For many in the United States, and especially the northeastern part, Labor Day is the official end of summer. If schools are not yet back in session, the school year begins after Labor Day. The last three-day weekend for quite a while, Labor Day is also the end of the “pool season” for communities that don't have warm climates for most of the year. For most, Labor Day represents the finale of their vacation, one last attempt to get the most out of a summer that went by way too fast.
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For others, it is a day for celebrating justice.
The day, thanks to the support and influence of labor unions, emphasizes the economic and societal achievements of labor workers. By marking this day, we celebrate the achievements of American workers who contribute to our society.
This year, Labor Day comes two days after Jews read the beginning of Parashat Shoftim, the Torah Portion of Shoftim:
"Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue" (Deut. 16:20).
Shoftim reminds us that, unfortunately, justice does not come naturally; it is an ideal that we must work for. We are commanded to not simply love justice, to not simply believe in justice, but, rather, to pursue justice.
When we Jews consider Labor Day in the context of Shoftim, we understand that it is about more than just a celebration of hard work. It is about fighting to ensure that all those who work hard get their fair share. Labor Day becomes not just a celebration, but a reminder that the fight for justice and equality in the workforce is ongoing.
Deuteronomy 16:20 continues, clarifying that we are to pursue justice so that we can not only dwell in our land, but also thrive in our land. Without justice, without each worker getting their fair share, we cannot truly thrive as individuals, as a people and as a nation.
The legalized formation of labor unions with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was a large step toward justice and equality, fighting for the success that these workers deserve for their hard work. This law mirrors our faith’s collective imperative to pursue justice, but there is still much work to be done in our pursuit of justice for all.
Even with the influence of unions, Congress has failed to act in increasing the minimum wage, in ensuring that those workers who do in fact work hard get their fair share. The current federal minimum wage in America is only $7.25. A dual-income family where both individuals are earning only the minimum wage has a household income right around America's poverty level. Clearly, the minimum wage is far from a living wage.
In light of Congress' failure to act, cities and states across the United States have begun passing legislation of their own. Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco have been pushing wage increases between $13 and $15 an hour, while states like Minnesota, Maryland and Massachusetts have increased the minimum wage, albeit more modestly. Just like these states and cities stepped up and acted when the nation’s legislators refused to do so, the Jewish community, inspired by the teachings of the Torah, must exert pressure on our nation’s leaders to ensure that all hard working individuals get their fair share.
We cannot, in good conscience, be comfortable knowing that those who take care of us in hotels and hospitals, restaurants and retailers, live in poverty. We cannot allow them to work hard and not make a living wage, just to keep prices lower for us, the consumer. We cannot sit at the pool and celebrate Labor Day when those who serve us poolside are not getting their fair share. We must pursue justice. We must ensure that the minimum wage in America is a living wage.
As the United States’ Department of Labor points out:
"The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known ... It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership – the American worker."
We celebrate the worker because it is hard work that leads to freedom, justice and equality. The essence of the American promise, as well as the promise of democracies throughout the world, is that everyone has a fair shot. In a land of equal opportunity, if you work hard, you can succeed. It is up to us, to ensure that success for all.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. You can follow more of his thoughts on his personal blog and on Twitter: @JMOlitzky. He also blogs about Pop Culture and the High Holy Days during the month of Elul.