Jewish Community Must Join the Fight for $15 Minimum Wage

Jaq Basilis and Julie Dancis of Camp Galil and Habonim Dror calling for $15 minimum wage at rally in Rittenhouse Square.  Photo by Sophie Haeuber (April 2014).

Jaq Basilis and Julie Dancis of Camp Galil and Habonim Dror calling for $15 minimum wage at rally in Rittenhouse Square. Photo by Sophie Haeuber (April 2014).

— by Stuart Applebaum

Jewish law and tradition are clear about our duty to fight for the basic rights of all working people.

Shantel Walker makes $9 per hour at the Papa John’s restaurant in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood where she’s worked for the for the last 15 years, almost half her life. Because her wages are so low, she often has to choose between eating lunch or buying a Metrocard to get to work. She shares a one-bedroom apartment with family members, but still worries about making ends meet every month.

But Ms. Walker is not staying silent and letting her challenges get her down. She is standing up and joining with other fast-food workers across the country in calling for fairness and respect on the job. Since late 2012, fast-food workers have been walking off the job as part of regular one-day strikes and their ranks have recently been supported by home health care aides, adjunct professors, airport baggage handlers and other low-wage workers. Their demand? $15 per hour and a union.

The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is nothing close to a living wage. If someone earning the minimum wage is fortunate enough to be able to work full-time hours (and many are not), they would earn only $15,080 per year, which is under the poverty line for a family of two. At the current minimum wage, workers struggle paycheck-to-paycheck, and if they are able to pay all their bills at the end of the month, they are not able to save anything for an emergency, let alone for their retirement.

Rising wages will allow millions of people across the country to lift their heads up and look towards the future with hope. But it will also benefit our economy at-large. A $15 per hour minimum wage will inject billions of dollars into local economies as many are finally able to buy new clothing for their children and other basic necessities. It will also ease state budgets, as millions who currently rely on state assistance will finally be able to afford groceries and rent.

The history of American Jewry demands that we join with workers in their struggle for justice. When many of our ancestors first came to the United States, they worked low-wage jobs in the garment sector and other industries. Their experiences of struggle and pain encouraged many to organize and form unions that then fought for and won many of the basic wage and safety standards that we now take for granted. These gains enabled our families to raise their standards of living to where they are now, but we must never forget what it took to get here.
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Create a Labor Day With Meaning: Minimum Wage Matters

— by Stuart Appelbaum

It’s not that often when Labor Day and Rosh Hashana fall so close together on the calendar. This year, there’s one pressing Labor Day issue that should concern the entire Jewish community of the United States — the pitiful state of the federal minimum wage.

It’s not a secret that the federal minimum wage isn’t a living wage. At $7.25 an hour, today’s full-time minimum wage worker makes just $15,080 a year. Even with two people working minimum wage jobs, the income is hovering at the poverty level — if they are even lucky enough to have full-time jobs.

More after the jump including this year’s Presidential Labor Day Proclamation.
Moreover, the makeup of minimum wage workers has changed. James Surowiecki, writing in The New Yorker, noted that:

a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown [that] low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not … to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families.

History of the federal minimum wage under the 1938 act in nominal dollars (dark purple) and adjusted for inflation (light purple). (Source: Nominal wages from the Department of Labor. Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The purchasing power of minimum wage plummeted in the 1980s, when the Federal rate did not increase from January 1981 to April 1990. Six years ago, in 2007, Congress raised the Federal minimum wage by $2.10 per hour — to $7.25 per hour — as a first step toward restoring its historical value. But for the minimum wage to have the same purchasing power it had back in 1968, it would have to be more than $10 per hour now.

Jews across the United States should remember the situation confronting so many of our ancestors as they came to this country where all they could earn were poverty wages in the garment trades and other sectors.

The challenges confronting those who earn the minimum wage today are no less daunting. They are the workers who care for our elderly parents, wash our cars, pick our produce, clean our offices, and work at fast food restaurants. The vast majority of them work multiple minimum wage jobs to support their families; they are still struggling. They are faced with terrible choices, over which bills to pay every month — rent or heat, groceries or medicine that none among us should be forced to make.

Presidential Proclamation — Labor Day, 2013

On September 5, 1882, in what is thought to be the first Labor Day event, thousands of working Americans gathered to march in a New York City parade. In the 131 years since, America has called on our workers time and again — to raise and connect our cities; to feed, heal, and educate our Nation; to forge the latest technological revolution. On Labor Day, we celebrate these enduring contributions and honor all the men and women who make up the world’s greatest workforce.

America is what it is today because workers began to organize — to demand fair pay, decent hours, safe working conditions, and the dignity of a secure retirement. Through decades upon decades of struggle, they won many of the rights and benefits we too often take for granted today, from the 40-hour work week and minimum wage to safety standards, workers’ compensation, and health insurance. These basic protections allowed the middle class to flourish. They formed the basis of the American dream and offered a better life to anyone willing to work for it.

Yet over the past decades, that promise began to erode. People were working harder for less, and good jobs became more difficult to find. My Administration remains committed to restoring the basic bargain at the heart of the American story. We are bringing good jobs back to the United States. We are expanding programs that train workers in tomorrow’s industries, and we eliminated tax breaks that benefited the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class. In the years to come, I will continue to support collective bargaining rights that strengthen the middle class and give voice to workers across our Nation. And I will keep pushing for a higher minimum wage — because in America, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.

Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American worker, we have cleared away the rubble of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Now is the time to reward that hard work. Today, as America celebrates working people everywhere, we unite behind good jobs in growing industries, and we strengthen our resolve to rebuild our economy on a stronger foundation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim September 2, 2013, as Labor Day. I call upon all public officials and people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.


A comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute points out the benefits of raising the minimum wage:

Increasing the Federal minimum wage to $10.10 by July 1, 2015, would raise the wages of about 30 million workers, who would receive over $51 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period.

Across the phase-in period of the minimum-wage increase, GDP would increase by roughly $32.6 billion, resulting in the creation of approximately 140,000 net new jobs (and 284,000 job years) over that period.

It would not — as many conservatives claim — kill jobs. Moreover, it would be an important first step in closing the widening income gap.

So we need to raise the Federal minimum wage. Yet, much of the business sector and its allies continue to stymie even modest attempts to lift minimum wage workers out of poverty.

Why? Essentially, because they can — and that fact makes even some conservatives uneasy. Two years ago, former Smith Barney director Desmond Lachman told The New York Times:

Corporations are taking huge advantage of the slack in the labor market — they are in a very strong position and workers are in a very weak position. They are using that bargaining power to cut benefits and wages, and to shorten hours.

Of course not all the blame for low-wage workers lies with the businesses that employ them. The consuming public has a role in it as well. Too often, we fail to make the link between low prices and widespread poverty.

Some states, frustrated at the inability of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, have raised the minimum wage locally. But this needs to be done nationally, and now.

The Torah proclaims, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) If we are to provide a measure of justice where it counts to the least-well paid among us, we have to all do our part to support an increase in the federal minimum wage.

It’s the right and just thing to do.

We must partner with others to ensure that this happens. We need to talk about it with our friends, families and neighbors. We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign, and we encourage you to do so as well. In the Greater Philadelphia area, a good start would be to contact Michael Hersch, the Philadelphia Regional Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, via phone at 215-587-6822 (cell: 215-668-5454), or via email at [email protected].

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Jewish Labor Committee and president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.


Jewish Leaders Denounce Right-Wing Smear of Occupy Wall Street

We are publicly engaged American Jews who support both Israel and the ideas behind Occupy Wall Street and who also strongly oppose right-wing attempts to smear that movement with false charges of anti-Semitism.

It’s an old, discredited tactic: find a couple of unrepresentative people in a large movement and then conflate the oddity with the cause. One black swan means that all swans are black.

One particularly vile example was a television ad during Sunday talk shows paid for by something called the Emergency Committee for Israel that is organized by William Kristol and Gary Bauer.

It is disingenuous to raise the canard about Jews and Wall Street in order to denounce it.

Occupy Wall Street is a mass protest against rising inequality in America, a fact documented last week by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Anyone who visits Zuccotti Park understands that it has nothing to do with religion and everything to do “with liberty and justice for all.”

All of us irrespective of party or position should expose and denounce anti-Semitism where ever it occurs, but not tar hundreds of thousands of protestors nationwide because a handful of hateful people show up with offensive signs that can’t be taken down in a public park open to all.

We are pleased that the Anti-Defamation League agrees that some random signs “are not representative of the larger views of the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

List of co-signers follows after the jump.

  • Stuart Appelbaum, President, RWDSU*
  • Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and President, J Street
  • Richard Brodsky, former Assemblyman, New York
  • Richard Cohen, Washington Post
  • Danny Goldberg, President, Goldve Entertainment
  • Mark Green, former Public Advocate for New York City
  • Elizabeth Holtzman, former Congresswoman and District Attorney (Brooklyn)
  • Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder, Progressive Faith Foundation
  • Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America
  • Madeleine Kunin, former Governor, Vermont
  • Jo-ann Mort, CEO, ChangeCommunicaitons
  • Eliot Spitzer, former Governor, New York State
  • Andy Stern, President Emeritus, Service Employees International Union
  • Hadar Susskind, Vice President, Tides Foundation
  • Margery Tabankin, President, Margery Tabankin Assoc.
  • Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers

*Institutions for identification purposes only.

Labor Day Message from the Jewish Labor Committee

First Labor Day parade, Union Square, New York, 1882.

— Stuart Appelbaum, President, Jewish Labor Committee

This year, Labor Day falls during the same week as Rosh Hashana.  While Labor Day may be considered by many to be the summer’s last hurrah, or another shopping day, its original purpose was to honor the contribution that the labor movement has made to American society.  Just as in the first week of the Jewish “Days of Awe” – from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, when we strive to make amends for interpersonal sins, and hope that we can do better in the year to come – we can and should see Labor Day as a time to reflect, and to become better, by respecting and honoring those who labor.

More after the jump.
The first Labor Day in the United States was celebrated back in 1882 in New York City, and soon spread to communities across the country.  Twelve years later, in the aftermath of the bloody 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland made it a priority to secure legislation making Labor Day a national holiday.  It was indeed passed, unanimously, in Congress and signed into law six days after the end of the strike.  For more than a century, all 50 states have made Labor Day a state holiday, originally devoted to “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community.

Throughout its history, the American labor movement has been standing up for the needs of working men and women and their families – first and foremost in representing workers at the bargaining table, to secure decent contracts, decent working conditions, and decent benefits. The labor movement has secured benefits for all of us, not just union members – from the fight 75 years ago for Social Security, to the fight 45 years ago to establish Medicare, and most recently, in the struggle for health care reform.  It was American unions who led the fight for minimum wage laws, and then for increases to keep up with the increased cost of living.  

But this is not just about history – it is about today.  The struggle to improve the lives of workers is just as necessary today as it was in earlier decades.

That’s why the labor movement and its allies, including the Jewish Labor Committee, marched this year on Wall Street to call for government programs that focus on the working and living conditions of all workers, not just the CEOs of large corporations.  That’s why this past winter, more than 200 rabbis heeded our call and signed onto a petition vowing to boycott three Boston area hotels until the layoffs of the “Hyatt 100” were reversed; rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish communal leaders are committing themselves to continue the struggle to improve the working conditions of all hotel workers.  That’s why we fight against corporations such as Mott’s, that, in spite of earning record profits, are trying to force their workers to accept wage and benefits cuts. That’s why we advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, and march to end the abuses against farm workers who pick our fruits and vegetables, or factory workers who toil in sweatshops to make our clothes, whether they are union members or not.  

This year, we urge that national, state and local priorities serve the needs of working people as well as those currently unemployed.  Especially now, more government spending, targeted to create decent, well-paying jobs, is needed.  

This year, let us work to pass meaningful government legislation, from a bill to guarantee paid sick leave for all workers to the Employee Free Choice Act.  These can make real differences in the lives of working families.  The Jewish Labor Committee is committed to doing everything possible to pass this much-needed legislation – and we urge our members and friends to do the same.

Standing up for working families encompasses a range of strategies, and a range of possibilities.  During 2010’s Labor Day and as the Jewish New Year of 5771 begins, we hope that many in the Jewish community will join us as we roll up our sleeves to work with our partners — in the trade union movement, within the Jewish community, and all who are determined to bring forth a society based on true economic justice and prosperity for all.