Last weekend, we enjoyed the Labor Day holiday. There were speeches, barbecues, and an extra day of shopping.
The celebration continues with the New York City Labor Day parade this Saturday. This poorly attended parade, like the holiday itself, reflects the weak state of labor in the United States today. The truth is that working people have not had much to cheer about for a long time. Wages have stagnated, particularly for those trapped in lower income jobs. And while better paid workers have seen some improvements recently, the income gap in the United States remains among the largest in the world. As a country, we cannot agree on a minimum wage — let alone a living one.
In 2014, the latest year for which such information is available, the top 20 percent of income earners in the United States earned more money than the remaining 80 percent combined, while the top 5 percent of Americans earned more than 20 percent of all the income in the United States. Households in the lowest 10 percent earned no more than $12,276 a year. The top 5 percent earned more than $206,568.
In 2006, the median household income in the United States was $57,357. In 2014, it had fallen to $53,657.
As Americans, we look at the situation and see how this disparity strangles the growth of our society, the shrinking of the middle class, and the tarnishing of the American dream of success. For some to have more, others must have less. For some to have much more, many must have much much less.
As Jews, we look at these statistics and see a rusting of the “goldeneh medinah” — the golden land. Three generations ago, the immigrant Jewish generation fought to eliminate sweatshops and protect workers from the greed of bosses. It was the time of Samuel Gompers, a Jewish immigrant and a cigar maker who moved from rolling tobacco leaves to organizing workers, developing the concept of collective bargaining, and becoming president of the American Federation of Labor.
It was the time of Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish seamstress who worked in a sweatshop. Lemlich came to the attention of the outside world at the mass meeting held at Cooper Union on November 22, 1909, to rally support for the striking shirtwaist workers. After the leading figures of the American labor movement spoke in general terms about the need for solidarity and preparedness, Lemlich demanded the opportunity to speak. Lifted onto the platform, she addressed the workers in Yiddish, saying that there had been “enough talk” and calling for an immediate walkout in support of those already on strike.
“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk,” she said. “I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions.… We are here to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out.”
The crowd responded enthusiastically, and joined her in an oath that echoes an ancient Jewish call. “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” Approximately 20,000 out of the 32,000 workers in the shirtwaist trade walked out in the next two days; this would become known as the Uprising of the 20,000 that led to the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. The strike lasted until February 10, 1910, producing union contracts at almost every shop, but not at Triangle Shirtwaist.
Triangle Shirtwaist became a synonym for sweatshop during the following year. On March 25, 1911, nearly 150 garment workers died as a result of a fire that consumed the factory. Fire exits had been either locked or blocked. Workers were either burned to death or died jumping to escape the flames.
Clara Lemlich survived, though her cousin died in the flames. When she was 95 years old, Clara organized the janitorial staff in her retirement home to demand a better contract.
How is it that a cigar roller and a young immigrant seamstress were so pivotal in the early labor movement? It’s because they, along with countless other Jewish workers, considered better working conditions as part of their DNA.
The Torah requires prompt payment of wages and fair treatment for workers: “You shall not oppress a hired servant that is poor…In the same day you shall give him his hire…” (Deuteronomy 24, 14-15). The Torah instructed that workers were to be permitted to eat of the fields in which they labored, and that the gleanings and corners of the fields were to be left for the needy. Repeatedly, the Torah reminds us to recall that we once were slaves in Egypt; that from that foundational national experience should emerge a consciousness combining empathy for those facing hardship with the social responsibility of the community to protect and provide for the vulnerable within it.
Servitude was a norm in the time the Torah was written, but the Torah required that such servitude be limited. Indentured servants served a specific, contracted time, and the authority of the master was limited as well. When the period of servitude was completed, not only was the master obligated to free the bondsman, the bondsman was obligated to leave. Moreover, the master was required to give his former bondsmen the resources to renew life as an economically independent person. The ideal was to have neither an impoverished mass nor a wealthy few.
To put it in today’s terms, the ideal social condition is to have a strong and independent working middle class.
Technical change and globalization today present new challenges to workers in a new kind of workplace. There still are factories and shops, but increasingly, employment is concentrated in service work. The new conditions make it ever more important that educational opportunities be broad, general, and affordable, that working people are protected by a living minimum wage, and that workers abroad have similar protections, lest their oppression be imported with the products of their labor.
It is vitally important that workers retain their hard fought rights to organize and bargain collectively.
Our history and tradition should enhance our consciousness that all working people are entitled to be treated with a fundamental dignity, whether they are on the shop floor, in the warehouse, in front of a computer, or in front of a classroom. Our history and tradition help us understand that social fairness is not only a kindness but a measure of social health.
Clara Lemlich called upon Jewish workers to move from fine oratory to action. As we move on from Labor Day 2016, let us consider what that means for each of us today.