Two weeks ago, several friends and I had the chance to attend a dinner discussion at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life on Jewish values and business ethics with Marvin Lender, founder of Lender’s Bagels and chairman of Yale-New Haven Hospital. Given the contrast between Lender’s Bagels’ reputation for decent labor relations and the ongoing labor strife at the hospital and the disparity between the imperatives of traditional Jewish ethics and the record at Yale-New Haven, we were eager to talk to Lender about how he could use his post at the hospital to bring about a transformation in policy more in keeping with Jewish values and ethical business. Instead, Lender responded to our questions with claims that it would be “inappropriate” for someone in his position to get involved in “day to day issues” at the hospital. But divorcing ethical ideals from ethical practice renders them simply academic. And the issues addressing the hospital are anything but day-to-day.
The dietary workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital have been without a contract for over two years, prompting two strikes. The hospital’s leadership continues to propose making healthcare more expensive for the men and women taking care of the sick, and has not yet offered any across-the-board raises. Last December, when a group of students asked hospital administrators why this was, we were told it was more fair for workers to get raises based on merit. This means that under the hospital’s contract proposal, real wages for some workers could decrease.
Leaving raises to the discretion of managers is doubly unjust in the context of the hospital’s ongoing anti-union campaign, over which it has been forced to settle multiple suits with the National Labor Relations Board. The hospital’s firings of vocal supporters of unionization among its ununionized majority perpetuate a chilling climate. This stalls efforts by hospital workers to mobilize collectively to demand that their equal work, near identical in many cases to jobs performed by locals 34 and 35, receive equal pay, rather than several dollars less.
Yale-New Haven is failing not only to do justly with its own low-wage employees, but also to meet its mission of service to the unemployed and working poor who depend on the hospital for critical medical care. Over the past year, local organizations and the national media have exposed the hospital’s failure to live up to its mandate to provide it. Instead, the hospital has abused the free bed fund provided by the state while aggressively and punitively seeking payments and putting liens on the homes of those who are too sick to put off care and too poor to pay for it. In response to sustained community outcry, these policies have changed. But the hospital still offers no plan for covering those who are not uninsured but are underinsured, for bringing justice to those with outstanding debt, or for facilitating third-party oversight of the debt-collection process.
These are issues that define the course of the hospital’s future and test its fidelity to its mission of public service. Whether the hospital will keep faith with New Haven’s poor — be they its patients, its employees, or both — is exactly the kind of issue that demands moral leadership from its board, and all the more so from that board’s chairman. For a famous and respected philanthropist in that seat not to speak out and demand change on these questions is a shameful missed opportunity. To mark them as out of bounds in a discussion with students of business ethics furthers the too-common conception of business ethics as an esoteric discipline rather than a way of life — a characterization that Jewish tradition has always rejected. The Talmud teaches that upon death you will first be asked not whether you were a learned scholar but whether you justly conducted your business.
Jewish tradition also teaches, in Pirkei Avot, that in a place where there are no real leaders, you must try to be a real leader, and underlines emphatically in Leviticus the urgency of speaking out against those in power who do wrong. And as Jews today complete Passover’s commemoration of the liberation of our people from Egypt, we remember Exodus’ instruction that, as a people who have known suffering and persecution, we must build empathy and solidarity with “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” in our communities.
This is why so many of us were so disheartened by Lender’s attempts to defend the status quo at Yale-New Haven Hospital. His claim that his “heart goes out to” the hospital’s employees who are all content but “are being targeted” by unions for profit contradicts the lived experience of those workers and of those of us who have had the opportunity to speak with them. His description of the national media controversy over the hospital’s predatory debt policy as “a pissing contest” shows an unfortunate disregard for people hurt by Yale-New Haven’s policy. But when pressed by most of the students in the room on these issues, Lender fell back on his characterization of them as “details.”
We live in a time when corporate accountability is elusive and corporate abuse ubiquitous. Lender told us at Slifka that he could have his name attached to any organization in this country, but that he chose Yale-New Haven Hospital because of its commitment to taking care of the sick. Marvin Lender has a tremendous opportunity and an urgent obligation to use his status on that board and in this community to restore Yale-New Haven Hospital’s good name in New Haven and beyond. Several of us hoped to spend that evening discussing the work that it would take to do so. Instead, in a moment of frustrating irony, he snapped, “I didn’t come here to talk about the hospital. I came here to talk about business ethics.”
Josh Eidelson is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.