Just in time for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I strongly commend to you “Poverty, Chesed and Justice,” a text study just released by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights together with Justice at Hyatt.
It is customary to engage in a late night study session on the eve of Shavuot – and since the story of Ruth is traditionally read on this festival, a study that focuses on the struggle of women workers at Hyatt feels profoundly appropriate.
As the introduction notes:
In the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s actions are lauded as acts of chesed, kindness. Ruth’s kindness is embodied through action: not just following her bereft mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel, but taking on grueling work in the fields in order to keep them from falling into abject poverty. It is this determination and chesed that causes Boaz to notice Ruth and to perform his own acts of chesed in return. We hope that this Shavuot, the Hyatt Hotel Chain will display similar chesed toward the women who toil every day to change linens, scrub bathroom floors, and carry heavy bedding, all in the hopes of providing a better future for their children.
Right on. The story of Ruth is a story of solidarity, compassion and redemption. Here’s hoping the workers of Hyatt – and all workers everywhere – find an ample measure of each this Shavuot
Last night, I had the very good pleasure and honor to welcome Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to my congregation. In recent years, Karen’s leadership has put her at the center of one of the most important labor struggles in the country – this past September the CTU teachers’ strike was a national news story, due in no small way to Lewis’ visionary and stalwart leadership. Now she’s leading the charge to resist plans by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public School board to close 54 Chicago schools – a decision which would affect 30,000 children, mostly in low-income, African-American neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.
When Karen first accepted our invitation to present at JRC, she told us she was particularly interested in talking about the Chicago schools crisis from a religious values point of view. Many aren’t aware that Karen converted to Judaism twenty years ago – at a time in which she was on a personal spiritual search and was drawn to the Jewish tradition of questioning and debate. As it turns out, she will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah in June – so I encouraged her to use JRC appearance as a laboratory to explore some of the themes in her Torah portion.
Her portion, Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41) relates, among other things, the story of the twelve scouts send by by Moses to report on the Promised Land. Ten of them return with words of discouragement, reporting that they saw giants in the land. “We felt like grasshoppers to ourselves,” they said, “and so we must have looked to them!”
In her presentation, she pointed out that forces of domination in society can often have this effect on us. In the case of Chicago schools, it is easy to feel cowed by the powerful political-corporate interests that are decimating public education in our city – and in fact, in cities around the nation. The key, Lewis said, is not to be daunted or to give in to a slave mentality that “idealizes Egypt.” The answer, as ever, is to organize and fight back.
Among the many important points Karen made in her presentation was her insight into the deeper issues around the school closings. While she did not disagree that there are problems in Chicago Public Schools (she likened it to a “mildly dysfunctional family”) she vociferously denied Mayor Emanuel’s claim that the system is “broken.” What’s truly broken, Lewis rightly pointed out, is our commitment to the most vulnerable communities in our city.
This was, for me, her most important point of the evening. “Rahm Emanuel says that closing these schools was ‘a difficult decision’” she said. “Make no mistake: closing schools in black and brown communities on the South Side is not a difficult decision. That was an easy decision. You know what a difficult decision would be? If Rahm Emanuel went to his good friends at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and told them to pay their fair share. That would be a difficult decision!”
Amen. In a recent Chicago Sun-Times article, Chicago community organizer Amisha Patel pointed out, in fact, that claims by City Hall and CPS that schools must be closed to save money are simply not true. In fact, they are choosing to close schools while sending millions of dollars to Wall Street:
Every year, CPS pays approximately $36 million in toxically high interest rates, linked to so-called swap contracts, to banks like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. These arrangements, in which CPS pays a fixed interest rate to the banks — typically between 3.5 and 5.25 percent — to protect itself against fluctuating interest rates in the bond market, were supposed to save CPS money.
But the arrangements backfired — and became morally reprehensible — when the banks crashed the economy and the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to bail them out. Now the banks are profiting greatly from the federal bailout, but Chicago’s schools get nothing — no such relief for them from crippling high interest rates — even as the banks continue to extract millions of dollars from CPS.
Big banks were saved by public money, but many Chicago communities are besieged by record high unemployment and foreclosure rates. After jeopardizing our jobs and our homes, now these banks are coming for our children’s schools. We need a mayor who will stand up to Wall Street and fight for our communities.
But rather than demanding that these banks renegotiate the swap deals, as other cities successfully have done, Emanuel is choosing to close 54 schools. CPS claims the closures will save an average of $60 million a year for 10 years — numbers that many studies have shown are based on unrealistic assumptions, such as the district being able to sell 50 percent of shuttered schools. At the same time, CPS fails to account for the cost to the children who must cross new gang lines to get to school, the disruption of their stability and the creation of even more vacant buildings.
Renegotiating these swaps could save CPS tens of millions of dollars every year — money that could keep schools open. But that would mean putting the interests of poor, black children ahead of the banks, a difficult move for a mayor whose top campaign contributors come from the financial services industry.
Karen Lewis taught powerful Torah last night – and I’m happy to say that there is a Jewish organizing initiative growing in our city that is heeding her call to fight back against the corporate decimation of our public school system. Jewish Solidarity and Action for Schools (JSAS) has drafted a letter to Mayor Emanuel that states “these discriminatory school closings fly in the face of our Jewish and human values.” The letter will be delivered to the Mayor’s office by JSAS activists today.
Here’s Karen with the leadership of JSAS after her talk:
When it was announced that the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) had signed contracts with Hyatt Hotels for upcoming conventions – including their signature Consultation on Conscience and L’Taken Social Justice Seminars – many who stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers believed it was moment of truth for the Jewish community. Would the RAC, one of the most prominent and venerable social justice organizations in the American Jewish community, go ahead with their plans to hold high profile conventions in boycotted hotels? Or would they grasp the critical importance of this moment and opt to hold their events elsewhere?
When they learned of the contracts, concerned Jewish clergy as well as the Hyatt workers’ union, UNITE HERE, formally asked the RAC and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to honor the recently announced global boycott of Hyatt. Last month, the URJ and RAC met with union leaders and Hyatt employees. They learned that Hyatt summarily fired nearly 100 housekeepers from three Boston-area hotels in August 2009, replacing longtime housekeepers with temps at far lower rates of pay. They learned that Hyatt has been undermining the stability of jobs by increasingly subcontracting their workers. They learned Hyatt has been undermining the safety of jobs by increasing housekeeping workloads to dangerous levels. And they learned that Hyatt has been actively thwarting efforts by non-union hotel workers to exercise their fundamental right as workers to collectively bargain.
The RAC and the URJ also heard from high ranking officials at Hyatt. Not surprisingly, Hyatt challenged the union’s claims of unjust treatment of workers. While they admitted there may have been problems at some of their hotels in the past, they insisted that they had now been addressed.
After deliberating, the organizations publicized their final decision. In a released statement, the URJ/RAC opened with an affirmation of the Reform movement’s long-time support for unions and the labor movement, dating back to the days of “the historic Jewish garment trade unions.” (It was right about here that I started to get that familiar sinking feeling…) After laying out an extended description of their deliberation process, they announced their decision: they had “decided not to seek to move the events in question from Hyatt hotels.”
In a subsequent article in the Jewish Daily Forward, (“When Principles and Interests Collide,” November 3, 2012) columnist (and senior adviser to the RAC) Leonard Fein offered what was essentially a condensed version of the original statement. While he recognized “the challenges faced by many hotel workers” and believed the Reform movement was “at the forefront of efforts to provide greater rights and protections for hotel workers,” Fein wrote that the request by UNITE HERE was still “hardly a no-brainer.”
The RAC/URJ statement gave three essential reasons for their decision:
1. They had done due diligence. Prior to entering into the contracts, the URJ/RAC checked each specific hotel on INMEX (Information Meeting Exchange), a system established by UNITE HERE to help non-profits avoid entering into contracts with hotels involved in labor disputes. Because the contracts were signed long before the Hyatt global boycott was announced, none of the Hyatt hotels in question were listed as having any labor disputes at the time.
2. The situation was “complex.” Because boycotts affect “many stakeholders who have no involvement in the disputes,” the URJ/RAC only honors boycotts “in certain exceptional circumstances.” In determining whether to honor a boycott, their process requires “detailed investigation, meetings with as many stakeholders as possible, hearing and considering arguments on all sides, and going through the often arduous process of trying to validate the claims made by the various parties.” In the end, their support for boycotts is “the exception and not the rule.”
3. It would cost the Reform movement a great deal of money. The URJ/RAC has a fiduciary responsibility to the congregations and donors who have entrusted their funds to them. The cancellation of the contracts would cost $450,000 in penalties – funds that are critically needed given the enormous fiscal constraints on Reform congregations and the movement at large. The loss of the money would also impede the RAC’s ongoing efforts to promote social justice, including decent working conditions in hotels. And even if they did break the contracts it would ultimately profit Hyatt hotels, as none of the $450,000 would go to the labor union or the workers.
The statement concluded:
We respect those who disagree with us. For those who do disagree, let us point out that no one has to stay at a Hyatt to participate in our conferences. We hope they will join us in education programs on the situation of workers to be held at the conferences, showing our support for hotel workers, including those at Hyatt.
For those of us who have long been fighting in the trenches with Hyatt workers for fair treatment and dignity it is particularly galling that the URJ/RAC claim to support “hotel workers, including those at Hyatt” even as they refuse to honor the workers’ boycott. For embattled workers, a boycott is the most important and effective tool for shifting the balance of power. It is plainly disingenuous for the URJ/RAC to refuse the Hyatt workers’ boycott call while claiming to support their cause.
Such a stance also misses the essential point of solidarity. In the labor movement, as with all movements of liberation, solidarity means truly listening to the voices of those who are oppressed. It means allowing them – and not us – to be the architects of their liberation. It is patronizing in the extreme for the URJ/RAC to purport to support Hyatt hotel workers by saying, in essence, “we support your cause, but we’re going to support it our way – not your way.”
Let’s take a closer look at the rationales the URJ/RAC offered for refusing to rescind the Hyatt contracts:
1. The URJ/RAC claimed that it checked with the INMEX list and saw “there were no disputes with the Hyatt hotels in question.” In fact, INMEX does not include the union hotel guide and boycott list on its website because these lists are not useful for situations such as this – i.e., when organizations plan events far in the future. The UNITE HERE boycott list explicitly warns Group Customers that they should not solely rely on the list of currently boycotted hotels when planning events many months or years in advance. In such cases, groups should “insist on protective contractual language” that would address the eventuality of a future labor dispute or boycott. For whatever reason, the URJ/RAC failed to do this. In any event, their claim that they checked the boycott list does not suffice as an valid excuse.
2. While it is true that there are many “stakeholders” in a boycott, it is it is difficult to deny that vulnerable non-union workers who work for a barely livable wage, who are given increased and often dangerous workloads and who work with the constant risk of replacement by temps have the most at stake in this situation. The “stakeholder playing field” cannot reasonably be considered level when you consider that workers are going up against an aggressively expanding multi-million dollar corporation. (Hyatt recently reported that its third quarter net profit earnings jumped 64% to $23 million compared to this time last year.)
On the subject of stakeholders, it bears noting that JB Pritzker, a principal owner of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, has long been a significant donor to the URJ and the RAC. Moreover, as late as 2010 he was listed as a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, serving at the Chair’s discretion. While there is no proof that Pritzker had any undue influence on the movement’s decision, this point is certainly germane to any discussion of significant “stakeholders.”
3. The URJ/RAC cites its fiduciary responsibility to its Reform movement constituents when considering the potential $450,000 in penalty fees for breaking its contracts with Hyatt. This overtly corporate rhetoric belies Reform Judaism’s status as a religious movement that considers social justice to be a central element of its mission. While it is certainly true that the Reform movement has a fiduciary responsibility to its members, it could also argued that the URJ/RAC has a stronger spiritual/ethical responsibility to its constituents to serve as a role model for its deeply cherished religious values of worker justice.
As the clergy report on the Hyatt, “Open the Gates of Justice,” states:
As religious leaders with a commitment to the moral bottom line, we consider it unacceptable when in good times employers keep their profits for themselves and in bad times they pass on their losses to their workers. We insist that the best business practice is the one that benefits workers, many of whom have served their hotels for over two decades. The best business practice benefits the guests, who want their rooms cleaned by trained and dedicated staff and who have sufficient time to do a thorough job cleaning each room. The best business practice benefits the community, which thrives on good jobs at good wages but which loses economic strength when the workforce is paid below a living wage.
In truth, many organizations that have honored the boycott have renegotiated their contracts with Hyatt to reduce or waive penalty fees. But even if they go forward with the contracts as they are, it is spurious to argue that the $450,000 in penalties would only benefit Hyatt and not the workers. After all, by contracting with the hotels, the URJ/RAC will ultimately pay Hyatt a significantly higher sum. On the other hand, Hyatt workers would almost certainly exchange a $450,000 penalty put into the pockets of Hyatt for the invaluable and uplifting moral support they would gain from the public solidarity of the Reform movement.
I personally know many courageous Reform rabbis who have long stood in solidarity with Hyatt workers – and who are deeply offended that the Religious Action Center will be hosting social justice conventions at boycotted hotels. The URJ/RAC statement certainly does not stand for them and, I wager, for many lay members of the Reform movement who still cherish their denomination’s historic commitment to social justice.
My Reform colleagues understand that a real commitment to workers cannot end with the honoring of past struggles. It is simply not enough to invoke the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and offer bland statements about the historic role Jews played in building the American labor movement.
True solidarity means understanding that the struggle ever continues – and that there are flesh and blood “stakeholders” in our own day who call on us to support the sacred cause of worker justice.
Click here to re/affirm a pledge to support the Hyatt boycott.
I recently had the pleasure, along with my good friend, community organizer extraordinaire Michael Deheeger (left), to be interviewed by Gonzalo and Maya Escobar for the Poco a Poco Radio program on WLUW 88.7 Chicago. During our wonderfully wide-ranging bilingual conversation, we had the opportunity to explore the Jewish roots of social justice and how it informs our work as activists.
Chicago locals can hear the interview on Sunday, August 12 1:30 pm at 88.7 FM, but anyone anywhere can tune in to the live stream from the WLUW website. And if you can’t catch it live, never fear – the full version of the interview will soon be archived at the site.
From what I can see, there are plenty of articles and reviews of the new Meryl Streep flick “The Iron Lady” touting her performance as Margaret Thatcher and emphasizing Thatcher’s victories in the man’s world of British politics. Too few, it seems to me, are actually taking any kind of look at Thatcher’s actual policies – and questioning whether or not this is a person we should be holding up as a feminist icon.
Before you see the film, please read this excellent piece by Laura Flanders for The Nation. Key line:
Today, in a new time of budget wars, The Iron Lady’s depiction of draconian cuts as feminist guts is chilling. What Thatcher called “harsh medicine” meant one thing for the poor and another for the very powerful then, and it still does. In both instances, there is hell to pay in social fabric.
As I’ve written before, Chicago Hyatt workers have been negotiating for a fair contract with Hyatt for more than two years now. Sadly, Hyatt has refused to budge on crucial demands to curb subcontracting and ease working conditions for housekeepers—demands met by Hilton and other hotel employers citywide. In response, Hyatt workers have stood up and made tough sacrifices by striking and calling for hotel boycotts.
I’m now appalled to learn that Hyatt is currently threatening to strip health insurance from 1500 Chicago workers and their families unless they give up their fight and abandon their boycotts. In so doing, Hyatt is forcing workers to choose between their families’ immediate medical needs and a fight for their long-term survival.
Please join me in sending a message to Hyatt’s CEO Mark Hoplamazian to maintain Hyatt workers’ health insurance until they win a just settlement. Click here to sign the petition and please send it on.
Today marked the end of a week-long strike at the Hyatt Regency Chicago and Hyatt Regency McCormick Place held simultaneously with Hyatt workers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Honolulu. This morning I walked the picket line at the Hyatt Regency and had the honor of participating in an interfaith solidarity service with local Chicago clergy. That’s me in the pic below, together with Rabbi Victor Mirelman (left) of West Suburban Temple Har Zion and Rabbi Larry Edwards (center) of Congregation Or Chadash. Above you can see Victor sounding the shofar in a dramatic start to our service.
As I’ve written before, the situation facing Hyatt workers in many cities throughout the country is deplorable. Hyatt has eliminated jobs, replaced career housekeepers with minimum wage temporary workers, and imposed dangerous workloads on those who remain. Although the strike will be over today, the boycott of eighteen Hyatt hotels nationwide continues.
Again, I encourage you to read “Open the Gates of Justice: A Clergy Report on Working Conditions at Hyatt Hotels” for more information. The report contains the direct testimony of hotel workers themselves, who speak eloquently to the injustices they endure – as well as their desire only to be valued as workers for the important work they do for Hyatt hotels.
At the interfaith service today, I read an “Avinu Malkeinu” High Holiday prayer that I reworked in honor of the striking Hyatt workers. Click below to read:
This Labor Day I’d like to think globally and act locally.
Bowing to an increasing culture of all-out warfare on public sector jobs in our nation, the city council in my hometown of Evanston is currently considering privatizing up to twenty of its public services, including recreation programs, community health initiatives, information technology, the city vehicle fleet program, street maintenance and more.
Yes, even here in our supposedly “progressive” little town of Evanston, we’re not immune to the spreading disease that views “big government” as the source of all economic evils. This Labor Day, it seems a good time as any to make this point: a balanced budget is not a de facto virtue. Budgets are value-neutral. How we generate income and how we spend that income are inherently values-based decisions.
And on a purely practical level, I’m in full agreement with those who claim that balancing the budget by slashing government spending does not stimulate the economy. Given that we’re experiencing zero job growth – and probably will for some time to come – it seems to be doing the exact opposite. Indeed, Paul Krugman makes this point convincingly in today’s NY Times:
Although you’d never know it listening to the ranters, the past year has actually been a pretty good test of the theory that slashing government spending actually creates jobs. The deficit obsession has blocked a much-needed second round of federal stimulus, and with stimulus spending, such as it was, fading out, we’re experiencing de facto fiscal austerity. State and local governments, in particular, faced with the loss of federal aid, have been sharply cutting many programs and have been laying off a lot of workers, mostly schoolteachers.
I know our experience here in Evanston is being currently played out in any number of communities around the country: we are falling prey to a knee jerk, fear-based assumption that the only way to balance a budget is to cut spending. But there is certainly more then one way to slice a pie – and I would claim that doing it at the expense of public sector workers is not only economically unjust but economically irrational.
Click here to read how privatizing Evanston services would affect our workers – and why it would cost our city more in the long run. And if you are an Evanston resident, click here to sign a petition that calls on our city council to keep public services in the public’s hands.
May this Labor Day inspire us all to go forth and do the work of justice.
Please, please read the recently released “Open the Gates of Justice: A Clergy Report on Working Conditions at Hyatt Hotels.”
Readers of this blog know I’ve long been standing in solidarity with Hyatt workers who have called for boycotts at eighteen hotels across the US. We’ve watched with deep dismay as Hyatt, a multi-billion dollar corporation, has eliminated jobs, replaced career housekeepers with minimum wage temporary workers, and imposed dangerous workloads on those who remain.
The centerpiece of this new report is the direct testimony of hotel workers themselves, who speak eloquently to the injustices they endure – as well as their desire only to be valued as workers for the important work they do for Hyatt hotels. Their testimonies came from numerous interviews conducted by clergy from across the country who fervently believe that the struggle for worker justice is a central tenet of all of our faith traditions.
From the introduction to the report:
It is part of the purpose of this report to challenge the complacency that we and the mainstream religious community have previously exhibited to these business practices, to identify these practice as oshek/oppression, and to propose steps that we, as people of faith, can do to stand in solidarity with workers as they challenge their employers to live up to the ideals set by our religious traditions for more equitable workplaces and a more equitable society.
I was also thrilled to read enthusiastic support for the report in a recent Forward editorial:
(This) much is clear: The extensive documentation and textual support in the rabbinical report is a welcome addition to a growing number of efforts to link Jewish law and scholarship to timely social concerns. Advocates for the environment, labor, sustainable agriculture and development policy increasingly use Jewish language and teachings to frame their arguments. The rabbinic report on Hyatt calls social teachings on labor “the best kept secrets of our religious tradition.” Not anymore.
And click here to read a substantive feature on the report from the Boston Jewish Advocate that just came out today.
Having been involved in the Hyatt boycott here in Chicago, I’m familiar with the hotel chain’s increasingly abysmal record on worker safety. Now I’m learning that the issue of sexual assault against hotel workers in general has long been a serious problem, long predating the current unpleasantness with Dominique Strauss-Kahn:
On June 2, hotel workers held speak-outs on sexual harassment and assault by customers in eight cities. The events were organized by UNITE HERE, the hotel union.
“These customers think they can use us for anything they want, because we don’t have the power that they have or the money that they have,” said Yazmin Vazquez, a Chicago room attendant.
Hotel workers face injuries from the physical stress of their work, including the awkward lifting of heavy mattresses hundreds of times a day. But the hidden hazard of hotel work, housekeepers say, is customers’ assaults on their dignity and physical integrity.
Workers report that male customers expose themselves, attempt to buy sexual services, grab and grope them and, in some cases, attempt to rape them…
The management response has been “deafening silence,” (said Annemarie Strassel of UNITE HERE), adding that she’s aware of only one hotel in which a staff meeting was called around the issue.
(h/t: Susan Klonsky)