No unions for Pharaoh to deal with

April 4, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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Over 100 trade unionists experienced the meaning of Pesach when they attended a mock seder at Sydney’s The Great Synagogue.

The Seder was the eight hosted by The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, the inaugural event also being attended the Trade Unions.

Addressing the seder, The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies ‘s president Yair Miller said: “Welcome to tonight’s Celebration of Freedom, our Passover Dinner for the Union Movement.  The Jewish calendar is full of festivals. I kid you not, there is a festival almost every month. Passover is special because it is probably the only festival that all Jewish families observe, whether religious or not.

Michael Borowick and Yair Miller

Michael Borowick and Yair Miller

Two weeks from now, Jewish families will sit around their dining tables and re-tell the ancient story of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. The night will include symbolic food, prayer and singing – with a special role for children. All of which we will experience here tonight.

Why hold a Passover Dinner for the union movement? Well, one might argue that Moses was the first person in history to stand up for workers’ rights. He demanded that Pharoh, the Egyptian ruler, free his people from slave labor. When his demand wasn’t granted, Moses organised one of the biggest walkouts in history – the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.

After their dramatic escape, the Hebrews turned their devotion to another employer – God. God had his own set of employment conditions, known as the Ten Commandments. Although ethically and morally justified, these commandments were really tough to follow and the Hebrew people tried to collectively bargain more lenient conditions, but God was inflexible. When the Hebrews proved unable to abide by God’s laws, he implemented perhaps the longest lock-out in history, forcing Moses and the Hebrews to wonder the desert for 40 years before being allowed into the Promised Land.

Over the past 3000 years the Jewish people have been trying to follow God’s laws with greater or lesser success, but that’s a story for another occasion!

For approximately two centuries the union movement in Australia has been fighting for workers rights. There is not an employee in this country that has not benefited from the hundreds of hard-won campaigns to increase wages, improve working conditions and worker safety.

The union scorecard includes, the establishment of the minimum wage, long service leave, pay loading for evenings, nights weekends and annual leave, protective clothing and equipment provided by the employer, occupational health and safety laws, compensation for injury, maternity leave, paid public holidays, personal carers leave and occupational superannuation

The Jewish community recognizes that ‘quality of life’ in Australia would not be what it is today without the achievements of the union movement.

It is for this reason we are honored to host the union movement tonight – the only sector we have invited twice.

I hope you enjoy this experience and that it gives you greater insight into Jewish customs and values.”

Justice Stephen Rothman and Dave Noonan

Justice Stephen Rothman and Dave Noonan

The liberation of the slaves  – the underlining theme of Passover  –  has become part of a universal message of social justice.

We in the union community can relate to discussion of social justice. And we can relate to a story of an uprising of the slaves inmEgypt.

A revolt by workers, unhappy about their treatment at the hand of their cruel masters.

The story of Passover is in many ways the Dreamtimem story of the Jewish people.

We know that for the first Australians their Dreamtime stories set the patterns of their lives.

So Passover – as a grand liberation story – sets the framework of the Jewish tradition which has, in turn. had a profound influence on world civilization.

Teased out, and interpreted down the generations, the Passover story, and the greater story that we know as Exodus, from the Hebrew Bible, talk of many issues which set the workplace precedents around which our society is built .

Precedents which many of my union sisters and brothers here tonight can appreciate.

Vic Alhadeff, Alison Rahill and Dr Allan Rosen

Vic Alhadeff, Alison Rahill and Dr Allan Rosen

It is here where we first get the idea that working hours can be regulated. And that everyone, rich or poor, master or servant, has the right to have time off from work.

This idea of the right to a day off work might be the Jewish tradition’s most important contribution to humanity.

It sends out the message that workers are not just tools to be exploited.

There are two other interesting laws relating to hours of work mentioned in the Talmud – which the union audience hear would love.

The first requires that workers be paid for hours spent walking to work was designed to prevent a boss from compelling a worker to leave home before the normal working day began.

The second prohibits a worker having to work at night after working a day shift.

A good part of the debate in Exodus is about what the new post-slavery society should look like.

It centres around the regulation of society so all can be treated decently and with respect.

Regulating masters control over their workers.

Regulating the future work rights of those who were formerly oppressed.

No wonder an early Talmudic Rabbi taught his followers ‘Love labour, hate abusive masters’ There are many, many Talmudic decisions concerning worker rights.

They always favour the workers and the poor. It is said the Talmud has a bias to workers because the great Rabbis supported themselves through manual labour.

They were:

  • construction workers,
  • carpenters,
  • blacksmiths,
  • bakers,
  • shoemakers.
Mark Lennon and Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence

Mark Lennon and Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence

If I remember correctly at the last Union Passover we held at the Trades Hall, we had  listed over 100 categories of workers which are carefully described in the Hebrew Bible.

This listed might be understood to show that Jewish tradition valued, and raised high, respect for the skills of  (first) the slaves, and then (later) the (liberated) skills of manual labourers.

As manual labourers themselves the Rabbis were of course sensitive to the concerns of their fellow workers.

So no wonder there is so much in Jewish Law about the protection of workers’ wages.

You can find detailed rules and laws about:

  • the right to eat at work;
  • sick and disability pay
  • employee obligations
  • the right to prevailing wages and fringe benefits

And it is all a result of the Jewish Dreamtime story.

The Passover Story about The Promised Land.

The promise of a society without oppression.

One that we are still to achieve.

We know that a lot can be read into the Passover Story.

I am told that down the generations Jews – and their guests at the Passover table – have read a lot into the Passover story.

Each generation reading something different – as the times demanded.

As a result – I was told the other week at a Unions NSW meeting, by Angela Budai, the NSW Acting Secretary of the Finance Sector Union – that at Passover we are expected to question and debate  why we are here.

What is the relevance of this Passover event to our lives today?

What is the relevance of this tradition to the lives of the people we all represent?

I look forward tonight to  discussing these issues together at our tables.

Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff added:  “The event was an important exercise in bridge-building between the Jewish community and the union movement. There was a wonderful ambience in the room, with the shared values of freedom, equality and democratic rights being the theme of the night.”

The event was supported by the JCA LotBen Fund in loving memory of Lotka and Bernard Ferster.

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