Sit down to stand up

One of the earliest recorded labor actions occurred in Biblical Egypt. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites slaves go into the desert to worship their God. Moses, in other words, demanded that Pharaoh treat the Israelites as people with spiritual and physical needs, rather than as construction machines, useful for the raising of royal cities and monuments.

Pharaoh, as many a tyrant after him, refused to see the Israelites as full people worthy of respect and dignity. The only thing he could see was that they were “shirkers” who didn’t want to do a good day’s work. Pharaoh never dreamed that a rag tag people with a leader who stuttered and claimed to be speaking for an invisible God would ever be a threat to his rule and his country.

We all know how that turned out.

Nonviolent direct action has two goals. The first one, as my friend and teacher, and fellow CLUE-LA board member Jim Conn has said, is to turn the tables on the powerful. When the oppressed stop cooperating in a system of oppression, and start demanding dignity, respect, and just compensation, the system grinds to a halt. The only way to restart it is for the “powerful” to compromise, or accede to the “weak.”

The second goal, as the Rev. Martin Luther King taught us, is to force unjust power out into the open. Oppressive power likes the comfort and security of secrecy. However when the oppressed refuse to cooperate with their own oppression, power (whether state power or corporate power) is forced to admit openly that what fuels the machine is the hidden violence of oppression.

Whether in Egypt; or in Roman era Palestine when the great Rabbi Akiva responded to a decree against the study of Torah by gathering great crowds in the marketplace to study Torah openly; or in the 1937 sit down strike in Woolworth’s in Detroit (which brought the women employees a raise, overtime, and other tangible benefits); or the sit-ins a few decades later in Jackson, Mississippi demanding an end to segregation; the effect of nonviolent direct action is to make the machinery of oppression visible, and then to force it to stop.

When the Walmart workers today staged a sit-in strike, they were continuing this tradition. As the sanitation workers in Selma did, they were saying: “We are people who deserve dignity and respect. We deserve to be compensated for our labor so that we can support ourselves and our families. We should be allowed to work enough hours that we can put a roof over our heads and food on our tables. We are not merely an expense line. We are people.”

These workers courageously refused to cooperate with their own oppression. In the context of one of the largest corporations on the planet, with an atmosphere of retaliation and the quiet violence of disrespect and poverty wages, these workers said: We are not going to stand for this anymore. We are going to sit down and stop this machine. We deserve better.

In a response of support and love, clergy, community leaders, and workers, staged a nonviolent act of civil disobedience in front of Walmart. The point of the public and visible act of being arrested for civil disobedience is to highlight the courage and the struggle of the workers, and also to shine a light on the invisible violence and suffering that Walmart inflicts on its workers in the United States and abroad.

As people of faith, as clergy, we walk with low wage workers in the knowledge that God revealed Godself at Sinai as the God of liberation, the God who demands that we distinguish between slave labor and wage labor. Though the chains at Walmart are not immediately as apparent as at the sweatshops in China where Walmart manufactures a lot of its products, nor as apparent as in situations of human trafficking, the chains are similarly oppressive. The inability to feed one’s family, to pay for shelter, or take pride in one’s work, or be treated with dignity, all serve to destroy a person’s self image—the image of God in which every person was created.

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Thanks to Nina Fernando for the Woolworth’s sit in reference.

Mitzvah Day 2.0 (on Walmart)

In many Jewish communities in the United States, Mitzvah Day is celebrated annually. Mitzvah (literally: commandment, colloquially: a good deed) Day is a day on which Jewish communities come together to perform all manner of community service. Atlanta’s mitzvah day announces that it contributed 570 hours of service by 190 volunteers at 10 project sites. At Temple Emmanuel in New York City people made totes for women undergoing chemotherapy, sandwiches and 300 meal bags to combat hunger, and baked fresh cookies which were packaged with organic milk boxes for children at the local day-care and after-school programs. In Los Angeles, (which seems to have been the originator of the concept) Mitzvah Day outgrew the Jewish community and was adopted by the whole city as Big Sunday.Nov 13 2014 Save the Date Flyer

All the Mitzvah Day projects seem to be well-intended and worthwhile (at least the ones I’ve seen). However, I want to suggest that the vision of Mitzvah Day is too narrow. There are some commandments which are not included in any Mitzvah Day or Big Sunday I’ve seen. These are the commandments to protest against injustice, and to treat workers fairly. Therefore, I would like to think that this Thursday, (November 13) in front of the Walmart in Pico-Rivera, will be Mitzvah Day 2.0. Workers, clergy, and community members will be protesting against Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers and demand that Walmart pay its employees at least $15 an hour, and that they have access to full time employment.

One of the foundations of a just society is that relationships between workers and employers be based in mutual respect. This means, at the very least, that the employers recognize that a worker is different from a cash register or the stock on the shelves. The worker is a person, not merely an expense line on the budget. The implication of this, is that part of the obligation of an employer is to pay a salary on which a worker can live. That type of living wage (which is about $15 an hour with full time employment) would allow a worker to afford food and shelter, education and healthcare. (It would of course be higher if we were to take into account the ability to raise children.) It is the obligation of a just society to ensure that this happens. When it does not, society must be held responsible.

The Talmud (the 7th century cornerstone text of Jewish law and values) states this in an unequivocal fashion:

All who can protest against something wrong … that any resident of their city is doing and does not protest, is held accountable for what those residents are doing. (Tractate Shabbat 55a)

Walmart has been a consistently bad corporate citizen. Many Walmart workers cannot afford to support themselves and must rely on public assistance to get by (about $6.2 billion). The rest of the community then is allowing Walmart to pay poverty wages by subsidizing those wages with our tax dollars.

Walmart actively fights against union organizing among its workers. When a store successfully unionized (in Canada), Walmart closed the store.

The Rabbinic tradition is clear about the right to organize, and the prohibition against abusive labor practices (such as not allowing workers to get enough hours to collect benefits or gain full time employment). When Walmart recently decided to cancel its healthcare coverage to its workers, a small percentage of its workers were affected since Walmart has a 30 hour threshold to get coverage in the first place—a minimum that most workers are not allowed to reach. As the Rishon Le-Tziyon, the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel wrote in 1938:

Reason also dictates that we should not leave the worker alone, isolated as an individual, so that he would have to hire himself out for minimal wages in order to satisfy his and his family’s hunger with bread and water in meager quantities and with a dark and dank apartment. In order to protect himself the law gave him the legal right to organize, and to create regulations to his fellows for the fair and equitable division of labor amongst them and the attaining of dignified treatment and appropriate payment for his work—so that he might support his family at the same standard of living as other citizens of his city. It makes sense that included in this is also a cooperative organization to establish cultural institutions in order to enrich his scientific and artistic education and his Torah knowledge. Institutions of healing and convalescence in order to renew his strength which was utilized for work and to heal the wounds which were caused by it. Also to create a savings plan for his old age or if he becomes an invalid. For with every passing day the worker’s strength is dissipated and he cannot continued in his labors at the same pace as in his youth. Scripture explicitly notes this: “but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more.” (Numbers 8:25) All these matters cannot be accomplished except by way of an organization of workers or craftsmen. Therefore the Torah of Israel conferred complete and legal right upon this organization even though it could cause losses to owners. (Mishpetei Uziel  Vol. IV – Hoshen Mishpat 42)

So this week on Thursday we inaugurate Mitzvah Day 2.0. We (clergy of all faiths and community members) will take to the streets in front of Walmart (8500 Washington Blvd, Pico Rivera, CA 90660) and stand together with workers to demand respect and dignity—to fulfill our obligation to protest against the injustices that Walmart is carrying out against its workers, lest we too be held responsible. Join us. Together we create a more perfect and just union.

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Resources

Walmart claims that it had a bad 4th quarter this year but it still will have made $15B in profits.

Why Wal-Mart can afford to give its workers a 50% raise (from last November but still relevant)

To do

Best: come join us at the Walmart Protest

WHEN: Nov. 13th at 5:30pm

WHERE: 8500 Washington Blvd, Pico Rivera, CA 90660

(Meet in the PARKING LOT at Yogurt-land, Washington Blvd & Crossway Dr)

Also great: go to www.BlackFridayProtests.org and find out how to join one of the Black Friday protests at a Walmart near you.

Together we are stronger.

 

Pursuing Justice (Yes On Proposition 47)

Proposition 47, (which is being called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools), is personal for me. This is not because I will directly and personally benefit from either the reclassification of some felonies as misdemeanors, nor will I gain from the redirection of monies saved to schools and rehabilitation projects. Proposition 47 is personal because California’s judicial system in which I and all Californians are implicated is broken. In our name and by our (in)action the penal system is perpetrating injustices on a daily basis. Continue reading

Everything you know about creativity might just be wrong

“Creativity” is the latest buzzword in education. The most watched TED talk ever is a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 called “How schools kill creativity.” It has had almost twenty million views.

Sir Ken’s main point (which is later joined by his second main point) is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and should be given the same status. His second main point is that children are not taught creativity, rather they are educated out of creativity. This means that all children are naturally creative and the educational system beats that creativity out of them, scaring them with the ideas that there are some things that are right and others that are wrong, and that it is important to know the difference between them.

The other fifteen minutes or so of the talk is filled with anecdotes, quotes, bashing of academics and schools (delivering the necessary truism that our educational system “came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”), and pithy good humor (the talk is definitely worth a listen for the jokes). The climactic anecdote is about the dancer and choreographer Gillian Lynne. Gillian Lynne, who went on to become very accomplished and famous was having a hard time in school in the 1930s. She was characterized as not being able to sit still or concentrate. She might have been diagnosed today as having ADHD. Who knows. In any event, here is the turning point—she was sent to a doctor who listened to her mum’s complaints and then walked out of the room with her mum and left her by herself with some music. She then starting moving, dancing, jumping, etc. The doctor told the mother (according to Robinson): “Gillian isn’t sick she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” And her mother did. Continue reading

Some bad news, some good news (Labor Day)

There seems to be more bad news than good news on the labor front as we celebrate Labor Day 2014. While the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are from 2013, they demonstrate that union membership remained steady at 11.3 percent—the same as 2012. However, union membership has decreased since 1983 (the first year these numbers were available) by about 9 percent. Given that the BLS report also confirms that union members earned about $200 more a week than nonunion laborers, this is a significant loss for workers.

Perhaps the worst news this year is out of Wisconsin where the State Supreme Court upheld Act 10, which significantly limits collective bargaining rights for state workers. This is sure to deplete union membership even more as collective bargaining is one of most attractive and powerful tools that unions offer workers. Continue reading

Statement on a Week of Police Violence in Los Angeles, CA and Ferguson, MO

CLUE-LA and the Black Jewish Justice Alliance released the following statement last week about the oficer involved shooting deaths in Ferguson, MO and in Los Angeles. (I’m on the board of CLUE-LA and am a member of the BJJA and had a hand in crafting this statement.)

“The faithful city

That was filled with justice,

Where righteousness dwelt—

But now murderers.”   –Isaiah 1:21

The Black Jewish Justice Alliance, an effort by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) to build a collaborative voice for justice with both African American and Jewish leaders, is extremely concerned about the recent tragic killing of a young unarmed black man, Ezell Ford, in Los Angeles. This shooting happened while the country was still grappling with the shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed young black man by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.  While all the details of the incident are not yet certain, the shooting of Ford is the latest of many “officer involved shootings” in our city and within our country in which the victim was an unarmed black man.

America suffers from an epidemic of gun violence—some 30,000 people are killed in gun-related incidents every year. Young African-American men are disproportionally represented among intentional shooting victims.[*]  When the shooter is a police officer, who is expected to be the symbol of safety and security in the city and to be trained to limit the use of force—our mourning and concern are deepened and demand justice.

Those whom society gives license to wield violence must be held to the highest standards and the closest scrutiny. Violence must be deployed only as the absolutely last measure after all other avenues have been exhausted. When these guidelines are abrogated, swift punishment must be meted out so that the community does not labor long under the impression that there are “differing weights” and “differing measures,” nor be given to think that African American lives are worth less than others.

We demand that a full and transparent investigation of this incident be carried out and that the LAPD clearly articulate the steps that it is taking to prevent this type of incident from recurring. The Black/Jewish Justice Alliance is ready and willing to engage the LAPD in dialogue to further the recent trend toward more community policing and less violence. We would embrace being a constructive partner so that we can move forward together toward a more peaceful, just city.

–CLUE-LA Black/Jewish Justice Alliance

 

[*] See e.g. Moore DC, Yoneda ZT, Powell M, Howard DL, Jahangir AA, Archer KR, Ehrenfeld JM, Obremskey WT, Sethi MK. Gunshot victims at a major level I trauma center: a study of 343,866 emergency department visits. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2013 Mar 3;44(3). 585-91.

This is Our Desert, This is Our Promised Land

This morning I was honored to be asked to give the invocation at the 11th Annual CLUE-LA Giants of Justice Breakfast. These are my remarks.

This week in the Jewish cycle of Bible reading, we are in between Leviticus and Numbers. This past Shabbat, we finished the book of Leviticus, and in two days we will start the book of Numbers. The name of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew, according to the Rabbinic tradition is Va-yikra, literally “and God called.” Leviticus is a book of Divine calling—the Tabernacle is built, the rules for the sacrifices are set, the law is spelled out. Toward the end of the book, God replays the scene on the top of Mt. Sinai. In Leviticus 25 we read:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them…

So… what was it that was spoken on the top of the mountain? We’re all thinking of the Ten Commandments now. However, Leviticus tells us something else: God spoke of justice. First you must declare a Sabbatical year. A year when the land lies fallow and all debts are forgiven. Next support for the poor, and finally justice for the resident alien, the undocumented immigrant. Continue reading

Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” Continue reading

The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.) Continue reading

A Time for Righteous Rage (on Martin Luther King Day)

(Here is my latest post published on Zeek.)

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it istar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

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