Why Jews fought -- and should keep fighting -- for the rights of domestic workers

Jewish Journal
October 3, 2013
Alan van Capelle
Jews have, once again, helped working men and women in this country win a great labor rights victory.
Why is it that American Jews, over generations, show such a strong affinity for the labor movement? Many of us are a generation or even two removed from the time when the Jewish community was dominated by working class immigrants. And yet the tradition of great Jewish champions for the working class – from Samuel Gompers, to Sidney Hillman to Randi Weingarten  – continues unabated.
Let’s look at the most recent victory. Jewish leaders and voters were steadfast partners in the years-long fights resulting in the adoption of two watershed reforms last month — new federal rules protecting home care workers and the passage of the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. These unlikely and momentous victories for some of our most disenfranchised workers were proof of the power of collective action and perseverance. 
The domestic and home care workforce is a fast-growing, yet invisible and isolated workforce, making organizing all the more difficult.  The victories result from years of organizing by broad coalitions of labor, immigrant rights and faith groups, courageously led by the workers themselves. In the coming months, two million homecare workers nationwide will be covered by minimum wage and overtime laws, and California’s 200,000 domestic workers will be able to count on overtime; basic labor protections that workers in every other industry enjoy. 
These new laws take an important step towards ending the ugly practice of devaluing the contributions that these workers – primarily women and people of color - make to our economy and to our families.
I like to believe that’s why so many Jews are involved in the labor movement and the fight for the middle class. Valuing those contributions, and valuing the hard working people who make them, is a central Jewish value.  Jews know, through the hard lessons of history, how essential it is for our common humanity to value every person on this earth, and to ensure that all people are treated with respect and dignity. I remember clearly the home health aides who cared for my grandmother through her final years. They immediately became a part of our family. The idea that they should be treated as second-class citizens, with fewer rights to a safe, healthy work environment, is intolerable.
There’s a grim practicality to why Jews should care about this issue, in particular. We will need these workers. We live in a country where someone turns 65 every eight seconds.  And the Jewish population is particularly vulnerable. According to the recently released Pew report on American Jews, the Jewish adult population is, on average, four years older than the general population.  If you don’t need a home care or domestic worker now, you or a loved one will at some point in the future.  We will need reliable, quality care in the years to come, and the only way to ensure that is to be sure these are jobs that workers and their families can live on. 
Many American Jews stepped up to the plate in this fight. Members of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice attended rallies, wrote letters and signed petitions in solidarity with domestic and home care workers.  Hundreds of Rabbis drew from sacred scripture, attended town hall meetings and wrote or met with lawmakers to deliver the message that advancing rights and protections for working people is a priority issue for the Jewish community.  Through these acts of solidarity, Jews in California and across the country helped continue a legacy born in Jewish teachings, and written across the history of American Jews. 
Now it’s critical that we continue the fight against political and economic trends that degrade the very people who keep our world spinning.  With most economic growth now concentrated in low-wage industries, too many people are working multiple jobs and still can’t make ends meet.  That’s why we’ve seen widespread worker unrest, from nationwide fast food worker strikes to Walmart employees walking off the job.
Millions of working people know that our current economic trajectory is unsustainable.  And as Jews, we know it is indefensible.
So we are called to act.  Here at Bend the Arc and in Jewish communities across the country, we take a moment to savor these hard fought victories, then we put one foot in front of the other and move forward in our march towards justice.  
Alan van Capelle is the CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, a national organization inspired by Jewish values and the steadfast belief that Jewish Americans, regardless of religious or institutional affiliations, are compelled to create justice and opportunity for Americans.