The American labor movement, which developed in the late 19th century, strived to ensure that workers were paid fairly, were provided with a safe working environment and were protected from being taken advantage of by their employers. Many of the prominent American labor activists of the 20th century were Jews, which is, perhaps, not surprising considering that the foundation of workers’ rights is found in the Torah and the Talmud. The Torah deals with such issues as paying workers on time, workers’ access to excess produce, and the right to set working hours. For instance:

Raba also said: If one engaged laborers for a piece of work, and they completed it in the middle of the day; if he has some [other] work easier than the first, he can give it to them, or even if of equal difficulty, he can charge them [with it]; but if it is more difficult, he cannot order them to do it, and must pay them in full. (Talmud Baba Metzia 77a).

What is interesting about Jewish law concerning employers and employees is that it strives to create a balance of responsibility. For instance:

Rab also said: If one engaged laborers for irrigation, and the river failed at midday; if such failure is unusual, the loss is theirs [the laborers must assume the cost of the lost time]. If usual [for the river to fail and]: if [the labourers] are of that town, the loss is theirs; if not, the loss is the employer’s (ibid).

This Talmudic passage explains that employers are not responsible for unforeseen circumstance or for difficulties that the employees should expect before the work begins. However, if the employer knows of a problem but did not take precautions, or failed to warn the laborers in advance, the employer is responsible for the added expenses.

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