rights of workers. Jewish tradition views mistreatment of workers as a religious offense. For that reason, prominent rabbis in the modern period explicitly encouraged the formation of unions. Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel (1880-1953), Israel's first Sepharadi Chief Rabbi, viewed unionization as common sense and even went so far as to say that the Torah grants "the full and legal right to organize, even though it is possible that will result in a financial loss for the employers" (Mishpetei Uziel, Hoshen Misphat, 52:6). Without the power of collective bargaining, he said, an individual worker would be alone, unable to defend his or her own interests against the weight of the market. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel (then known as Palestine), said that unions are "formed for the purpose of guarding and protecting working conditions" and that doing so engenders "righteousness and uprightness and tikkun olam" (Yaron, Zvi, Mishnato shel ha-Rav Kook, 1986, p. 164.). In other words, by organizing unions, workers increase their chances to secure better wages and humane working conditions, which is ultimately better for society as a whole.
One way to support workers and the organization of unions is to support companies whose employees are unionized. We need to pay attention to which companies we engage to provide essential services for the Jewish community, such as janitorial staff, security guards, and in some cases, construction workers.
With these values in mind, in 2001, Temple Sinai of Summit, NJ asked the CCAR Responsa Committee whether it ought to use union labor to perform construction on the synagogue building. The congregation estimated that union labor would cost as much as $300,000 more than non-union labor.
The resulting responsum is a thorough presentation of how conflicting Jewish values help us think through today's complicated business issues. The first part of the responsum lays out the rich texts that support unions as a way of protecting vulnerable workers. In the second part of the responsum, the rabbis consider whether unions distort the fair market price of labor, noting that consumers are entitled to protection against unreasonable economic demands. The responsum considers whether it is possible to argue that the added $300,000 was in fact too high a cost—a form of price fraud (in Hebrew: ona'ah). It then invokes the principle of tzedek (social justice) as a way of resolving the apparent conflict between the protection of workers and a consumer's right to a fair market price. Given the overwhelming Jewish value of siding with the powerless (in this case, workers), the authors of the responsum "perceive unionization as an indispensable tool in the long struggle for social justice and the rights of workers"—especially since doing so is to the benefit of society at large.
The synagogue decided that social justice could only be achieved if we spend our money in a manner consistent with our religious values. Temple Sinai did, in fact, contract union labor to perform the renovations. That decision is a powerful precedent for our own synagogues and for our business lives. Empowering workers to achieve their goals, to better their working conditions, and to secure a future for their families—will cost us money. The synagogue's decision teaches us that accepting the lowest price for goods and services is not the only bottom line; rather, our self-interest is actually achieved in the building of a more just world.
This piece was reprinted from the URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah. For more, see: http://urj.org/torah/ten/