The history of Jewish Labor
by Ben Healey
A few weeks back, my colleague and friend Joe Gindi wrote in this space about the growing divide between interest-based politics and values-based politics in the decision-making processes of traditional Jewish “defense” organizations. He posited that the emerging contradictions between those two approaches could be traced in part to the Jewish community’s “rising class position,” and called for a return to a more universalistic approach to our community’s collective work in the world.
Joe is right about the defense organizations. But in this column I’d like to apply his framework more broadly to Jewish leadership outside of organizations that are not – or at least not only – Jewish.
Today, tens of thousands of residents of Greater Boston are working day in and day out to make ends meet, often at more than one job, and often with very limited benefit packages. Many of those workers are employees of the excellent teaching hospitals that provide so much of our region’s health care and drive such a large portion of our local economy. And as of a year ago, 1199SEIU – the health care workers’ union – has been trying to organize many of those workers, including those at Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center.
Now, let me pause here, and ask that you remember with me the critical role that Jews played in building the labor movement in this country. Remember how our community’s dedication to social justice, combined with the economic vulnerability of so many of our people, led generation after generation of American Jewish activists to help build powerful institutions dedicated to unifying and supporting working people. Remember that tradition, and feel proud.
Now come back to today and SEIU’s organizing efforts here in Boston – and learn that Paul Levy, the President of BIDMC, has made clear he wants no union at his hospital. Mr. Levy is of course entitled to his opinion, but what disappoints me most is not Mr. Levy’s statements – bosses discouraging workers from unionizing is nothing new in American history – but rather the silence on the part of the organized Jewish community in response.
Do we not still believe that working people deserve an organized and unified voice on the job? Do we not still believe that the unions that benefited our grandparents and our parents should benefit this generation of workers? And now that so many of us are professionals – with many of us running the biggest economic institutions in Boston – do we not still believe it is our responsibility to continue to work for social justice?
I want to put out a call to our community’s business leaders, and direct it first to Beth-Israel’s President: Mr. Levy, you are using your powerful position to stop workers from organizing. You can call it your First Amendment right to speak out, or your duty to your hospital, but your aggressive speech will silence others less powerful than yourself. To use Joe Gindi’s framework, you are practicing interest-based politics, not values-based. And that’s not what I hope for from my Jewish leaders.
Ben Healey is a co-coordinator of the Moishe/Kavod Jewish Social Justice House, located in Brookline's Washington Square. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.