Together We are Strong (On the labor horizon at this moment)

At a dinner the other night I was talking to a good friend who works in the hi-tech industry. Knowing that I blog about economic justice issues he suggested I write about the “Uber and Lyft economy.” “The whole world is Uber and Lyft,” he said, arguing that the working conditions of Uber and Lyft drivers—wherein the company controls the working hours and working conditions of the drivers, and yet considers them to be independent contractors and therefore is not responsible for paying their social security tax, health insurance, etc.—are not exclusive to Uber and Lyft. Rather, he said, corporations in general were trying to move to a model wherein all workers were independent contractors and therefore the corporations have no obligations to them beyond basic salary.

I agreed with him that this is a serious issue. When I suggested however that it was tied to the larger labor issues in the economory—wage theft and working conditions amongst low wage workers, truck drivers at the ports and other folks—he was surprised. He did not know that wage theft was such a problem. (In truth, this should be the reaction of any moral person. How could someone steal someone else’s wages? In the Talmud, wage theft is compared to “murder” (Baba Metzia 111b) )

Wage theft occurs when an employer does not pay an employee the money that the employee is owed. Often this is a straight up refusal to pay—especially when the employee is undocumented and fearful of going to the authorities. In other instances an employee is ordered to work off the clock; to sign out for “lunch” but actually to continue working. Many car wash workers are told to show up at a specific time but are not allowed to clock in until the first car arrives—even if that is an hour or two later. If they don’t show up at the designated time, they cannot work that day. Other employees, such as the truck drivers at the Los Angeles harbors, are misclassified as independent contractors and therefore they are held responsible for truck leases, insurance, vehicle maintenance, fuel and other out-of-pocket expenses. (The truck drivers recently won a class action lawsuit against three trucking companies.) Wage theft costs workers in Los Angeles 26.2 million dollars in unpaid wages. (These are also wages for which the government is not paid taxes by either employer or employee.)

My friend was sincerely angered by the way Uber and Lyft were treating their employees, and, by extension, the way that many people in other industries are classified as independent contractors. Yet he was unaware of the broader issue of wage theft—despite the fact that there is a campaign being waged right now for stronger enforcement of wage theft laws. I want to suggest that the reason for this is that we are a divided people. We are divided in the information we consume. Or more importantly the information we assimilate. Folks who take Uber or Lyft do not necessarily know ports truck drivers. When the lawsuit against Uber hit the papers it struck a chord. When the ports truck drivers filed a lawsuit and won, on essentially the same issues, the Uber riders hardly noticed.

We are at a moment in our country’s labor history where this really matters. On the one hand the wealth gap is at historical highs while union membership in private industry is at historical lows. At the same time workers are organizing or attempting to organize on many fronts. The grievances of Walmart workers—low wages, no access to full employment, no security from week to week as to what their hours might be—are actually very similar to the grievances that, for example, adjunct professors have. (Here is an explanation of the working conditions of adjunct, unfortunately delivered in a Powerpoint presentation. Please resist the Pavlovian snooze reflex.) These are very similar to the demands of fast food workerscar washeros, and farm workers. The solution to many of these issues is organizing, enforcing laws that are already on the books, and creating better working conditions. These fights should not be separate fights. The people who take Ubers to jobs where their employers hire them as independent contractors despite having worked there for twenty years, or demand they finish their three hour project even though they are only being paid for two hours, need to recognize that their struggles are the same as the dockworkers’, the truck drivers’, and the McDonald’s employees’ struggles.

Recognizing that is the first step toward justice.



Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft

If you are in Los Angeles, CLUE-LA is presenting their 3rd annual ingathering whose topic is: “Thou Shalt Not Steal: Confronting the Wage Theft Epidemic with a Faith-Rooted Cure” on February 25, 2015 at 10am – 1pm, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

This is not a travelogue (With AJWS in Central America)

The word that kept coming up was “accompaniment” (acompañamiento in Spanish). In the second floor offices of the poetically named sex workers’ rights organization Flor de Piedra (Flower from the Stone) in San Salvador—ten or fifteen off-white plastic chairs set in rows on a tile floor under a glass roof; coils of barbed wire on the wall between this building and the next—a reflection of the high rate of violence and fear pervasive in El Salvador—four or five staff in their thirties and forties, sex workers of the same age who were members of the organization.

In the heavily secured (thick metal gate at the top of the steep staircase, barbed wire visible through the window) second story offices of COMCAVIS Trans—a necessity because of the violence faced by trans women on a daily basis—sitting in a cramped corner office with the slightest hint of a breeze on a typically hot San Salvador afternoon. Listening to Natalie, a member of the board of directors, speak about the dangers that the trans women who are members of COMCAVIS trans face on a daily basis. The mission of the organization is to represent, defend, and promote trans women’s human rights. However, when Diana, a native of San Salvador, who joined after a friend was assassinated, spoke of the importance of COMCAVIS, she spoke of accompaniment. Sullai spoke about the fact that COMCAVIS helped her get a restraining order against her brother who had threatened her. Other members recalled sitting in the hospital with a member who’d been attacked because her family refused to come see her.

Accompaniment is the term that was consistently used to describe the relationships of mutuality, care, and obligation in the voluntaristic families that were created by the sex workers’ rights and trans womens’ rights groups. When women were disowned by their families, threatened by siblings, harassed by police, denied permission to go to school, hospitalized—it was other women from these organizations who accompanied them to the police to lodge a complaint or to get a restraining order, to advocate for and with them at school, to sit with them day and night as they healed or, sometimes, passed on.

I was in El Salvador with a group of Rabbinic and Graduate students who are Global Justice Fellows with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). I was privileged to be the scholar-in-residence for the group. For nine days in early January we travelled to El Salvador and Nicaragua to meet with a few of AJWS’ partner organizations who worked as human rights defenders and advocates in the areas of trans* rights, sex workers’ rights, and gender based violence.

We were there to learn from the amazing women and men we met, and we learned a lot. We learned about the insidious National Identity law which makes it nigh impossible for a trans person to get an education. According to the law, a person’s appearance (long hair or short, earrings and makeup or not) has to match her picture, and her name has to be her birth name. This makes it impossible for a trans woman to graduate from high school since her appearance is inevitably different from her identity card. This is not coincidental. There are lists of (sometimes official, sometimes unofficial) acceptable gender specific names that are allowed to be given at birth—based on a newborn’s medically assigned gender.

Once educational opportunities are closed out, there are few work options, and often the only viable one is sex work. As a result of the fact that sex work is criminalized, and sex workers are marginalized and discriminated against, the women have reduced access to health care. Sex workers often have to lie in order to access health care and sometimes delay seeking care because they fear negative attitudes, discrimination or arrest. Sex workers also experience high levels of physical violence from clients as well as coercion, extortion, harassment, physical and sexual abuse, arbitrary detention and other due-process violations at the hands of police.

We learned about global solidarity. People from the global north historically came south to extract resources. In the process, indigenous peoples were killed, friendly dictators (friendly to the North Americans, that is) were propped up, repression was abetted. We were trying to learn a way to stand with the people we were partnering with which involved more listening than talking, more humility than arrogance.

In one of the sessions that I taught to our group, we studied a text by one of the 19th century luminaries of the mussar movement, Reb Simchah Zissel Ziv of Kelm. His path to piety demands radical empathy which he names “bearing another’s burden with him.” The specific practice by which one gets to this is by imagining oneself occupying the place of the one suffering, and then asking “what, in this situation, would I want others to do for me?” Doing those things is then bearing another’s burden with him.

Accompaniment takes this one step further, adding a layer of humility to the empathy. One might imagine the pain that the other is feeling, but one has to then say: “I cannot know what they want or need from me unless I ask and then listen.” Learning from the accompaniment that the trans women, and sex workers, and human rights advocates provided to each other—and felt obligated in by each other—we bring back an idea of global solidarity which is based in empathy and humility. Coupled, of course, with overwhelming awe at the courage of people who create beloved communities in places where despair would seem a more natural reflex.

thanks to John Cape for some very helpful comments.



Sex Worker Rights: (Almost) Everything You Wanted to Know About but Were Afraid to Ask



For information about AJWS’ We Believe campaign against gender based violence and in support of LGBTQ rights, and sex workers’ rights go here.


Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. Continue reading

When Our Judges Need to Be Judged

IMG_0708_11At Leimert Park, the man was holding a sign that said “We now have judges that cannot judge.” Midst chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Hey Ho, racist cops have gotta go” I kept coming back to this plaintive sign. It brought to mind the midrash which comments on the first verse in the Book of Ruth: “In the days when the chieftains ruled.” The Hebrew uses the same root for both noun and verb and has the more poetic: biymay shfot ha-shoftim. When the judges judged, perhaps. The midrash comments: “Woe to the generation which judged its judges, woe to the generation whose judges needed to be judged.” (Ruth Rabba 1:16)

Police officers are part of the judiciary. When asked about the role of police officers in light of Jewish textual tradition, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv (in a small book called Dvar HaMishpat: Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:7) discussed the idea that the police are invested with judicial authority and not merely with punitive or protective authority. Therefore, the Talmud’s demand (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 26a) that a court has two obligations—both judging (deciding law based on the facts and testimony) and saving (attempting as best as they could to find a defendant innocent)—would also apply to police. This translates to the fact that police officers are in a situation wherein they are obligated to defuse, and deescalate a situation rather than to “put down” a threat.

We are now in a time when some of our police officers, and some of the officers of the courts, cannot or will not judge. They will not judge the judges. Woe to our generation for our judges surely need to be judged.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—eighth night

The deepest yet also the simplest truth of Hanukkah is that it is a holiday about a miracle. The real power of the miracle, however, is not that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple was defiled by occupying forces. Neither is the real power that that one cruse of oil burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one day. The real power is the story of the miracle itself.

In the earliest accounts of the Hanukkah story (the Books of Maccabees) and even in the earliest liturgy (the al hanisim prayer that is still recited today) the focus is on a military victory. The Rabbis refocus the holiday to celebrate a miracle of light. This is the powerful story. A narrative of uncontrolled violence—which is what every armed conflict becomes—is replaced by a vision of light.

Tonight as we shine the full power of the Hanukah lights into the public domain, let us draw from that miracle and proclaim that violence only ever begets violence and darkness. Only light begets more light. This is our charge. This is our time.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—seventh night

One of the interesting laws concerning Hanukkah candles is that they must be placed no higher than approximately 35 feet off the ground so that they might be seen by passersby.

The core reason for candle lighting on Hanukah is pirsumei nisa/publicizing the miracle. The miracle, as the Rabbis understood it, was that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple had been defiled, and that cruse burned eight days until fresh pure oil could be made.

The possibility that purity can remain amongst the impurity of the world, that righteousness can stand even through the onslaught of injustice, that good can remain in a world that sometimes seems to be more and more evil—this is the miracle of Hanukah. The obligation then is to announce that miracle to the world. It must be seen in the streets. It is not enough to support justice loudly behind closed doors. One has to demonstrate justice and demonstrate for justice at street level. So it can be seen, and heard, and felt.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—fourth night

There is an interesting difference between Shabbat candles and Hanukah candles. According to rabbinic law, eyn madlikin mi-ner le-ner, one is not allowed to light one Hanukah candle from another. That is, each Hanukah candle has its own holiness and therefore it cannot be used for any other purpose—even to light another Hanukah candle. (This is why we use a specially designated candle that is not part of the sanctified lights to light the other candles.) This is different from Shabbat candles that are essentially utilitarian—they are meant to light up the room—and therefore one candle can be used to light another candle.

The Hanukah lights then symbolize a deep truth about people. Ner Adonai nishmat adam/ The soul of a person is the light of God. Each person is unique to the extent that we cannot truly grasp another person and therefore—and this is key—we cannot use other people; we can only respond to their needs. As we light the Hanukah candles tonight we remember that each person is a light of God. Each person is uniquely different. Each person has infinite worth.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—3rd night

The Talmud reports that the reason for adding a candle to the menorah every night of Hanukkah is that “one may raise up within holiness but one may not lower within holiness.” This principle usually governs an action that may or may not be taken with regard to vessels, materials, and foodstuffs that are dedicated to the Temple. In one example, a priest’s worn clothes may be used for wicks in the Temple candelabra but not for more mundane purposes. How might we understand this in relation to our more modest candelabra?

We are moved to the deeper meaning of the candlelight. Just as with each added candle there is more light, we must constantly add to the quantity of holiness in the world. How does one expand holiness in the world? The Torah (Leviticus 19) commands “you shall be holy, for I God, your God, am holy.” This general statement is followed by a list of specific actions, including this: “You shall do no iniquity in justice. You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich. In righteousness you shall judge your fellow … You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow. I am God.”

The blood of our fellow citizens, black and brown, is spilled in our streets—by those who are part of the justice system. We may not stand by silently anymore.

We are doing pretty well with not favoring the wretched, but we can do way better with not defering to the rich.

We must get back to righteousness. We must get to justice.

kavvanot for previous nights are here and here

Kavanah [Intention] for candle lighting—2nd night

The Talmud says that the time for the mitzvah of candle-lighting is until the last person has left the market. On a simple level this means that in order to publicize the miracle one should light candles while there are still people about. However, on a slightly deeper level, one should understand this as meaning that we need the light of the candles, the light of Torah to illuminate the world until the seemingly overwhelmingly powerful force of the marketplace is overpowered by that light. ad she-tichleh regel min ha-shook / Until all have left the market, are done with the commodification of life, and have returned to the light that shined from Sinai—the light of mutual obligation and responsibility.


kavanah for the 1st night is here