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

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Black Friday: On truth and justice

Writing about Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as Thanksgiving wanes and Black Friday waxes.

Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are holidays that celebrate a mythic narrative. In both cases the myth replaced a much more gruesome reality. Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims surviving the first winter in the New World with the help of the Native Peoples. In celebration people come together to give thanks for the good things in their own lives–family, friendship, plenty. These are good things to celebrate. However, the myth of the Native Americans welcoming the Europeans to this part of the world erases the story of genocide, atrocity, and displacement which was the actual fate of most of the Native Americans. As Malcolm X said in a different context, the Native Peoples did not land on Plymouth Rock, it landed on them. So, while gratitude is an important practice, so is truth and the admission of culpability. Continue reading

Glocks, Glatt Mart, Walmart, and Nonviolence

glocks@walmartThis past Thursday night, in need of Whole Wheat flour and sugar to bake challah, I attempted to use voice commands on my iPhone to find out when the local kosher supermarket closed. I said: “Find Glatt Mart.” Siri (the voice of the iPhone) returned a page labelled “Glocks at Walmart.” (see picture)

What is one to do with this information?

(Glocks, according to Wikipedia, is a series of semi-automatic pistols designed and produced by Glock Ges.m.b.H., located in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria.  By way of a rather brilliant marketing strategy (targeting Police Department with discounts, and then using the “cred” of being used by those Police Departments to move into the civilian market) the Glock has become the most popular American hand gun — for police officers, civilians, and criminals. It is easy to learn how to use and easy to fire. Once the guns age a bit, the Police Departments gets new guns and the used guns go on the largely unregulated second hand market.) Continue reading

Why I Got Arrested

Photograph by Zachary Conron

Photograph by Zachary Conron

This past Thursday night I heard the following story from a man in his mid-twenties who had worked for Walmart in their Duarte, CA store for two years before finding a better paying job elsewhere. While at Walmart he was one of the first members of the workers’ group OUR Walmart. One of the “greeters” at the store, he said, was an elderly woman with bladder control issues. As there were two entrances that needed greeters, one near a bathroom and one not, she had asked several times to be stationed at the entrance closer to the bathroom. The manager consistently refused her request. Eventually she was fired for abandoning her post because she had had to leave to use the bathroom. When she was fired, she broke down and cried because she desperately needed the money.

This story, in short, explains why at the time of the telling I was sitting in a holding cell in Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Detention Center. Fifty four women and men, workers, labor and union activists, and a rabbi (that would be me) were arrested for sitting down in front of the new Walmart store in Chinatown and refusing to move when asked to disperse by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. We were there to focus attention upon Walmart’s egregious history of paying poverty wages (about 750,000 Walmart workers make less than $25,000 a year), not providing benefits or, alternatively, not giving workers enough hours to qualify for benefits or paying them enough to afford the benefits. On top of all this, and perhaps worse, is Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers as exemplified in the story above. Walmart also has a long history of combatting organizing and retribution firings of workers who protest against the company. Continue reading

“Awaken Sleepers!”: Wal-Mart and Non-Violent Resistance

One of the reasons that we sound the shofar during services on Rosh Hashanah (the income-inequalityJewish New Year) is, to quote the great Jewish jurist and philosopher Maimonides, to announce: “Awaken sleepers from your slumber … search your actions and repent and remember your Maker.” This Thursday hundreds of people will begin a process of trying to waken Wal-Mart from its slumbers—from its denial of the welfare and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of its workers who are paid poverty wages. We will also be trying to awaken the customers who go to Wal-Mart for cheap products, but either don’t know or don’t care that those products come at the expense of the Wal-Mart workers who sometimes cannot afford to buy those very products. Continue reading

Practicing Democracy with Carwasheros

Democracy is a practice. And like any practice, whether praying or playing an instrument, social interaction or legislation, you have to work at it to get it right. In an early celebration of Independence Day, I joined about 30 carwasheros, organizers from the CLEAN car wash campaign, CLUE-LA, and community folks, walking a picket line in support of a boycott of Aztec Auto Detailing in Century City. 

Many of the workers at the carwash are recent immigrants who came to this country for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but had found themselves in jobs in which they were neither treated with dignity, nor given adequate safety and health protections, and were not adequately compensated. And yet, they still remained faithful to the vision on which this country was founded—a vision which is ever in the process of fulfillment.

Two hundred and thirty seven years ago this country was founded on the principle that people, as a result of all being created equal, were granted certain unalienable rights, among which were the above stated “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is for this reason, according to the Declaration of Independence, that government exists. Continue reading

Celebrating Justice

It is also good to celebrate.

Three years ago on a hot July day I, along with 50 other hotel workers and clergy sat down in the middle of Sunset Boulevard and when told by police to move we refused. The point of our civil disobedience (and subsequent arrest) was to protest the belligerently intransigent stance of the Hyatt Corporation toward their workers. This was part of a national action at a low point in a long-running campaign for dignity, just compensation, and a healthy work environment for hospitality workers. Despite the fact that people demonstrated across the country and in Canada; despite the fact that people were arrested across North America, Hyatt was seemingly unmoved.

But the workers were also strong, and persistent. It took another three years, but today the Hyatt Corporation and Unite-Here, the union representing the workers, announced an agreement. There will be a contract. Continue reading

Fiscal Cliff or the Path of the Righteous

My latest piece in the Jewish Journal
There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.
A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.
The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”
Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.
continue reading here

Budgeting as a Moral Practice and Why I Support Proposition 30

How do we translate our common moral commitments into action?

For argument’s sake let us agree that we all believe in the dignity of every human being.  That is, we believe that a person’s dignity is an inalienable part of their being, to borrow a phrase from the founders. In religious terms one would say that every person was created in the image of God. This is perhaps the most forceful way of saying that each and every person’s value as a person is not contingent upon anything external to that person, and that no one has a right to act in such a way as to harm that dignity, that image of God, that tzelem elohim. It is as if when one damages another’s dignity one does harm to God.

Okay, let us assume that we all agree with this. How do we translate this into practice? How do we move the rhetorical statement to action—moral and legislative at once—which incorporates this understanding into the fabric of our polities, city, state and country?

The only way to get from here to there is to get into the high grass of public policy—and the highest grass of public policy is budgeting. I am not arguing, nor would I, that the budget should direct our moral choices, that the economic bottom line should be the deciding factor in whether or not a policy is good or bad. The exact opposite is what I would argue. The choices we make in our budgeting process must reflect the values which we hold most high.

Since here in California we have over the years decided that our elected representatives should have us do their work for them in the ballot process; and since in that process important questions of budget and taxation are decided, we are forced every election to weigh our votes on budget propositions on the basis of whether or not they reflect our most important values.

The bottom line is that a budget must be an ethical document. The choices of what to fund and what to cut cannot be just a matter of arithmetic, but must first of all be a matter of moral choice.

So how do we create a budget which reflects the respect of every person’s being created in the Divine image?

I would suggest that we start by articulating the interlocking web of necessities which a person needs in order to be able to live with dignity in our cities. A non-exhaustive list would include, for example, a job with a living wage, decent education, housing, and health care. These needs are interlocking in that if one is missing, the whole web can fall apart. If one does not have a decent job with a living wage, then one cannot get decent housing or healthcare which impacts one’s ability to get an education. If one does not have access to education, one cannot get a decent job which impacts one’s ability to get access to housing or health care. And so on. (The more robust argument, for another time, would include the claim that all of these necessities enable a person not only to survive, but to flourish as a person, which is to actualize the Divine image.)

When the budget that is created does not allow for people to live in dignity, let alone flourish we have failed as a society.

It is then incumbent upon us as a society, through our government—which is the mechanism by which we handle our ability to live together—to redirect our resources such that everybody can live in dignity. To that end I would argue, we must support a robust school system and a system of higher education. We must ensure that everybody has access to health care. We must provide shelter and housing to the homeless.

In this election, one action which can bring us one step further along this path is voting for Proposition 30: The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. The temporary (seven year) increase in income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year, and 1/4 cent increase in sales tax for four years would garner the resources necessary for to continue funding our education system. The dire cuts that would ensue if Prop 30 fails—5.4 billion dollars from the Los Angeles school system and community college system; 250 million dollars from the UC and Cal State systems; 50 million dollars from mental health services and more—would cripple us morally, doom many to lives of poverty and pain, and almost certainly guarantee that California will not thrive economically in the future.

For these reasons I urge every California voter to support Proposition 30.

What is at stake?: Elections, budgets, ethics

It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.

Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation. Continue reading