Judaism and Labor Unions

Sermon delivered April 29, 2011, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh:  “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts.  The whole Earth is full of God’s glory.” We sing these words, sanctifying God, every morning, citing the prophet Isaiah, who hears these words in a vision of seraphim, fiery six-winged angels.  Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, traditional Jews stand on tip-toes as we say these words, reaching toward heaven, as we repeat other-worldly praise of celestial beings.

Beth Ellen Young teaches that religious rituals are often meant to connect us to heaven, to God’s domain; and yet, when the Torah speaks of holiness, the subject matter is human action.  This week, we read from the Torah, Kedoshim tiyhyu, ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem:  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy.”  The portion goes on, not to delineate rituals or angelic words that must be repeated to sanctify our lives.  Instead, as I read from Scripture tonight, religiosity is found in our every day lives:  We are holy when we respect elders, when we are kind to strangers, and when we are honest in business.

Tomorrow, Katie will read additional words from this most stirring Torah portion.  Among the commandments she will impart:  “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”  Even if state law did not require it, we are enjoined by Torah to pay our workers on time.

From the beginning, then, our Jewish tradition has insisted that service to God begins with how we treat the most vulnerable among us.  The prophetic book that begins with winged angels goes on to excoriate the wealthy of ancient Israel.  They were punctilious in their ritual observance, such as fasting, but the prophet tells them they will not find God’s favor: “Because on your fast day you think only of your business and oppress all your workers!”

Little wonder, then, that many American Labor Unions were founded by Jews.  Samuel Gompers, a Jewish immigrant from England, founded the American Federation of Labor, and served as its President from 1886 until his death in 1924.

Today, few would disagree that labor unions were much needed in Gompers’ America.  In the Gilded Age, and through the “roaring 20s,” as American industry rapidly expanded, workers rarely benefited from our nation’s growing prosperity.  Instead, American wealth was generated on the broken backs of immigrant workers, among them Jews.

The truth be told, labor leaders weren’t the only Jews involved in the fight.  To be sure, America’s largest corporations were neither owned nor led by Jews in that era.  However, Jewish employers were not necessarily more generous to their workers.

I am hardly the first Temple Rabbi to speak from this pulpit about the rights of the laborer.  The words of Rabbi Ephraim Frisch resounded in this Sanctuary as he cried out for workers’ rights in the 1920s and 1930s.  Rabbi Frisch was particularly courageous during a notorious pecan shellers’ strike in 1938.  The workers were primarily Hispanic women.  The labor leader was not a Jewish man, but a Latina, and a Communist at that, by the name of Emma Tenayeuca.  The target of the strike was Southern Pecan Shelling Company, owned by Temple members who had been key donors when this magnificent edifice was constructed.

Richard Croxdale has written about working conditions for the pecan shellers:  “The pecan-shelling industry was one of the lowest-paid industries in the United States, with a typical wage ranging between two and three dollars a week. In the nearly 400 shelling factories in San Antonio the contracting system was prevalent; the large firms controlled the supply of nuts as well as the prices for shelling. Working conditions were abysmal-illumination was poor, inside toilets and washbowls were nonexistent, and ventilation was inadequate. Fine brown dust from the pecans permeated the air, and the high tuberculosis rate of San Antonio-148 deaths for each 100,000 persons, compared to the national average of fifty-four-was blamed at least partially on the dust.”


Rabbi Frisch, of blessed memory, spoke out against his own congregants’ moral failings with the courage of the prophets of old.  There is debate about the reasons that Rabbi Frisch left Temple Beth-El a few years later.  We would be oversimplifying if we were to say that he was fired for siding with the workers against his own members.  Moreover, his Associate Rabbi, David Jacobson, who became the Temple’s Senior Rabbi when Frisch left, was no less outspoken on social justice, as noted by historian Karl Preuss and others who have studied the events of that era.


Thank God, and no small thanks to labor organizers, Jewish and otherwise, conditions such as those at Southern Pecan Factory no longer exist in this country.  Sweatshops and slave wages are things of America’s past.


But we must not kid ourselves.  The labor laws that govern safety and some degree of fairness in the American workplace today were won only after hard-fought battles.  Suffering was long and harsh.  To a large degree, working conditions did not change until New Deal reforms responded to the Great Depression.


Today, we often hear that labor unions might have been important in a previous age, but have now become a menace.  Today, we are told, labor union fat-cats simply seek to line their own pockets by picking the pockets of those who create jobs.  Today, we are told, labor unions seek political power at the expense of excellence in industry, in schools, and everywhere in between.


But again, let us not kid ourselves.  These same arguments were made by the employers who oppressed the workers of this country a century ago.  Then, as now, business leaders insisted that American working conditions were satisfactory.  Then, as now, the captains of industry maintained that labor unions would destroy the jobs they sought to improve.


The truth is complicated.  San Antonio residents present tonight no doubt realize that pecan shelling is not a thriving business in our community today.  Croxdale tells us that, in 1938, half of the U.S. pecan business was Texas-based, and it was centered in San Antonio.  The shellers might have won the battle with their strike, but they ultimately lost their jobs.  Just three years after the strike was over, cracking machines had replaced some 10,000 workers in the San Antonio pecan industry.  We may well say that those jobs were replaced, over time, with better employment, humane working conditions, and more livable wages.  And we may be right.  But for the pecan shellers of the late 1930s – during the Depression, mind you – the dislocation must have been severe.

Labor unions have been much in the news in recent months.  In an infamous government showdown in Wisconsin, the Governor and legislative majorities took away teachers’ and other civil servants’ legally guaranteed collective bargaining rights.  We in Texas might have looked bemused:  Teachers never had such protections here.


“The more things change,” the saying goes, “the more they remain the same.”  Yes, labor conditions are better than they were 100 years ago, but that standard should not make us proud.  After decades in the post-World War II era, when the middle class grew in America and the gap between rich and poor narrowed, the last two decades have seen vast wealth concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of our fellow citizens.  After we all helped Wall Street recover from its self-inflicted catastrophe, and from the disaster that Wall Street inflicted upon America, banking fat-cats are going home with multi-million dollar paydays, the stock market keeps going up, taxes on the wealthy remain at historically low levels, and job creation is flat.  America’s poor have been the victims of the Great Recession.


Too often, we are told that the poor are slothful.  Poverty is blamed on the poor.  Doubtless, some poor people, like plenty of the rest of us, are lazy.  But millions of working Americans are poor.  Too many of our fellow citizens who bring home full-time paychecks also require government assistance to feed their families.


Last year, many of us were rattled when Hyatt hotels fired scores of unionized housekeepers in Boston, many of them long-time employees, the working poor.  They replaced these workers with contracted service, paying lower wages in tough times.


When we, San Antonio taxpayers, assisted Hyatt in building a new hotel in San Antonio, our city leaders insisted that the new hotel pay a living wage.  Hyatt has kept up its end of that bargain.  But at what expense?   Workers claim that Hyatt requires housekeepers to clean as many as 30 rooms a day, much more than the industry standard.  Studies show that Hyatt housekeepers have a significantly higher rate of injury than workers at other, similar chains.


Now, as in the days of Isaiah, the Torah teaches, “You shall not abuse a needy laborer.”


Now, as in the days of Samuel Gompers, labor unions may be the only place poor workers can turn for decent pay and safe working conditions.


Now, as in the days of Rabbi Frisch, we Jews have an obligation to speak out for those whose voices are too little heard.  We remember the heart of the slave, for we were slaves in the land of Egypt.  We are mindful of the struggles of the abused laborer, for we were abused laborers in the sweatshops of Industrial Revolution America.

Now, as in the darkest days of the Great Depression, we can look to a brighter future.  Isaiah promises that when we do “unlock the shackles of injustice, . . . then shall your light shine in the darkness . . . You shall be called ‘Repairer of the breach.’  I will cause you to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob,” of Leah, and of Rachel.


May that be God’s will.