In honor of Labor Day, our mitzvah this week is to honor workers. From the Torah throughout Jewish texts, moral and legal imperatives provide protections for workers.
We learn in the very beginning of the Torah that work is holy, creative, and blessed, and that work should also be accompanied by a day of rest. Yet many workers in America have no opportunity for rest. Many migrant workers who milk the cows on bucolic Vermont dairy farms, get no days off, ever. Many fast-food and big store employees have unpredictable schedules and never know whether they will have enough work to provide for their families.
In Deuteronomy, the book of the Torah we are currently reading, we are instructed not to oppress hired workers, whether they are “of your brothers, or of foreigners who are in your land within your gates.” (Deuteronomy 24:14). In today’s environment, many immigrant workers who keep our homes and businesses clean and produce much of our food, are fearful of detention and deportation, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.
The next verse specifies that all laborers should be paid immediately, before the sun sets. There are plenty of workers today who don’t receive their paychecks when promised and often are cheated out of hard-earned wages. Coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky have not been paid for their work for two months because of a bankruptcy filing by their employer, Blackjewel. Wage theft is an issue in Massachusetts too, particularly in construction.
It is a Jewish moral obligation, a mitzvah, to support workers in unfair power relationships with unscrupulous employers. Some of us are careful to treat our employees fairly and compassionately. For others, advocating for workers, standing on picket lines, and protesting may be regular, year-round activities. Here are a few ways everyone can make this Labor Day weekend an opportunity to do this mitzvah.
· Remember that Labor Day is a holiday, so when you encounter a worker while shopping or eating in a restaurant or staying at a hotel, thank them for working. (Hourly workers should be getting time and a half, but it’s still time away from their families.)
· Look cashiers and servers in the eye. Smile. Thank them.
· Remember the “invisible workers” like hotel housekeepers, cleaners at your office or your gym, cooks, farmworkers, and so many more.
· Leave a tip. Leave a better tip than usual.
· Enjoy the Bread and Roses Festival and learn more about the history of working people in the US.
· Read this Op-ed in The Forward (a Jewish online paper) from Ari Fertig, Executive Director of the New England Jewish Labor Committee (of which Ashley Adams and I are co-chairs).
· Put September 28 on your calendar for Labor on the Bimah, with speaker Ashley Adams.
And if you are working on Labor Day, I’m sending you a smile and a thank you for the important work that you do. If you need support in your workplace please contact me or the New England Jewish Labor Committee.
Happy Labor Day!
Rabbi Barbara Penzner