Over the last decade, union activists have made impressive strides in reviving old alliances, which had waned in the 1960s, between the labor movement and left-leaning clergy. Joint labor-religious groups have become muscular forces advocating union-friendly issues at the municipal, state, and federal levels (see “The Religious Left, Reborn,” Autumn 2007). Now, in the latest major victory for the unions, an activist rabbi has persuaded the highest legal body of the Jewish Conservative movement to recommend that Jewish business owners pay their workers a “living wage” and welcome unions into their workplaces. The religious ruling, or teshuvah, of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards—a body within the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide congregation of Conservative rabbis—assumes a pro-labor position in virtually every controversy surrounding wage laws. It also offers evidence of an emerging pro-labor drift within the Conservative movement, as rabbis push their congregations to embrace “social-justice” initiatives.
The teshuvah is largely the work of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, director of education for Jewish Funds for Justice, a social-justice group that steers money from philanthropists to programs that combat, in the group’s words, “the root causes of domestic social and economic injustice.” Jacobs, like many clergy who have signed on to labor’s agenda, wants to use religious law and institutions to help reform what she sees as an inequitable economic system. Writing earlier this year in Shofar, a Jewish-studies journal, Jacobs described herself as “an American disturbed by the systematic injustices of this country” and proclaimed that American Jews, who as a group are “wealthy and more educated than the norm,” have “an obligation to care for the members of society who are most in need of protection.”
In her teshuvah, Jacobs notes that Jewish religious law holds that employers must treat workers with dignity and respect, which she interprets to mean a “living wage” in twenty-first-century America. Though her sources on workers’ dignity are largely ancient, her definition of a living wage is based on a model endorsed by the modern labor movement. The teshuvah tells employers that a living wage is “three times the fair market rent on a two-bedroom apartment” in the county where the business is located, or 130 percent of the poverty line, or 80 percent of an area’s median income. In New York City, a living wage based on so-called fair market rent amounts to about $23 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, or more than three times the state’s minimum wage. In Chicago, it is $16 an hour, or double the Illinois minimum wage.
The ruling also urges Jewish employers to “allow employees the space to make their own decisions about unionizations without threats or interference on the part of the employer” and to “hire unionized employees when possible.” To that end, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards explicitly tells employers to give workers the right to unionize by card-check—a method by which a company forgoes a secret ballot and authorizes union representation when half of its workers sign their names to cards.
The teshuvah has aroused concern—and opposition—among Conservative Jewish business leaders. Marc Gary, general counsel of Fidelity Investments in Boston and a non-voting, non-rabbinical member of the committee, argued that by wandering into areas of social justice, the committee risked “relegating the CJLS to the role of the Movement’s nanny instead of its authoritative provider of legal guidance.” Gary pointed out that the teshuvah considered labor issues almost entirely from union leaders’ point of view—failing to acknowledge, for instance, that many employees oppose the non-secret card-check process because it exposes them to pressure to join a union. “It is conceivable that employees choose not to join unions because unions have been associated in the past with corruption, racism, sexism, and xenophobia,” Gary told the committee. He also noted that much of the economic research that the teshuvah cites in favor of a living wage was one-sided, and that other, nonpartisan research by economists like David Neumark of the University of California at Irvine had concluded that the living wage often hurts low-income workers by forcing firms to eliminate jobs.
The committee issued its ruling despite Gary’s dissent, and other institutions within the Conservative Jewish movement have also proceeded with labor-friendly initiatives. The most significant is a joint effort by the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents congregations throughout North America, to create a new level of kosher certification for companies producing food for observant Jewish communities—based on the way these companies treat their workers.
Unlike traditional kosher designations, which certify that food has been produced in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, the new rules, known as hekhsher tzedek, require employers to follow a lengthy list of wage and benefit guidelines. They “favor” certifying firms that pay above industry standards and offer “affordable health insurance,” retirement plans, paid vacations, sick leave, and maternity leave. The new kosher-certification effort will also rate firms on whether their employee turnover rate is lower than industry averages; whether they have good relations with unions; whether they have efforts in place to diversify their workforces to include minorities, women, and the disabled; and whether they have good environmental track records. The new certification is set to go into effect in January 2009.
Says one businessman who has watched the Conservative movement drift into pro-labor issues: “Personally, I think this is just the beginning. It’s not impossible that the Conservative rabbis will, over the next few years, come out with anti-Wal-Mart resolutions,” as well as other rulings, in pursuit of “social justice.”