The “Value” of Labor in Ameinu?

Categories: Letters From Leadership

The re-invention of LZA as Ameinu should give us pause to re-consider the meaning and goals regarding “labor,” the organization “formerly known as Labor Zionist Alliance,” and in our lives generally. How do we strive to uphold the meaningfulness of labor, without which the bounty of the earth still will not be brought forth? How do we elevate the value and dignity of labor, manual or otherwise, to the level it was accorded by the founders of Israel and LZA in their era, both in the U.S. and Israel? What will be the goals and means regarding “labor,” consistent with traditional Habonim Dror values, but also mindful of the fact that in the 21st century, few of us are working in the fields or factories of romantic lore? Indeed, I would venture to guess that as many of us if not more are employers, owners, managers or administrators as we are employees.

The very notions of labor, a.k.a, work, employment or jobs, are rapidly changing beneath our feet. “Work,” defined, is the purposeful activity directed toward the production of some good or service of value. “Employment” is the context of work, in some form of contractual relationship that generates material rewards such as various forms of compensation. A “job” is at the intersection of these two, specifically devoted toward some set of tasks.

The challenge we face is that the value that our society now ascribes to all three of these appear to be heading in the opposite direction than that which forms the core of Habonim-Dror or Ameinu ideology. However, the re-valuation, transformation and re-balancing of the concept of labor were at the very heart of the original labor Zionist enterprise. It was about transforming both the Jewish people and their collective psychology via a physical homeland and state of their own. Moreover, the goal was not only to become self-reliant and self-sufficient as a people, but, importantly, to transform ourselves as individuals through our labor.

To a large extent, the “macro” goal has been achieved. Nonetheless, we have lately become victims of our own success. Now that we have accomplished much toward securing this physical homeland, independence and self-sufficiency, there is a need for more contemporary expressions of the labor Zionist spirit. In both Israel and North America, “organized labor,” remains the nerve center for collectively pursuing the goals of improving the wages, hours and working conditions of workers, through either traditional or innovative means. However, labor unions have been dwindling in presence and power. It is less likely to be the effective vehicle it once was. Besides, fewer and fewer of us remain in the proletariat class, other than perhaps our earliest years in the work force. Yet, most of us still “labor” or “work” in some fashion, “employed” in “jobs.” To be sure, we can still act collectively, but acting out a pro-labor ideology is more and more at our own, individual level. It will be expressed through our consciousness and actions as employees, employers, managers/administrators, shareholders, consumers and household members.

So, how do we increase the value of work (employment or jobs)? What seems to be transformed that is now falling out of balance now in our workplaces, households, and for that matter, the world? What is overvalued and what is becoming undervalued? What are the chalutzic projects of the next generation to which we can rededicate ourselves?

To begin to answer that, we must consider the very purpose(s) of and value created by work. The comprehensive value of work, to the one who performs it, is equal to the sum of the:

  1. compensation rewards;
  2. net social outcomes;
  3. intrinsic value of the work itself and its content.

The first is the obvious, major reason for most of our work activity, to generate income and reach some desired material standard of living. Trained as an economist, I would never diminish this key motivation for working. However, particularly once some acceptable minimum standard of living is reached, our needs move up the Maslow’s pyramid toward the spiritual needs. That includes our need to mold and shape the social institutions around us to transform society into our own image, either via “tikkun olam,” or engaging in jobs with an inherent social purpose (education, social work, etc.). The third reward, the value of labor provided to its performer through the very act of working, has a long history in both a religious and secular context. Work itself is transformative for the individual, and it eventually comes to define us, especially Americans. It gives us an identity, social status and sense of purpose of life.

Econ model: well being (and giving, for that matter) depend on income, time.

Unless you have been asleep the last twenty plus years, you might have noticed which of these three seems to be valued more and which less by our society? As Bob Kuttner lament, in his book, Everything For Sale, “When everything is for sale, the person who volunteers time, who helps a stranger, who agrees to work for a modest wage out of a commitment to the public good, who desists from littering even when no one is looking, who forgoes an opportunity to free-ride, begins to feel like a sucker.” Indeed, the compensation reward to work has increasingly become the monetary payoff, devaluing the once venerable alternative of more leisure time or time off from work. Not only has the value that society ascribes to “manual” labor (including build the “aretz”) diminished, but the relative value of ownership has escalated. The inequality of income and wealth is not only stubborn, but rising again (after a brief hiatus in the mid- to late-1990s). The evidence is that any recent prosperity has not been widely shared. Our elected (and I still use this word reluctantly) leadership, instead of leaning against this trend, is actively reinforcing it. Income from “capital,” although it is referred to in the US income tax system as “unearned income,” is increasingly being treated as more inherently valuable than income from “labor” and thus subject to lower rates of taxation. In the case of inherited income (estates), the plan is to exempt it from taxation entirely. Why is it wiser or fairer to tax income you received just because of luck of birth, for which you did not expend any time or energy? Doesn’t a tax on labor discourage work much more than a tax on inheritance, stock dividends or gain in property? Income is income, isn’t it? The current administration’s response is to create an “ownership society.” Not to speak of the attempts to institute a “flat” income tax removing the progressively higher rates of taxation at the upper income end of the spectrum, making the entire system of all taxes, including payroll taxes and sales taxes, regressive. So look for this devaluation of labor and inequality to get worse before it ever gets better.

One upshot of the widening wealth and income gap is that employees who wish to avoid losing ground relative to the top income brackets, in terms of the (seductively great) consumer goods and services they purchase, have only one tool at their disposal-working longer hours. At some point, even if voluntary (to earn overtime pay, or impress their superiors sufficiently to enhance their chances of raises and promotions), work becomes overwork. That is, the pursuit of economic rewards causes individuals to try to operate beyond their own capacity the extra hours begin to adversely affect their own health, the public health or their children’s well being, the extra hours of work become counterproductive. At the same time, many others are underemployed, willing to work longer because of their need for income, sometime in the same occupation, industry or even workplace. But this imbalance persists. The concepts of shabbat, shabbaton, jubilee, all rooted in Judaism, understood instinctively that we humans possess a penchant for overwork, at least periodically, and need an external force to regulate this. These were invented not only for rest, restoration, and personal productivity once back at work, but as a necessary prerequisite to gain closeness to the creator.

In the contemporary scene, the imbalance is most evident in the stages in our life cycle when we need to combine paid work activity on a daily basis with other pressing uses of time–studying, parenting, caregiving, phasing into retirement. Reforming workplaces to improve work-family balance and work-life integration is the newest frontier for valuing labor-realizing the holistic nature of today’s work force, trying mightily to combine and succeed at both their workplace and caregiving responsibilities. There is an increasing premium being placed on flexibility, seamless transitions, more options in the workplace for providing labor, but many workplaces have not kept pace with this demand. With more of us spending more time in the workplace than previous generations, sustainability, not only of environment, but of labor and our workplaces. This will require a curbing of the natural tendency and many reinforcements toward overwork, and the many impediments to integrating of work, family and personal life, responsibilities and other pursuits of happiness.

If, as taught in tanach, truly the “world stands on these three things”: Torah (study), Avodah (“labor”), and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness), then, restoration of the value of labor rests on transforming these things:

  1. rewards;
  2. jobs and workplaces;
  3. public institutions.

With this framework, what kind of program should we pursue? Because of our limited size, we would just be “crying like a fire in the sun” (thanks, Bob Dylan), so we would have to join up with the existing movements, continuing Ameinu’s participation in the anti-sweat shop movement to lift global labor standards, or join some of local branches of the living wage movement or take-back-your-time (anti-consumerism) efforts, or other political movements. We could voice our disapproval of tax system reform. We could stop the hemorrhaging of state funding of our public school systems and public colleges and universities. We could support the labor law reforms (and their advocates) to form a “faith based,” pro-family and pro-labor foundation to our workplaces.

Perhaps most difficult, the transformation must come first and foremost at the individual level, in both our consciousness and actions. We can support living wages and labor unions in principle but in our own workplaces watch or even participate in the underpaying of other employees simply because we can or benefit from that?

So, some Questions for Discussion: How could you personally commit to better:

  1. Integrate with your personal work life a greater value for labor?
    • could you do more to democratize your own workplace and work processes, i.e., share power and rewards more with underlings (even at the risk of making poorer judgments or results)?
    • could you provide job security and autonomy even if entailed a sacrifice of your own security or income?
  2. Implement these principles in our daily lives, personal and family?
    • Are you willing to share the household drudgery labor with partners, roommates, spouses, etc. even if it clearly makes little sense from the economic, division of labor standpoint?
    • Are you willing to engage in self-labor even if you can afford “hiring out”?
  3. Integrate new goals regarding the value of labor with Camp curriculum? Hadricha training?
    • How to balance the competing (or is it actually reinforcing?) values of the collective vs. individual actualization-hagshama ishit and collectivit. Can we achieve gam zeh v’gam zeh?

About Ameinu

Ameinu is recognized as a charitable organization by the IRS and all donations are tax deductible to the full extent allowed by law.
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