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What Musicals Taught Me About Being a Modern-Day Activist

What Musicals Taught Me About Being a Modern-Day Activist

I have always loved musicals. When I was younger, I remember watching the musical Newsies, a movie about a group of young newspaper workers calling for fair treatment in response to new restrictions by newspaper giant Joseph Pulitzer that make it harder for them to earn money. I would belt out “Pulitzer may own the world but he don’t own us” along with my favorite characters. Through song, the characters illustrate what collective bargaining and organizing can be.

In addition, I remember loving Billy Elliot when I first saw it with my family. The scene when Billy’s family members were all marching on strike along with other coal miners was particularly striking for me.  “Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity forever. We’re proud to be working class, solidarity forever,” the coal miners sing. Though they were not the protagonists of the musical, I felt sympathetic to the coal miners’ experiences. How could these workers be experiencing this unjust treatment?

In addition to providing great entertainment, these musicals shed light on worker justice issues that should be more prevalent in our minds. Ideally, we should all be thinking about what we can do every day to be better allies to the labor movement as well as to workers everywhere and to better promote economic justice work. Not just because we all owe a lot to the labor movement (the weekend, safe workplaces, fair labor standards, to name a few), but because we know that the struggles people face at work (and with fair wages) affect us all, and set us back as a community.

Though the American Dream seems impossible for too many hardworking Americans who face the daily anguish, devastation and hopelessness of poverty and near poverty, there is a tangible way we can do our part (beyond singing along to the soundtracks of Newsies and Billy Elliot, and other shows of their ilk). And it is our obligation to advocate for policies that can make a difference in the lives of so many.

The Raise the Wage Act, (S. 1150/H.R. 2150) introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA-3), would bring the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 by a series of gradual increases.

The National Employment Law Project reports that many different constituencies would benefit from the Raise the Wage Act:

  • 35 million workers (more than one in four)
  • 30 percent of wage-earning women (19.6 million women)
  • 35 percent of African American workers
  • 38 percent of Hispanic workers
  • Lower-income families: Half of affected workers have total family incomes of less than $40,000 a year

By putting more purchasing power into the pockets of millions of Americans, raising the minimum wage will not only help families make ends meet, it will also be a valuable economic stimulus. It’s time to raise the wage: to boost our economy, to help lift our working families out of poverty and to bring justice to so many workers across our country.

It’s not just musicals that call on us to make a difference in the lives of working families: our Jewish tradition upholds this calling as well. Our Jewish tradition calls on us to support worker justice. We are told in Deuteronomy 15:11 that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you, open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.” Making sure the poor and the worker are provided for is a responsibility for society as well as for the individual.

We can also bring the power of advocacy to our pulpits. This Labor Day, bring a Labor on the Bimah event to your synagogue and do some programming around issues of worker justice. The RAC has many programs and resources that you can bring to your congregation to educate on worker justice and advocate for programs to lift workers out of poverty. Learn more about Labor on the Bimah and urge your Members of Congress to support legislation to raise the minimum wage!

Melanie Fineman is a 2014-2015 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Melanie graduated in 2014 from Brown University, and is originally from Newton, MA, where she is a member of Temple Shalom.

Melanie Fineman
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