On June 28, 1894, the federal government enacted a law “Making Labor Day a Legal Holiday,” setting aside the first Monday of September to honor the social and economic achievements of organized American workers. For the casual observer, Labor Day typically marks the end of summer, the return to school and the end of the generally acceptable period to wear white (or the summer dress code at JCRC). But the true underpinning of the day is in recognition of the achievements of the labor movement and the creation of an infrastructure by our predecessors to address current workplace inequities.
The history of the labor movement runs concurrent with that of the American Jewish experience; from the fight for safer working conditions, hour and wage laws, and individual empowerment. This is not merely a recent development; our great sages have long maintained that we have an obligation to ensure that workers are compensated fairly with the opportunity to sustain their families. This proud tradition has continued from generation to generation, and across great economic and geographic divides.
It is almost unfathomable today to envision an American economy prior to the protections that came out of the early Labor movement, through the Progressive Era, and the New Deal including the elimination of sweatshops, the implementation of labor and wage laws, and occupational protections. To envision a society where locked doors and unsanitary conditions could produce the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, killing 146 people (mostly recently immigrated Jewish women) is incomprehensible. Overall working conditions have improved drastically from the turn of the 20th Century, but the struggle for dignity and economic justice persists.
Today, JCRC, along with our communal partners, including the Jewish Labor Committee, the Boston Workmen’s Circle, and JVS, and many others are at the forefront of efforts to help people enter the workplace, with decent wages, workplace protections and the opportunity for economic mobility. We are engaged in a multitude of efforts to support workers, including increasing the state’s Minimum Wage, Earned Sick Time, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Regulating the Use of Credit Checks, Gender Pay Equity, the Pregnant Worker’s Fairness Act, and a Resolution Increasing Diversity on Corporate Boards. We will continue to be vigilant, vocal and innovative partners with our friends on Beacon Hill and beyond to ensure that workers are protected and treated fairly.
So, this Monday, as you pack away your swim suits, put away your summer whites and go about your day, take a moment to peruse the Jewish Women’s Archive or the Jewish Labor Committee and JALSA websites to take a deeper dive into the history of the movement; think about your neighbors with two full time jobs who still cannot meet the most basic needs of their families, consider the workers who pick your vegetables and fruits, or toil in the underground economy without the dignity they deserve, remember the recent immigrants and refugees seeking the same dream of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents and then finally, think about what we can do together to fulfill our most basic Jewish values.
Director of Government Affairs