September 7, Labor Day, is the launch of the New England Jewish Labor Committee (JLC)’s campaign to mobilize support within the Jewish community for the Fight for 15, as part of the RaiseUp Massachusetts coalition. As a member of the Boston Jewish community, and as an activist with JLC New England, I support this call for a living wage for the working people of our state and across the nation, and ask for the support of others in the Jewish community.
So what brings a 75-year-old middle-class retiree from a professional career in the Jewish community to the JLC as a volunteer activist and modest financial supporter?
In part, I'm acknowledging my 1940's roots in working-class Jewish Brooklyn, where I was the child of a labor “intermarriage": Rose sewed labels on men's ties, which made her a member of the "Amalgamated" Clothing Workers Union of America, while Isidore cut patterns for women's dresses, as a charter member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. That Isidore, at age 18, had been on site at—and lived to testify about—the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, further underscored my feeling of responsibility for the well-being of working people. I've always felt that I owe my very existence to the fact that my father survived this terrible industrial tragedy only by random luck. Working on the Fight for 15 campaign is therefore a way of honoring my parents’ memory.
The Fight for 15 is a movement to raise the wages of low wage workers and improve their working conditions, whether in food services, healthcare, car washes, airports, or in other low wage jobs. People who have full-time jobs in these sectors are unable to pay for the basics like food, rent or transportation. Shamefully, many have to apply for some form of public assistance, despite working full-time. Raising wages directly addresses income inequality, helping low wage workers attain self-sufficiency, and in the process turning recipients of public assistance into taxpayers. As part of the Fight for 15, JLC New England will be mobilizing Jewish voices to campaign for several proposed pieces of state legislation to address low wages, the most important of which is Bill S.1024, an act to establish a living wage for employees of big box retail stores and fast food chains in the Commonwealth.
Why work on this campaign—seemingly not a “Jewish issue”—through JLC? Because I am so grateful that the JLC gives me the chance to put my name behind a Jewish commitment to fairness for workers which is rooted in Jewish tradition of social justice and the values with which I was raised, and which signals to the larger community that Boston’s Jews–and America's–have not forgotten where we came from.
Yet another reason is because of the kind of organization JLC is—both effective and “haimish”. I spent the largest chunk of my work life as a planning and allocations executive at CJP, Boston's Jewish Federation. This work focusing on strategic planning, priority-setting, and the funding of local agencies and organizations was an important opportunity to have a positive impact in my community. In the course of my work with CJP, I had occasion to observe and work with a LOT of front-line Jewish organizations. JLC struck me as unique: its tightly focused mission on issues I cared deeply about—fair wages, paid sick leave, parental leave, predictable work schedules, its scrappy and non-bureaucratic culture, and the credibility it had built in the "corridors of power," and its hands-on grass-roots approach was attractive to me.
It was hard for me to believe that all that activism and energy and impact on the labor scene in Boston could be coming from an organization anchored by one professional staffer and a relatively small group of core volunteers. Given the JLC’s visibility in the State House, I was surprised that many of my colleagues, friends, and family who cared about these issues didn’t know that JLC existed and what it was doing in the community on behalf of working people. I knew that I had found a place to put my volunteer energies when I retired.
So, on Labor Day 2015, I hope that you will take the opportunity to reflect on your own family’s Jewish American story and how that has shaped your life today. The stands we take on issues of fairness in our community shape the values of our children—as Jews and as Americans. Let us be a strong, audible, Jewish voice for a fair shake for all the working people of our community.
Our legislators need to hear from us. To add your name in support of the Fight for $15, click here.
Martin Abramowitz is the former VP for Planning with the CJP, Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation. Currently, he serves as a volunteer consultant to JLC New England Board and as the CEO of Jewish Major Leaguers, Inc.
This piece is the first in a JLC New England blog series From Passion to Action.