Escalating a four-year labor dispute, Southern California rabbis today will urge a halt to Jewish donations to USC as they link the hardship of university workers with their own sacred fast day dedicated to commemorating community suffering and loss.
The action, aimed at obtaining job security for USC food and housing workers, comes on the fast day of Tisha b'Av. The day of mourning marks the ancient destruction of the two Jerusalem temples and the long history of other Jewish calamities.
The uncertain future of the 360 largely Latino workers--many of whom live in what used to be the flourishing Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights--recalls centuries of Jewish wandering and pain, said Rabbi Aaron Kriegel of Temple Ner Ma'arav in Encino.
"Unless we understand the pain of the destruction of the temples, we won't feel the pain and suffering of people all over the world," Kriegel said. "Tisha b'Av is our link with the human condition of suffering, especially in Los Angeles."
Jane G. Pisano, USC senior vice president for external relations, predicted that the campaign would have no impact on donations, which she said have "dramatically increased" throughout the labor dispute.
The issue of job security has deadlocked negotiations with Local 11 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, AFL-CIO, since 1995, when the contract expired. Workers are asking for a written guarantee that their jobs will be preserved should the university decide to subcontract their work.
Pisano said the university has no intention of subcontracting the jobs in question but would not accede to union demands for a written pledge of that commitment.
"The university feels very strongly that it needs to reserve for itself the flexibility to respond to dramatic changes in economic circumstances," Pisano said.
The call to halt donations to USC will be made today by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, and other Jewish religious, political and community leaders.
Los Angeles Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, West Hollywood Councilman Paul Koretz, Rabbis Marv Gross and Denise Eger of the Jewish Labor Committee and Irv Hershenbaum of the United Farm Workers are among those who will join Latino leaders on the steps of the landmark Breed Street Shul, or synagogue, the spiritual home for immigrant Jews at the turn of the century.
Major Jewish donors and university trustees include filmmaker Steven Spielberg and biomedical entrepreneur Alfred Mann, founder of the Sylmar-based MiniMed Inc., who gave $100 million to USC last year for biomedical research.
"We plan to call them again and again and again," Kriegel said.
The action marks a new level of labor activism for the rabbis, who have begun to join Catholic, Episcopalian and Protestant clergy in a fast to support the workers. In recent years, rabbis have supported an interfaith campaign against sweatshops and successfully persuaded the Jewish owner of the Summit Rodeo Hotel in Beverly Hills to conclude labor negotiations with workers.
The Jewish community has long played a central role in civil rights campaigns, but rabbinical involvement had declined over the years, Kriegel said. Now, as the gap between rich and poor has increased amid economic prosperity, more religious leaders are taking to heart what Kriegel called a core message of the Jewish prophets: social justice.
"The first labor walkout due to unfair conditions was the exodus from Egypt," said Eric Gordon, director of the Workmen's Circle/Arbiter Ring, a liberal Jewish cultural institute.
In a sign of growing Jewish-Latino ties, Jewish leaders plan to hold a Tisha b'Av service today in conjunction with the union's Fast for Justice, passing a Torah along with the wooden cross of Cesar Chavez.
"Both our peoples came here . . . as immigrants to better our lives," said Koretz. "As a community, we have a moral obligation to fight for all of the working people of this city."