The Yeshiva College freshman orientation featured Rabbi Ari Weiss, a YC graduate and co-founder and Executive Director of Uri L’Tzedek, the first Orthodox social justice organization. He spoke about the organization’s leading role in multiple fights for social justice. He informed the student body about prison reform and domestic abuse awareness. He told students about the Tav Hayosher program, a certification given to kosher restaurants that meet basic New York labor laws. He spoke about the Torah’s injunctions against injustice and labor violations. “Justice, Justice you shall pursue,” he said.
Rabbi Weiss also spoke about a major campaign that Uri L’Tzedek and Focus on the Food Chain, a grassroots organization uniting New York City’s food workers, were pursing against Flaums Appetizing. Jewish-owned Flaums is a kosher food producer in Queens producing hummus, herring and a variety of popular spreads. In 2007, Flaums refused to pay $260,000 to 17 workers who demanded payment according to the law. The workers were illegally fired.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Flaums to rehire and compensate the workers but Flaums refused, arguing that the workers entered the United States illegally and were not protected under United States labor rights. Flaums appealed to the NLRB multiple times but lost.
Working off of the NLRB injunction, Uri L’Tzedek and its partners joined the workers in organizing protests in front of the Flaums factory, grocery stores and corporate headquarters. Eventually, 120 grocery stores, many corporations and thousands of people agreed to boycott Flaums products. In November, international food giant Tnuva dropped Flaums as its New York distributor.
In November, the Yeshiva University Social Justice Society organized a dialogue with Uri L’Tzedek organizers and the Flaums workers who were fired. With the help of a translator, students spoke with former Flaums employees and Daniel Gross, an organizer and workers’ rights’ attorney with Focus on the Food Chain. Maria Corona, who was fighting to receive thousands of dollars in back pay for her 70 hour a week work at Flaums, thanked students who had put in so many hours to help her cause. Rabbi Ari Hart, who also founded Uri L’Tzedek, gave a short shiur exploring Jewish sources relating the timely paying workers while Dasi Fruchter, a student activist at Queens who helped organize many kosher consumers around the cause, helped facilitate a discussion about Orthodoxy and social justice.
The fight for the workers’ rights continued. They distributed information to kosher consumers informing them of the chillul Hashem (the desecration of God’s name) that was being committed by Flaums. The fired workers protested outside of Flaums owner Moshe Grunhut’s Williamsburg home. Jewish protesters spoke to supermarket owners about “dina d’malchut,” the rabbinic injunction to follow the civil laws of the land.
Their work paid off.
After 2 years and thousands of hours of campaigning Flaums agreed to pay $577,000 in wage theft, overtime violations, labor violations and interest to workers. The global settlement resolves the NLRB litigation and a federal lawsuit over unpaid minimum wage and overtime.
In a press release entitled “EMBARGOED LIFTED: Immigrant Worker and Jewish Activist Campaign Prevails with Large Settlement from Prominent Brooklyn Hummus Producer,” Rabbi Hart urged kosher consumers and grocery stores to restock and reintroduce Flaums products. "I look forward to once again eating Sonny and Joe's hummus at my Shabbat table, and I encourage businesses and consumers to support Flaums," he said.
Maria Corona told consumers in the press release, “More than anything, I want fellow workers in the food factories and warehouses to know that there is real power in coming together and struggling together.” In an interview, Mr. Grunhut told the New York Times “Hopefully the battle is over,” he said. “We wish this had happened a few years earlier. I tried to make this offer and they wouldn’t accept it.”
The fight for justice in the kosher food industry continues in New York and across the United States. The organization now has offices on both coasts and runs beit midrash programs on various social justice issues. In March, Uri L’Tzedek celebrated the signing of its 100th restaurant with the Tav Hayosher ethical seal. Its Tav Hayosher website promotes kosher restaurants committed to fair labor practices which include paying minimum wage, overtime and creating a safe and abuse-free working environment. The Tav Hayosher website (isupportthetav.com) also informs kosher consumers about federal and state basic labor laws.
Leading Rabbis and Jewish leaders have endorsed Uri L’Tzedek, including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, SCW Rabbi Saul Berman, Ruth Messenger, President of American Jewish World Service and Dr. Adam Zachary Newton, University Professor and Stanton Chair in Literature and Humanities at Yeshiva University.
"Uri L'Tzedek is committed to building an orthodox Jewish future that is committed to applying the moral vision of the Torah to the contemporary world,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss. The Flaums victory is “a powerful stepping stone to help realize a socially just community," he said.