Dispatches from the Workplace: Rabbis for Worker Justice

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards(CJLS), the highest legal body in Conservative Judaism, recentlyapproved a groundbreaking ruling on living wages. The ruling, called a teshuvah, is primarily a recommendation to Jewish institutions about how they should treat workers they employ.

In theory, the religious community is a strong supporter of the idea of living wages and most faith traditions have policy statements in favor of the concept. Yet many religiously affiliated institutions—nursing homes, hospitals and child care institutions, for example—have been less than enthusiastic about living wage policies that actually apply to them. Workers in faith-based institutions often talk about appreciating the "family" aspect of their organizations, but wish they had wages that could support their own families.

The teshuvah, "Work, Workers, and the Jewish Owner," approved by the Rabbinical Assembly on May 28, 2008, was written by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, an up-and-coming intellectual leader in Judaism's Conservative Movement.Educated at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Jacobs is now the Rabbi in Residence at Jewish Funds for Justice.

In the opening paragraphs of the ruling, Rabbi Jacobs reminds her readers that Jewish law is not just theory, but informs daily life in the conservative community. Indeed, the list of teshuvot,or rulings, on the website of the Rabbinical Assembly covers a range of subjects from divorce, to "interpersonal relations," to mourning—there are even rulings under the heading "kosher and non-kosher wine." Jacobs makes the argument that low-wage workers are part of the community, and need to be treated according to Jewish values and tradition, or halakha.

Drafting the teshuvah was a multi-year "work in progress."Jacobs began writing on the topic of living wages during a summer internship in 2001 with SEIU (the Service Employees International Union), in which she worked on the momentous Justice for Janitors campaign. Upon finishing school, she worked for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, where she engaged rabbis and synagogues in social justice issues, including worker justice concerns.

In the case of Rabbi Jacobs' teshuvah, one controversial element was its support for "card check" recognition as the preferred process for workers to indicate their desire to be represented by a union. The labor movement believes that many workers would choose to belong to a union if they could simply sign a card indicating their preference instead of being subjected to strong employer opposition that often includes firing or harassing union supporters and extended anti-union messaging. A bill called the Employee Free Choice Act,which incorporates this "card check" process, passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate. Passage of this bill in the new Congress in 2009 is a top priority of the labor movement, which is why the teshuvah's endorsement of this process is so significant.

The first recommendation suggests that all Jews in the Conservative Movement should advocate an economic system in which "people who work full-time are able to provide for their families' basic needs."

The next six recommendations are all directed at Jewish employers. The document says Jewish employers should:

  • Treat their workers with dignity and respect;
  • Pay workers on time for the full time worked and should take responsibility for how their contractors pay workers;
  • Provide safety equipment and training to workers to keep them safe in the workplace;
  • Strive to pay a living wage (the document outlines several different ways that a living wage could be calculated);
  • Allow their employees to decide whether or not to be represented by a union, without employer interference (the document further adds that employers may not refuse workers the option of card check and recommends striving to hire unionized workers when possible, especially when hiring low-income workers);
  • Comply with federal labor laws, despite their inconsistent enforcement;
  • The last recommendation is for Jewish employees to work at full capacity during their working hours and for unions to uphold obligations of employees to employers.

    The entire teshuvah is worth reading because of its excellent overview of Jewish teachings on work and unions. Although many faith traditions have general statements on work, living wages and the right to organize, few such statements are as well written or clear about the practical implementation.