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What does labor want? Thoughts for Labor Day 2022

4web This weeked was brought to you by the blood sweat and tears of the labor movement.jpg

by Arieh Lebowitz, Executive Director, JLC

In a recent article, “ ‘Quiet quitting,’ the sudden trend in work, sounds sort of … Jewish?,” Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New York Jewish Week, mentioned “cooling your hottest ambitions in favor of a saner work-life balance.” As someone who’s been working from home since March 2020, my “hottest ambition” is precisely a saner work-life balance.

Speaking of a related balance, or rather, imbalance, he added that “the demise of unions has shifted the workplace power balance to employers.” To paraphrase Mark Twain’s’ oft-misquoted expression, that demise has been exaggerated. A decline, yes, but unions in the U.S. are still alive, active, significant, and increasingly finding favor in opinion polls, and with working people who are reaching for that saner work-life balance, plus decent wages and working conditions, greater work-schedule stability, and a measure of respect on the job.

In a nutshell, the not-so-sudden trend is not simply “quiet quitting,” but working people looking to get a better balance in their work-life – often through joining unions and in collective action.

The reality is that today, for the many unions in the U.S., declines in membership in the last 50 years are closely connected to changes in the U.S. and global economy, as companies with solid blue-collar jobs in the U.S. relocated from high union-density to low union-density states, and then to other countries altogether – while their unionized workers were literally left behind.

Just a few days ago, Gallup reported that in the U.S., approval of unions is at its highest point since 1965 – 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions, compared to last year's 68%, up from 64% before the pandemic. Increasing numbers of people in the U.S., according to a Pew study, feel positive about unions' effect on the country, and continue to see the long-term decline in the share of workers represented by unions as a bad thing for working people and the country as a whole.

Recent studies have shown that an increasing number of working people in the U.S. indeed want to join a union. And workers attempts to join unions don’t always make the headlines. I’m thinking not only of the baristas at Starbucks, not only of the workers at Amazon, or those at Apple stores, but also people who work at museums, and minor league baseball players – to mention only a few.

The Jews may have been blessed with a day of rest, but in the USA, it was unions, that is, the organized labor movement, that gave us the two-day weekend. You might not have seen the bumper stickers, but I’ve seen ‘em – “ Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”

A culture that demands that you sacrifice private time to your employer is one that is antithetical to a healthy work-life balance. Silow-Carroll noted that workers in the U.S. get on average 10 fewer vacation days a year than Europeans because, unlike the European Union, the United States does not federally mandate paid vacations, or holidays. And who would be the central force behind such a federal mandate? Norma Rae knew, and it is spelled u-n-I-o-n.

Of course, there have been and continue to be concerted efforts by employers to block efforts of workers to exercise their legal right to join the union of their choice, and to control them on the job.

Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers are using tracking software to monitor their employees? It’s no accident: the whole system of employers’ surveillance is designed, in part, to make employees feel guilty and anxious. And it works. Unions are in the front lines on this issue, too.

Jewish tradition and religious law has long had much to say about the value of work, and the necessity of treating workers fairly.

Sages of the Talmud knew very well that people must work for a living, and that honest labor was a good thing. Many of them were workers themselves: according to one source, Hillel was a woodchopper before he became the Nasi (President) of the Sanhedrin; Shammai the Elder was a builder; Abba Chilkiyah was a field laborer; Abba Shaul was a gravedigger; Abba Chilkiyah was a field worker; Abba Oshiya was a launderer; Rabbi Shmuel b. Shilas was a school teacher, Rabbi Meir and Rabi Chananel were scribes; Rabbi Yosi b. Chalafta was a tanner; Rabbi Yochanan Hasandlar was a shoemaker; Rabbi Yehoshua b. Chananiah was a blacksmith; Rabbi Abba b. Zavina was a tailor; Rabbi Huna was a farmer and raised cattle; Rabbi Chisda and Rabbi Papa were beer brewers; (Mar) Shmuel was a doctor. I’m sure we could find more, if we checked.

I’m glad that Silow-Carroll quoted the artist Jenny Odell’s 2019 manifesto, “How to do Nothing,” about quitting the “attention economy.” As she pointed out, Samuel Gompers, the Jewish-British immigrant and labor leader who championed the eight-hour work week as far back as 1886, in an address asking “What Does Labor Want?,” answered by quoting Psalms: “It wants the earth and the fullness thereof.”

But Odell left out much more of what he said. "What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures." As true now as it was in Gompers’ time.

Something to think about this Labor Day Weekend, ‘eh?