With the approach of Labour Day, and amid a season of strikes, Jews reflect on their historic and current role in the union movement

Jewish supporters join strikers at a Metro grocery store, Aug. 15, 2023

As the summer comes to an end, the economic and political climate are lining up with the calendar: unions across North America are extending, entering and threatening strikes just in time for Labour Day.

The strikes–whether longstanding or impending, recently begun or resolved–cut across all sectors of the economy. Whether it’s the British Columbia port workers, the writers and actors of Hollywood, staff at Ontario’s public broadcaster TVO, or the 3,700 employees at 27 Metro grocery stores in Toronto, the effects have been far-reaching.

One of the biggest disruptions to Jewish life caused by the strikes was the closure of the Metro store at the intersection of Lawrence Avenue and Bathurst Street, in the heart of a densely-populated Jewish neighbourhood, which carries an extensive selection of kosher foods.

Metro workers went on strike on July 29 when the union voted down a deal struck between management and the union’s bargaining committee. On Aug. 31, the strike ended, as workers voted to accept a tentative agreement.

The closure of that Metro was a major inconvenience for people who relied on it for their groceries, but it also motivated a contingent of Jewish Torontonians to demonstrate in support of the striking workers.

About 50 people showed up for the Aug. 15 demonstration, which was spearheaded by the Reconstructionist Congregation Darchei Noam. They came with signs, songs, and symbols, including a Torah and a shofar.

“We purposely picked that store as a way of signalling that the Jewish community significantly supported the strikers in what we regard as their fair and just requests for a living wage from an employer who is making historically high profits selling goods, by the way, at historically high prices,” said Myer Siemiatycki, professor emeritus in Politics at Toronto Metropolitan University and a member of Darchei Noam.

Siemiatycki, whose research specialty is Canadian labour history and labour studies, said the strikers were very aware of how significant the store was for the Jewish community.

One striker even took the mic to apologize for the trouble it had caused, while hoping that those affected could understand why they felt the need to strike. Siemiatycki also said the strikers were very thankful that the Jewish community had come out to support them; when he went back to visit the picket line, they continued to convey their appreciation to him.

The workers voted to strike because of stagnating wages, increased cost of living and a situation where full-time jobs are being converted to part-time work, during a period of low unemployment. These factors are contributing to labour unrest across the country. In Metro’s case, however, it had just announced record earnings on record high prices for its products, going from $275 million in the second quarter last year to almost $350 million this year.

“The thing you hear most often from the Metro grocery workers is, ‘I work in this store, I have worked here for decades. I now can’t afford to shop in this store.’ And it has gotten to the point where a number of them rely on food banks,” Siemiatycki said.

“Now, if that doesn’t tug at someone’s moral and ethical principles, then it’s hard to know what might, in terms of how we regard work and workers’ rights.”

Siemiatycki believes that Jews should be especially invested in supporting workers’ rights, for both historical and religious reasons. Historically, Jews have been mistreated in work environments and ended up leading the Canadian union movement, he said.

Religiously, he referenced many Hebrew texts, including the often-quoted passage in Deuteronomy: ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’

“I think there’s a Jewish call to righteousness and fairness in employment that I think we are also honouring when we take a Torah and a shofar to a Toronto picket line.”

Shalom Schachter, an ordained rabbi who worked for decades as a labour lawyer and continues to serve on labour tribunals, agrees about the importance of the double call to justice in Deuteronomy 16:20.

“The rabbis say, ‘why does it… repeat the word [justice]?’ They explain that you have to pursue justice in a just way. And from my perspective, that means that corporations, when they are pursuing their profits, they have to pursue it without exploiting workers,” he said.

Other Torah passages and rabbinic commentaries elaborate on what that means in practice, he added. It means paying a worker on time because his life depends on it, with a wage that is sufficient for the worker to live on, and through work that is sufficiently manageable and safe.

Schacter also argues there is a Jewish imperative to support not just fair wages and working conditions, but for the right of workers to advocate for themselves collectively. He hopes to see Jewish institutions take the lead in this regard. 

“The highest level of tzedakah is to give people the tools they need to be self-sufficient. From my perspective, that means that we should press for laws that extend collective bargaining rights to all workers and to have those rights be meaningful, to allow them to negotiate decent collective agreements,” he said.

“I would hope that at the very least that Jewish institutions would be a model for other employers. But so far, I haven’t seen those institutions provide their workers with a living wage and sufficient staffing to make the workload manageable and to ensure that those who are dependent on those services are receiving them in a timely and adequate manner.”

Schachter, who worked with the Ontario Nurses Association and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), knows some Canadian Jews are skeptical about organized labour for a number of reasons, especially because many unions seem to have a vendetta against Israel. However, he believes those concerns are overstated.

For one, he said there are still many Jewish people involved in the Canadian labour movement, however, not all of them identify themselves as Jews because they don’t see their values reflected in and supported by Jewish institutions. Schachter says these institutions are “stabbing themselves in the back” by failing to demonstrate the connection between their values and their Judaism.

Schachter also pointed out that when the Labor Party was winning elections in Israel, they provided the Israeli labour movement sufficient resources to participate in international labour forums. However, since the ascent of Likud, these resources have been slashed, and the Israeli labour movement was forced to retreat from the international scene while the Palestinian labour movement stepped in to fill the vacuum.

Part of Schachter’s work in the Canadian labour movement is to challenge unjust criticisms of Israel that arise. He understands people have the right to critique all countries, but expects the critiques to be evenly distributed, and for the proposed responses to fit the concern.

“If we are going to be concerned with occupations and mistreatment of populations, yes, it’s legitimate to criticize the government that’s doing that, but don’t just criticize Israel. There are all sorts of governments that are occupying, whether it’s the Chinese in Tibet, whether it’s the Russians in Ukraine, in Crimea,” he said.

“The other principle in the labour movement is that the punishment should fit the crime, and not every misconduct of a worker should lead to industrial capital punishment, which is the word that we give for firing. And so it’s one thing to issue a statement expressing opinion, disagreeing with the policy. It’s another to say that Israel is not a legitimate country and shouldn’t exist.”

Schachter acknowledged that some members of union leadership have been very opposed to Israel, including during his time at CUPE. However, based on his experiences, the majority of the organizations do not share those sentiments, as evidenced by a story from his early days working there.

“This was an internal staff meeting and one of those anti-Israel leaders got up and expressed his diatribe. I went to the microphone, I was a new employee still on probation and said, ‘as a worker for CUPE, I’m entitled to a harassment-free workplace.’ And I was supported by my colleagues, by the supervisors and leaders of my employer. So I think it does take a little bit of courage to stand up when these things happen, but you’ll be surprised how much support you get if you do.”

Schachter’s experience echoes that of another Jewish Canadian who is involved in unions, and who also received support from colleagues when management promoted a workplace that was hostile to Jews.

Cara Stern is a producer on TVO’s show The Agenda with Steve Paikin (and a former reporter with The CJN). She is also the branch vice-president for the Canadian Media Guild, and therefore heavily involved in TVO’s decision to strike.

The main motivations for the strike were stagnant wages and the replacement of full-time jobs with contract work, while generous bonuses go to management. However, Stern said the hypocrisy between the inclusive politics they promote and the way they treat their employees was another factor in the decision.

Stern recalled a diversity training session from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, a company that TVO still uses, that included a list of the top 10 atrocities committed by white people against minorities. Stern noticed that the Holocaust was not on the list, and pointed it out to the people leading the session.

The response was, “Well, you can’t be racist against Jews. Jews don’t matter in this situation,” Stern said.

“I’ve made a big stink about it. We had an all-staff meeting. They said, ‘we want to make sure everyone feels included.’ And I said, ‘as long as you’re still using that company, as long as you’re still doing that, I do not feel included.’

“I’ve told them that I’m not participating in any more of their diversity initiatives until they stop using that company. Because the fact that this company continues to do that and TVO continues to accept it shows me how they feel about diversity, and it’s really upsetting. As a Jewish employee here, I feel like they do not want me participating in it.”

However, despite the stubbornness of TVO’s leadership, Stern said that she and the other Jewish workers at TVO have generally felt very supported by their non-Jewish colleagues.

For Stern, it makes sense why so many Jews have historically been drawn to labour movements–herself included.

“I really love the Jewish idea of tikun olam, and that’s a big part of that, right? We are trying to fix things. I see that as we’re trying to fix TVO, we’re trying to fix our own house,” she said.

“But I’m hoping that through this and through my work at The Agenda, that we’re making a difference in society, that we’re helping people. We’re trying to raise everyone else as well.”