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Jews, justice and the workplace

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NEW YORK (JTA) – In August 2006, a worker at a Rite Aid Distribution Center in Lancaster, Calif., was fired. Her name was Debbie Fontaine.

Her offense? Taking part in a campaign to organize a union. It’s an incident that may not make many of us think about our responsibilities as Jews, but this Labor Day it should.

Like her co-workers, Fontaine, 48, had a growing list of complaints against the company. But it wasn’t until they began to organize to have a union that she discovered how brutal her employer could be.

Workers supporting the union say they were spied on and threatened with the loss of their paychecks, even their jobs. One worker who did lose her job was Fontaine.

At the time she remarked, “A lot of employees are afraid that if Rite Aid fired me, they will fire everyone who supports the union.”

Fontaine and her co-workers claimed their legal right to form a union had been violated. Months later the National Labor Relations Board found in favor of the workers, prompting Rite Aid to agree to a settlement though the company still denied it had done anything wrong.

Fontaine’s story isn’t unique. Workers today who become actively involved in organizing a union can count on being harassed and threatened. There’s a one-in-five chance they will be fired like Debbie Fontaine. It’s illegal, but U.S. labor laws are so weak and poorly enforced that few employers seem to care.

So what makes it a Jewish issue? Plenty.

The Torah tells us that employers have a responsibility to treat workers fairly. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 teaches, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.”

However, all Jews with an innate sense of justice know it is morally wrong to deny any worker her right to organize.

A movement is building to strengthen U.S. labor laws. It calls for passing the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal that would strengthen the rights of workers like Debbie Fontaine and crack down on employers who refuse to respect them.

American Jews have always taken pride in our zeal for social justice. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the other great crusades of our time all bear the indelible imprint of progressive Jews.

However, organized labor has always best captured the Jewish imagination. Perhaps that’s why the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Jewish Labor Committee have endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act – and why more Jewish organizations are expected to follow.

The Torah teaches Jews to pursue justice: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” To some that means challenging the horrors of Darfur. For others it may be a call to fight for human rights in Burma. But the experience of Debbie Fontaine reminds us that some battles for justice are as close as the nearest workplace.

(Stuart Appelbaum is the president of the Jewish Labor Committee and the 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/UFCW.)

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