Monday, May 12, 2008

Dignity of Labour, Living Wage and a Hechsher Tsedek

In many ways, Israel is paying for mistakes made by the Zionist movement years before the founding of the Jewish state. America is repeating some of these concerns and it concerns me. When I walk through Brooklyn and parts of New York , I frequently see help wanted signs in Spanish without an English translation.When I point it out to people, they shrug their shoulders and ask rhetorically , "Would YOU work at those wages?" The same conversations take place in Israel concerning Arab labour. A large part of difficulties in the Holy Land are with Arabs who were brought in to do work that should be considered noble. They later on became a permanent and hostile presence in our midst. Some of the secular Zionists emphasised the dignity of labour, and the importance of every type of honest work. Masonry and other construction trades are skilled professions that are a stronghold of Arabs who harbour no deep love for Jews. Let's be blunt. Not every Jew is cut out to be a rabbi or a doctor. The Mishna deals in good part with agricultural trade.
I have worked in places where I found out that my co-workers were illegal. They were hard workers and decent people confined to a poorly paid section of the labour market due to their lack of English language skills. These people put all their spare money into remittances to far away families in South America and even Asia. The hardship of being away from their families is to me unthinkable. In America, they serve the function of driving down the cost of hourly labour. It would be far kinder to promote consumerism, economic and infrastructural development in their home countries than to use these immigrants to push down the cost of labour in America. Greedy bosses and politicians building a base of liberal voters for future elections seem to be promoting this flood of chaotic legal and illegal immigration. There are countries in Europe that birth rates that are below replacement level. Their aging population finds that it needs enough workers paying into the system to support pensioners. The only solution they have been able to find is to import workers. Arab North Africans have in France, Belgium and many other European countries become an angry minority that has no interest in joining the European cultural mainstream.
The lessons are obvious for America and for Israel. Raising large families has an economic benefit in keeping a system like Social Security solvent. Well paid workers can spend more time with their families. Workers who are cheap replacements know it and resent it. If you are going to hire an immigrant, pay him wages that would attract a citizen. A connection to the world through a steady stream of immigration is something Israel and America share. Both countries, however are tied together by their respective national languages that enable citizens to transcend significant ethnic divisions and build a sense of common peoplehood. There is nothing dishonourable in setting some parameters to our concept of nationality.
A birth rate that will replenish and increase the population in America and Israel is crucial to the survival of both countries. It is considered to be in the national interest to stabilise crop prices such as corn and raw materials such as crude petroleum, iron and copper. Labour is a commodity too. It is in the national interest here and in Israel to protect the value of labour.
Outside the orthodox Jewish community has come the hechsher tsedek movement. The idea is that the treatment of workers should be a factor when purchasing anything from clothing to food. I worked years ago for a kosher food wholesaler who employed almost no Jews in positions involving physical labour, paying pennies above minimum wage and demanding long hours of work. It was hard and demanding work. The irony was not lost on me that management was dependent upon orthodox Jews for its customer base but employed almost no Jews of any sort outside of management and clerical staff. To this day, almost twenty years later, I will not use that food from that company in my home. Because of their oppressive labour policies and family planning laws involving forced abortion, I avoid buying goods from communist China whenever possible.
An orthodox Jew who has created jobs, especially if he is running a large factory or plant has the opportunity to contribute to creating an ideal society. I have worked for people who consult their faith in the treatment of their workers. I consider myself fortunate to be currently employed by such an individual.
The proper attitude a worker to an employer should be that of striving for his or her success as it were one's own. Class warfare has no place in a Jewish value system.
The problems of at risk children cannot be separated from an economy in which husband and wife must work to tread water. Family values means protecting the economic well being of the family. Advocating for the well being of workers and the concept behind a hechsher tsedek movement should have a prominent place in orthodox Jewish values.
My grandfather worked for years in a cement quarry. He was a bricklayer and cut stones by hand to build a house for his family. With a fourth grade education, his innate sense of decency precluded any espousal or practice of bigotry. I speak of him proudly in my home as a role model of what a Jew should strive for. We should not need to look outside the orthodox world to validate the dignity of labour. It is a Jewish concept. And its time has come.
Copyright 2008 By Magdeburger Joe of and,. Picture by Ben Shahn of blessed memory

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