'Let My People Bargain!' Why Moses Was History's First Union Representative

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Exodus is a story about cruel labor conditions, workers' rights, and strong leaders, making Passover's hero a shop steward for the ages

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Millions of families around the world, including my own, will sit down together this weekend for Passover Seder to read and celebrate the story of the Jews freeing themselves from enslavement. Independence is an important and powerful part of the story. But I think we're also celebrating something else: the first great moment in labor history.

Seriously.

The parallels come easily. The workers (Israelites) asked their union rep (Moses) to stand up to the boss (Pharaoh) about their terrible working conditions. In Exodus: Chapter 5, the boss denied Moses and doubled the workers' load.

... וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לָמָּה מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן תַּפְרִיעוּ אֶת הָעָם מִמַּעֲשָׂיו לְכוּ לְסִבְלֹתֵיכֶם:

 תִּכְבַּד הָעֲבֹדָה עַל הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעֲשׂוּ בָהּ וְאַל יִשְׁעוּ בְּדִבְרֵי שָׁקֶר:

But the king of Egypt said to them, "Why, Moses and Aaron, do you disturb the people from their work? Go to your own labors...

Let the labor fall heavy upon the men and let them work at it, and let them not talk about false matters."

The workers' only recourse was to leave. This was a really strike, but on a biblical scale. It was one of the first times that workers stood up for their collective power. Moses was a gifted organizer, and you can see the lessons of the Israelite revolt resonating throughout labor history -- in labor guilds, mutual aid societies, and modern collective bargaining units.

FOUR MORE QUESTIONS

As Jews, it is our responsibility not only to celebrate Passover, but also to wrestle with the challenges and tensions at the heart of the story. As you sit down to read the story of Exodus this year, I'd like to suggest you add an additional "four questions" to your discussion:

1) What does Exodus teach us about how to empower today's workers?

    Moses was foremost concerned with ensuring essential fairness and economic security for all his people. It was that goal that was critical. The tools of collective organizing are all judged against that central goal.

    2) If we celebrate stories like Exodus, how did the idea of a "labor union" become a dirty word in America?

      Rather than evaluating a particular union, leader, or strategy, large segments of society now simply dismiss unions out of hand. Of course today's unions can and must innovate, but, at heart, people realize they have more strength together than they do alone. To dismiss the concept of unionism because of a dislike for some of the decisions made by the unions of the moment is the quintessential throwing the baby out with bath water. Or into the Nile.

      3) What does Exodus teach us about the evolution of labor: from Moses to guilds to mutual aid societies to craft unions to industrial unions to new forms of 21st century unions?

        People will always come together to talk about work and the economy, whether over straw bricks in Egypt or MacBooks in Brooklyn. The vehicle by which they have that conversation has changed and evolved through the centuries. We know new forms of unions will assert themselves to adapt to the changing nature of work.

        4) Why are many of the people who are most dedicated to the words of the Bible also often the ones most opposed to workers' rights and collective organizing?

          Current religious conservatives have a political worldview that associates unions with left-wing economic and social strategies. What they don't see is that unions and religion are neither inherently liberal nor conservative, good nor bad. They are both crucial vehicles to connect us with one another and to build something larger than ourselves.

          We can and should argue over how we use the vehicle of collective worker power, but we should not think we can get by without it entirely. Unions exist in every democracy and the first thing every dictator does is crush them. That is not a coincidence. Our economic future lies in the empathy and interconnection exemplified in the story of Exodus. Affinity and solidarity are at the root of true 'builder' society. Labor groups with this as their driving tenet will be able to adapt to changing conditions as well as Moses did.

          A story as old as Exodus reflects our modern challenges. And at the very least, these "other four questions" should be able to stir up some valuable conversation while the children search for the afikoman .

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          Sara Horowitz is the founder of Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization representing the interests and concerns of the independent workforce.

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