Let all rabbis join a trade union
It is time ministers had protection against mistreatment by employers.
Imagine this: you have a job which provides you with a tied house. You are offered a good job elsewhere and, having accepted the offer, you give notice to your current employers. Then, your new employer’s governing body overrules the appointment. Your current employers inform you through their solicitors that you must leave the house within 24 hours, as they are changing the locks.
It is a Friday, you were relying on working your notice, and you have little in the way of savings. As of receiving the solicitors’ letter, you have no job.
This is just one situation which has confronted a colleague of mine — a rabbi. The rabbinate is not a good profession for Jewish boys (or Reform/Liberal girls), because it is not viewed as a good profession by the employers. And a large part of the problem is that rabbis do not have professional bodies which represent us to the laity in anything like an appropriate manner.
It will come as no surprise to my colleagues to see me endorsing one of the recommendations of last week’s independent report on the working conditions of religious ministers, namely that rabbis should be allowed to join a trade union. I am a long-term member of Unite, the union that represents a growing number of rabbis in Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox communities.
There are rabbinic bodies, but they are essentially toothless, or even employer-owned (the United Synagogue provides a large part of the budget of their rabbinical council). Would you trust any employer always to act in your interests as an employee?
My colleague eventually found somewhere to live, but he vowed never again to work in the rabbinate. Who can blame him? Eviction, threats and other bullying tactics by employers in the Jewish religious sector are all too common. One pensioner I spoke to was almost in tears, telling me that he wished to join a union but the employer (which had cut his pension by two thirds) was threatening to sack him if he did.
In many situations, rabbis are harried or hounded out of jobs. Personal considerations take precedence over communal interests, the lay leadership changes and a different policy is pursued, or a coup is organised in the shul where the anti-rabbi party (and there always is one) gets the upper hand. The inherent instability of the rabbinate argues for the calming influence of union membership. And those of us under the Chief Rabbinate know better than to look to on high for help or defence. On high remains comfortably aloof from such matters as the employment worries of subordinates.
Of course, some colleagues regard union membership as untraditional or demeaning. But better be untraditional than unemployed or homeless. And the image in many of our minds, of unions as bastions of socialism, is out of date. I, myself, am a lifelong Tory. In fact, a union encourages professionalism in employers, whoever they are. Knowing that religious organisations are often unprofessionally managed by volunteers, anyone would be wise to protect himself (or herself) by joining a union, not even as a precaution but as a way of gaining professional advice at the point of employment. The union looks over contracts and suggests common terms during the preliminary negotiations.
It is there to encourage best practice in employment law. Unions do not thrive on dispute — that’s the last thing anyone wants. They thrive on happy employees, who work in harmony with their employers. Most employers recognise that the union has vastly more experience in employment matters than they do.
This is perhaps why so many employers take a suddenly different tone when union membership is introduced. It levels the field and soothes the savage breast.
Of course, you don’t want to get into a dispute. The union’s role in disputes is the final of many advantages to membership. Unite provides members with educational opportunities — learning new languages, courses in IT and counselling, and discounted insurance and mortgages — all available through the payment of that £120 or so annual fee. And you don’t even have to mention it to the employer; the union is your legal adviser, your educational resource (outside Judaism) and your safety-net in any case of dispute.
Rabbinical councils are good collegial bodies. But we do not go to rabbis for employment advice, certainly not while enormous union benefits are available for less than the BBC licence fee. In an unstable, unpredictable and volatile vocation such as the rabbinate — perhaps the most precarious profession to which a Jew can aspire — it is our responsibility to protect our families as well as to develop ourselves.
That is why any sensible rabbi should join a union.
Zvi Solomons is the (happily employed) rabbi of Reading Hebrew Congregation