Would the rabbis allow teachers to go on strike?

The possibility of industrial action was considered even in talmudic times

By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, July 7, 2011
Protesting teachers and public sector workers take to the streets in London last week

Protesting teachers and public sector workers take to the streets in London last week

When Judge Brandeis saw the behaviour of Jewish workers, he was shocked. While touring the New York slums to investigate the 1910 garment workers strike, he expected to see the usual displays of deference by workers towards their employers, but the Jewish workers were different. They saw their bosses as co-religionists who should know better than to lord it over their fellow Jews.

Workers fearlessly berated their bosses, citing biblical verses to reinforce their attacks: "What do you mean by crushing My people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts", cried one worker to his boss. "You should be ashamed! Is this worthy of a Jew?", said another. The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks cites these incidents in his Haggadah as examples of how the Jewish concept of freedom has etched itself on our minds, forming our view of society.

Our nation started out as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and this shaped our belief that no one may maltreat their workers. "For the children of Israel are My servants," God says (Leviticus 25: 55), which the rabbis understood to mean, that we are all exclusively God's servants, and no one else's (Talmud Baba Metzia 10a).

Workers are entitled to respect and dignity. One sage ruled that unless working conditions are explicitly spelled out in a contract, workers who are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are entitled to daily banquets. Ultimately, Jewish law ruled that terms of employment should match local custom, but the ideal of treating every worker with royal dignity is engrained in our tradition.

While upholding workers' rights, the rabbis also recognised that they also had moral obligations to their bosses. Time taken from work without justification was tantamount to theft. Even God Himself is not necessarily allowed to take employees from their work, and the rabbis copiously discussed under what circumstances workers could take time off to say their prayers.

Even in talmudic times, workers were entitled to form unions, but strikes could only be called when there had been reasonable attempts at arbitration and the case had been adjudicated by a rabbi. This position was adopted by Chief Rabbi Kook for workers in Palestine in the 1930s. Once a strike was declared legitimate, however, striking labourers were entitled to payment and strike-breaking was forbidden.

It is not just the workers and their bosses who may need protection, consumers too have rights. When teachers in America complained to the leading religious authority of the 20th century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, about their pay, he was loathe to sanction a strike. He hated the idea of disturbing children's religious studies, which are one of the highest priorities of a traditional Jewish community. Only if the teachers were so underpaid that it diminished their ability to teach effectively would he entertain the possibility of permitting strike action. Even then, it should be the option of last resort (Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 59).

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was more sympathetic to the plight of the teachers. While recognising the seminal importance of religious education, he argued that the primary responsibility for teaching our children lay with the parents themselves. If they chose to delegate this work to professional educators, then they were duty bound to provide appropriate compensation.

If they failed to pay a fair wage, Rabbi Halevy said, then the teachers were no longer obligated to continue teaching. They were fully within their rights to strike, although unlike other workers who were entitled to establish picket lines, religious studies teachers could not prevent parents from coming into the schools and teaching their children Torah during their strike (Aseh Lecha Rav volume 3: 24).

The last Israeli doctors' strike of 1983 raised issues of life and death, and rabbis were asked to issue guidelines. They determined that while it was permissible to organise a work to rule, hospitals must minimally continue to provide "Shabbat service", offering basic care and emergency medical treatment.

When Rabbis Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Yitzhak Ya'akov Weiss heard that the strike action had intensified and patients were being neglected, they released a letter warning that the strike was resulting in conduct tantamount to murder, since the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) rules that: "a physician who withholds himself from healing is guilty of shedding blood" (Yoreh Deah 336:1).

The Torah is a legal code designed to avoid disputes and, where necessary, create appropriate structures for their settlement. Strikes are sometimes permitted but they mark the failure either of the employers to pay a fair wage or of the workers to accept reasonable offers.

Where there is disagreement, both parties should avoid conflict and head for arbitration. For the purpose of our Torah is to establish peace among all peoples.

Gideon Sylvester is the rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel and directs the Beit Midrash for the study of Judaism and human rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Last updated: 10:49am, July 7 2011