“Call it England, call it Spain
Egypt rules with whip and chain
Moses free my people again!
We’re all working for Pharaoh
Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel
Around his feet the princes kneel
Far beneath we shoulder the wheel
We’re all working for Pharaoh”
[from Pharoah, by Richard Thompson]
Contemporary folk-rocker Richard Thompson is not a Jew. In fact, he’s a Sufi, but I believe that he understands the essence of the festival we begin celebrating on Monday evening, April 18. Passover is that annual reminder of some quintessential truths: the world is still well-supplied with Pharaohs and that back-breaking, soul-deadening labor is still the lot of hundreds of millions of human beings.
How sadly ironic that, as the Feast of Freedom approaches, we are witnessing in this country (Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana) unprecedented assaults on unions and upon the very principle of labor organizing and collective bargaining. A new book by Philip Dray, There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, documents the long struggle between Pharaohs of industry and the workers whose labor enriches those Pharaohs and their shareholders.
Dray notes that the story of organized labor in America is “much more than a catalog of strikes, picket lines and flailing police batons. The debate about work and industry and the struggle for workers’ rights and dignity have ben consuming subjects since the birth of our nation; they have shaped laws and customs, acted as a crucible for social change, and ultimately helped define what it means to be an American.”
And Jews have been in the thick of it, on both sides certainly, but most tellingly and significantly in the vanguard of labor organizers. “And that’s hardly surprising. After all, Jewish names dot the annals of the labor movement to the point of ubiquity. While excluded from the traditional European trade guilds - and relegated to careers as pawnbrokers, money changers, tobacco handlers and jewel traders - Jews formed their own bunds (labor leagues) in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Left-wing activism borne of years of harsh repression found a fertile home in the crowded, inner-city homes Jews carved out in American cities, and was recharged when the children of these immigrants came of age in the turbulent 1960s.
Throughout history, the typical Jewish labor activist was unlikely to be found at Shabbat services or Torah study. In a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations, a full 20 percent of the California union leaders interviewed identified as Jewish, but very few considered themselves to be religious.
But, to many, fighting for the underprivileged is what Judaism is all about, going back several generations.”
We now take for granted the fruits of those struggles waged by organized labor, concepts as basic as fire escapes, 40 (not 60 or 70)-hour work-weeks, benefits, paid vacations, and, as Dray writes, “the principle that workers have a right to be equitably paid for the work they do, treated with dignity, and to believe their efforts might better their own prospects and the lives of those dear to them.”
Whether we think of Moses as the first labor organizer or not, Passover affords us a perfect opportunity to look critically at the world in which we live and the extraordinary degree of comfort and privilege we enjoy as a direct consequence of the labor of others. While globalization and world-wide economic recession both undermine the principles of unionization and collective bargaining, there could not be a better time for us to reflect on the history of unions in this country as well as their troubled future.