Should I protest on behalf of others?

January 12, 2012
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Question: I am a teacher at a Jewish school and recently took part in the one-day strike. I had some qualms and I am fortunate that the changes in pension provision will not adversely affect me. But I felt I had to make a stand on behalf of colleagues. Was I right?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Gideon Sylvester published a piece in this paper six months ago (July 7 2011) "Would the rabbis allow teachers to go on strike?" in which he dealt quiet comprehensively with this question citing a number of primary rabbinic sources. I recommend that you read his full article available on the JC archives (www.thejc.com/judaism).

For those who are looking for a brief summary of the halachic position it is, as with many areas of Jewish law, somewhat divided on this question, although there is broad agreement that Jewish studies teachers may strike as an absolute last resort.

But your question raises a broader issue and that is whether in a recession teachers - who at the very least possess secure jobs - have a right to strike over changes to their pensions?

Understandably not everyone is in sympathy with teachers and other public sector workers. With the unemployment rate at 8.3 per cent, more than two and a half million Britons are without any work at all. They would be happy for any job, with or without a pension.

In addition to that, there is the very real issue of people living longer and the cost of public sector pensions rising to untenable levels. Responsible government must address this at some point. Caving in to teachers unions at this moment would simply exacerbate the problem in the long term and delay the inevitable.

On the other hand, teachers argue that it is not their fault that the public finances are in such a mess and it particularly angers them that the government is willing and able to bail out big banks, which many see as largely responsible for the financial crisis in the first place.

The reason pensions are so important to teachers is because they are relatively poorly paid. I understand the "market value" argument but still one must wonder at a market that values a football player to the extent that they can earn in a week several times what the best teacher can earn in a year.

Teachers are one of our nation's most precious resources. It is they who shape the minds and character of the next generation. In Judaism they are afforded the highest honour, eclipsing even that of a parent (Mishnah Keritut 6: 9). It is time we paid them a salary that accurately reflects the enormous contribution they make to society.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Whether that particular strike was justified will depend on one's political and economic views, but what can be stated categorically from a Jewish perspective is the right to strike, as well as the duty to strike in some circumstances.

In the Bible, the abandonment of an early industrial enterprise, the Tower of Babel, is a metaphor that shows what happens when management and labour can no longer communicate: neither hears the other nor understands their perspective.

That breakdown in relationship was also epitomised by the forced labour to which Solomon subjected his people, who then rebelled when his son continued it.

The idea of specific protection for workers is found in Leviticus 19, which declares that their wages must be paid on time. The same chapter insists that society at large is responsible for the weaker elements within it and commands us to put aside provisions for the poor and the dispossessed.

It is no accident that this passage is selected as one of the Torah readings for Yom Kippur in Reform synagogues. It highlights the ethical imperatives at the heart of Judaism and emphasises that Jewish values operate as much during the working week as they do on Sabbaths and festivals. It is reinforced by Isaiah's words to the ruling elite of his day: "What do you mean, says the Lord God of hosts, by crushing My people and grinding the face of the poor?" That accusation can apply to other times too, including our own. Those working on low wages and no prospects become demoralised, while those who are unemployed lose not only their income but often their sense of self-worth, too. Both scenarios lead to an unhealthy society.

It is not enough to grumble over the woes around us, but incumbent to change them by the most effective means. A strike in a just cause may annoy the government and produce temporary disruption for others, but can lead to changes that benefit everyone.

Most of us today have gained from noble strikes by former generations, be it over minimum pay, women's equality or safety conditions, just as we have been inconvenienced by selfish ones. Taking a stand may often be subjective and you may only know the worth of a cause in hindsight, but when other methods fail, you have to act according to your best judgment at the time.

    Last updated: 11:31am, January 12 2012