We, as alumni of List College, are writing to express our concern regarding the use of non-union workers, through Gilbane Building Company, for the 21st Century Campus Project. In an e-mail on March 23rd, Marc Gary wrote, “Gilbane has an excellent record of providing a safe work environment, and it insists that all of its subcontractors meet the same living wage standards.” However, Gilbane’s history, corroborated by testimony from past Gilbane employees, suggests otherwise. Gilbane has incurred Class 1 violations for hazardous construction activities, and incidents of unsafe work conditions have been recorded as recently as March 22nd, 2017. There have been several allegations against Gilbane for wage and other labor law violations. Gilbane has also been charged with corruption more than once.
As Jews committed to lives of Torah, we are deeply concerned by these allegations. Several sources in our tradition adjure us to protect the rights of those who are most vulnerable to exploitation, and deter us from benefitting from exploitative practices. Deuteronomy 24:14 tells us to treat laborers fairly, saying “You should not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he is of your brothers or of the strangers that are in your land within your gates.”Oppression can take many forms, including unfair compensation and unreasonable risk. Our tradition cautions us against both of these potentialities. Several texts instruct that workers be paid enough to provide for themselves and their families (Mishnah Bava Metzia 10:5, Tosefta Bava Metzia 7:4, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shekalim 4:7).
Our tradition also warns that an employer must not put workers at risk, and rules that an employer is responsible for damages caused by the employer’s negligence. This responsibility is underscored by the ruling that employers must compensate workers if they or their property are injured by transporting more weight than they agreed to carry (Bava Metzia 80b).
Unions often protect workers against these forms of abuse, and our tradition recognizes workers’ rights to organize in order to determine wages and enforce the conditions that they set (Tosefta Bava Metzia 11:24-26; Bava Batra 8b). It appears that the people working on the 21st-Century Campus project are unable to ensure fair wages and safe working conditions for themselves without the assistance of such a union.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs cites these and many other relevant texts in her teshuvah, which was accepted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards with an overwhelming majority, encouraging Jewish institutions to use union labor whenever possible in order to prevent mistreatment of workers.
In addition to the vast array of halakhic texts addressing fair treatment of workers, our history as Jews in America teaches us the importance of fair wages and safe working environments. Jews working in sweatshops and tenements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were leaders in the American Labor Movement. We have learned the importance of unionization from our immigrant ancestors.
We recognize the Seminary’s financial constraints, and we are deeply invested in the flourishing of our alma mater and in bringing the campus into the 21st century. However, we do not believe that these factors warrant the neglect of our religious and ethical values. We want this century’s campus to be built on the moral backbone and prophetic voice of which JTS has been such a constant source. We recognize that this project is well underway, and if the Seminary ultimately determines that ending its contract with Gilbane is not an option, we urge JTS to enter a Project Labor Agreement to ensure fair wages and the safety of workers on site.
At List College, we learned the texts of our tradition, not merely as historical documents but as living Torah that calls to and commands us each day. Having learned these texts from you, and having learned from the examples set by professors, rabbis, and teachers we so deeply admire, as Jews sincerely committed to Torah we now ask you to heed the voice of our tradition.
As List College students, we were encouraged to develop our critical thinking and use our voices for good. Some of us have been empowered through internships with Va’ad Gemilut Hasadim, while others participated in the Fellowship in Jewish Social Entrepreneurship. Many of us engaged in community service activities on List College retreats. All of us participated in some form of community service for List 101.
Now, we write to let you know that we are paying attention, and we care about the choices JTS makes. If JTS hopes to receive financial support from List College alumni, we urge you to stand by the values you taught us.