Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, September 1, 2023



Illustration: Royalty-Free images, iStock

                America has always been a land of promise—a promise of new beginnings, of opportunity, of advancement unfettered by the crushing grip of Old-World hierarchical stratification. For so many, alas, America has been a land of broken promises, let alone unfulfilled promises. And yet, enough has been fulfilled, at least for some, to keep the sense of promise alive.
            The promise, its delay in fulfillment, but also its persistence, is fully on display in the case of Labor Day.
            When Labor Day began, in the late 1800’s, America was eager to bring in workers to tend the machines of its developing industrial prowess.  The Statue of Liberty lifted her lamp beside the Golden Door. But once here, those immigrants found that pay was inadequate, working conditions unsanitary or life-threatening, and that elected government was responsive to the arguments of management, not of labor.  In a self-defeating cycle, workers seeking to better their lives turned to Socialists such as Eugene V. Debs and the Establishment, in turn, sounded the alarm about the revolutionary threat to the American Way.


“The Condition of laboring man at Pullman,” Chicago Labor Newspaper, July 7, 1894. Gompers collection, University of Maryland

            This volatile situation exploded in 1894 with the Pullman Strike. The Pullman company, manufacturing railroad sleeping cars, was one of the largest employers of the day.  It had created a company town, where its workers lived, mostly of necessity.  They paid rent for their lodgings and they bought their groceries and dry goods in the company store.  In the wake of the 1893 Financial Crisis, the Pullman company cut its workers’ wages 25%, but did not reduce the rents or prices on goods it charged them.  Pullman himself refused to meet with delegations of workers seeking redress. Facing starvation, the members of The American Railway Union went on strike. They also called for a boycott of all trains that carried a Pullman car. At its peak, a quarter of a million workers joined the strike.
(Left)  Labor Day parade, Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C. 1894. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
(Right) U.S. regular troops on the Chicago lakefront, Harper's Weekly, July 21, 1894. Image by T. Dacy Walker, drawn from a photograph by J.W. Taylor.

            But the workers’ movement was internally divided, weakening the effectiveness of the strikers. Management could also rely on the forces of the government, as never before. On July 2, the federal government obtained a then-unprecedented court injunction ordering the strike to end. President Grover Cleveland sent thousands of troops to Chicago to enforce the injunction.
            In the midst of this tense situation, Congress passed legislation designating the first Monday in September as a federal holiday to recognize the significance of laborers. President Cleveland signed the bill. Politically, it was a bit of damage control for him.  He was a Democratic president, and the labor movement—then part of the constituency of the Democratic Party-- was threatening to defect to the Socialist camp.
             Looking at this history from a Jewish perspective, I am struck at the lack of compassion for the worker shown by American leaders of industry and government prior to the Progressive Era. They had not yet signified the damage to the soul of the entire nation being done by keeping a majority of workers in a condition of thralldom.
            Judaism, by contrast, always reminds us that our national identity consists of the various social and economic classes united as a nation in relationship with God, not divided because of irreconcilable economic interests. Even the humblest “hewer of wood and drawer of water” is necessary for us, as a society, to be in our covenant with God: “You are stationed here today all of you before the LORD your God, your heads, your tribes your elders…. Every man of Israel. Your little ones, your wives, and your sojourner who is in the midst of your camps, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water, for you to pass into the Covenant of the LORD your God… in order to raise you up for God today as a people…” (Deuteronomy 29: 10-13)
            Practically speaking, the Bible focuses on one area where the power imbalance between employer and employee was liable to cause harm, perhaps even irreparable loss, to the worker and the worker’s family.  If the employer failed to pay the worker promptly, that worker had no recourse but to go hungry:
            The Book of Leviticus identifies tardy payment of wages as oppression: יג לֹא-תַעֲשֹׁק אֶת-רֵעֲךָ, וְלֹא תִגְזֹל; לֹא-תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר, אִתְּךָ--עַד-בֹּקֶר. 13 Do not oppress your neighbor and do not rob him. Do not keep the wages of the worker with you until morning. (Leviticus 19:13)
            The Book of Deuteronomy expands upon this theme.  For the impoverished employee, timely payment of wages is nothing less than a matter of life and death: יד לֹא-תַעֲשֹׁק שָׂכִיר, עָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, מֵאַחֶיךָ, אוֹ מִגֵּרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצְךָ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. טו בְּיוֹמוֹ תִתֵּן שְׂכָרוֹ וְלֹא-תָבוֹא עָלָיו הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כִּי עָנִי הוּא, וְאֵלָיו, הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת-נַפְשׁוֹ; וְלֹא-יִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ אֶל-יְהוָה, וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא. 14 Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. 15 Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them, lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)
            In commenting on these biblical passages, the Rabbis show a psychological insight that accentuates the humanitarian potential of the Bible’s injunction.  The phrase that I rendered, “his life depends on them [that is, on his wages], can be literally construed, “to his wages does he lift his soul.” The Rabbis read that literally, or we might say, hyper-literally, imagining that the worker is undertaking difficult and dangerous work, accepting the risk of serious injury. Clearly, to be driven to such extremes, the worker must be desperate for immediate income.  Hence, to deprive him of that timely payment is in the league of capital offenses: ואליו הוא נושא את נפשו. וכי למה עלה זה בכבש, ומסר לך את נפשו, לא שתתן לו שכרו בו ביום! א"כ למה נאמר "ואליו הוא נושא את נפשו"? אלא מלמד, שכל הכובש שכר שכיר, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו הוא נושא את נפשו.   "and to it he lifts his soul": For why did he ascend the incline and risk his life if not that you should give him his wage in the daytime? If so, why is it written (lit.,) "and to it he 'takes' his soul"? To teach that if one holds back a hired laborer's wage, it is reckoned to him as if he took his soul. (Sifre Deuteronomy 279)
            In reading this rabbinic interpretation, I am reminded of one of the notorious judicial decisions of the era of the birth of Labor Day.  A worker had been instructed, against the law, to couple a railway locomotive to a freight car, manually.  That task was so hazardous to life and limb that, even in the Robber Baron era of pro-business legislatures, a law had been passed to prevent just that.  But in this case, the employer insisted, and the worker complied, to avoid being fired.  An industrial accident ensued, and the worker lost his hand.  He brought suit, and the case turned on the language of the statute, “two cars”—meaning that the worker shall not be ordered to couple two railway cars.  But the court found that the statute only covered the case of two freight cars, not one freight car and one locomotive.  The difference is specious, because the coupling mechanism was the same, and clearly to us today, the intent of the legislature in banning the manual coupling of such rolling stock applies no less to the coupling of a locomotive and a freight car than to the coupling of two freight cars.  But the pro-management bent of the times colored the lenses of the judges.  Their ruling was as heartless as it was ingenious. The worker obtained no compensation for his maiming.
            Labor Day is a cruel joke if it is only a day for barbecues and parades. It ought to be a social consciousness raising device. Even today, the power differential between management and labor means that workers are at risk whenever the watchdogs in our society lose focus. When workers are women, or immigrants, or minorities, our society can be less than zealous in protecting their rights. The Bible has already cautioned us on precisely that point, by stating explicitly that workers need protection, whether they are “our people” or “resident aliens.”
            Wage slavery is sadly not a thing of the past.  There have been gains since 1894, but our society still fails to meet the biblical standard of what work and pay in a covenanted nation, under God, ought to look like.
            May this Labor Day be a time when we look anew at the humblest of those doing the work on which we depend, and value them as they deserve. Without their contribution, we can not be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.