The pharmaceutical company must do right by its employees — all of them.
As the lights of Chanukah approach, current events have caused us to hearken back to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish sacred calendar.
Lest we Jews think that fasting, beating our breasts, and spending hours in synagogue discharges our sacred obligations, the rabbis of old included a reading from the Book of Isaiah that reminds us that we are obliged to act uprightly and justly towards our fellow human beings. In a passage clearly aimed at the powerful men of his day, and that resonates just as deeply today, the prophet states on God’s behalf: “Why, when we fasted, did you not see? When we starved our bodies, did you pay no heed?” The prophet answers his own question, “Because on your fast day, you see to your business and oppress all your laborers.”
On March 13 of this year, when TEVA Pharmaceuticals, the Israeli company, let go 10 hard-working janitors from their Frazer, Pa., facility in order to bring in lower-wage employees, their actions were precisely the type of actions that enraged the prophet. Despite $11 billion in gross profits and over $21 billion in worldwide income last year, TEVA could not find the budget to provide family-sustaining wages and health care to the janitors in Frazer.
The consequences of TEVA’s actions are not abstract. Gladys Sanchez was four months pregnant when she lost her job. Although she was part-time and did not have health insurance, she did have the rights under the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) because she had been on the job over a year. Gladys lost her right to 12 weeks of maternity leave with the right to return that FMLA provides. Gladys could not find another job because of her pregnancy. Soon, her baby will be three months old and she’ll have to go out and find another job. Martha and Joel Prieto, a married couple from Ecuador, both lost their part time jobs. Now they are surviving on Martha’s job in a laundry. Joel has not been able to find another job.
In taking this harsh and devastating action against the janitorial staff that labored on their behalf, TEVA broke faith not only with their own workers, but with the entire community. Since 2007, TEVA abided by the regional agreement of employers to contract to cleaning companies that pay paid their workers at the prevailing wages. In replacing their janitorial contractor with a non-union company and directing them not to hire back the terminated janitors, TEVA violated Jewish law, which actually enshrines local custom as obligation. Further, their “the bottom line trumps human dignity” action invites other employers to break faith as well.
Indeed, as far back as 1938, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uzziel (1880-1953) understood that the application of centuries of Jewish law and tradition supports the dignity of labor and, therefore, the right to organize — a right denied by TEVA: “Reason also dictates that we should not leave the worker alone,” wrote Uziel, “isolated as an individual, so that he would have to hire himself out for minimal wages in order to satisfy his and family’s hunger with bread and water in meager quantities and with a dark and dank apartment. In order to protect himself, the law gave him the legal right to organize … [for] the attaining of dignified treatment and appropriate payment for his work.”
Consistent with the biblical injunction, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” we, the undersigned rabbis, call upon TEVA to renounce their callous actions, to heed Jewish tradition’s call to place human dignity ahead of the bottom line and to reconsider their actions by engaging a cleaning contractor that respects local custom and who will restore these workers to their former positions.
Rabbi Eli Freedman, clergy leader in POWER Interfaith, Rabbi at Rodeph Shalom • Rabbi Julie Greenberg, clergy leader in POWER Interfaith from Congregation Leyv HaIr~Heart of the City • Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Faculty, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and clergy leader in POWER Interfaith • Rabbi Linda Potemken, Media • Rabbi Avi Winokur, clergy leader in POWER Interfaith and Senior Rabbi from Society Hill Synagogue • Rabbi Shawn Zevit, leader in POWER Interfaith and Lead Rabbi from Mishkan Shalom