This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Striking Similarities*

News Item:

June 1997--Labor unrest in Calgary. Workers at the Safeway supermarket chain have been on a prolonged strike, and the teachers in the local public school system have also threatened to go to the picket lines at the beginning of the school year.

As I write these lines, a prolonged strike of supermarket employees is just concluding, and the teachers union has declared a labour dispute of its own. Developments of this kind are of course a natural part of modern economic life.

The right of workers or craftsmen to organize themselves into guilds or unions has roots in a Talmud law that asserts the authority of citizens to determine such matters as measures, exchange rates and salaries. The medieval commentators extended these prerogatives to professional organizations as well, granting them the privilege of enforcing their collective decisions upon individual members.

In modern times, the concept was further applied to trade unions by authorities of the stature of Rabbis Ben-Zion Ouziel and Moshe Feinstein.

Nevertheless, in Jewish law the definition of permissible grounds for a strike has generally been more limited than what is accepted in our society, reflecting the ideal of a community whose constituent segments must subordinate themselves to the common good. Most authorities are clearly more comfortable about allowing strikes in cases where the employee has reneged on an existing contract or violated accepted conventions. Presumably the wage-cuts and reassignment of tasks that occur so frequently in our economy could fall into that category. And at least one authority has explicitly extended it to encompass situations where the objective circumstances, such as inflation or market conditions, have altered so significantly that they effectively undermine the purposes of a existing contract.

More problematic from the perspective of Jewish law is the question of whether a decision by a union or guild has the status of an "accepted convention" for purposes of enforcing it upon an unwilling employer. In general Talmudic law has looked askance at unilateral strikes under such circumstances where the grievances of the workers were not formulated in consultation with the broader community leadership, preferably its rabbis, whose position in the process bears some resemblance to those of labour courts in our society.

On these grounds, one Eastern European rabbi ruled against the local slaughterers when they walked out unilaterally in support of wage demands. In his responsum, the rabbi declared that those slaughterers had consulted no rabbinic authority about their demands, and hence their employers were within their rights to hire outside workers to keep their businesses in operation.

In a similar spirit, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook stated that a strike may be declared only as a means to enforce an existing decision by an authorized Jewish court, and only after the employees had exhausted other means of legal recourse.

Assuming that the sanctions themselves are deemed to lie within the permissible parameters, does Jewish law permit them to keep out "scab" labour?

This question is subsumed under the more general one of whether a guild or union has the right to prevent outside workers from setting up shop within their domain, an issue that arose frequently in Jewish history.

Although the Talmud appears to deny them such a right, several authorities have understood the extent of that decision somewhat differently. In particular, Rabbi Joseph Colon, writing in 15th-century Italy, argued that the Talmud meant only to say that the guild could not rely on the court to enforce their monopoly, however if they possessed the power or pressure to enforce it by themselves, then the law would not stand in their way.

Rabbi Colon's position was vehemently opposed by Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulhan `Arukh, but accepted nonetheless in Rabbi Moshe Isserles' Ashkenazic glosses to that law code. In the responsa of subsequent authorities we encounter a continuing controversy on this question.

Responding to an inquiry concerning the legality of a strike by teachers at an American yeshivah, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was most generous in defining the powers and rights that he conceded to striking unions. Not only did he assert that workers could go on strike to defend their interests without consulting a rabbi or community leader, and that the vote of the majority was binding upon the whole union; but he went on to rule, albeit with considerable hesitation, that the union could impose its will on non-members as well. All this, he emphasized, was on the condition that the strike itself was a legal and non-violent one.

An even stronger advocate of the power of the labour unions was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook whose words echo the prevailing socialist ideals of pre-state Israel: "The organization of workers for purposes of protection and defense of working conditions is a legitimate expression of justice and social reform... Unorganized labour causes harm to the workers. Non-unionized labourers work under inferior conditions to unionized ones, and thereby cause losses not only to themselves but also to the proletariat as a whole."

Such talk makes a person want to rush out immediately and rally to the cause of the exploited Jewish newspaper columnists.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 26 1997, p. 8.
  • Bibliography:
    • S. Warhaftig, Jewish Labour Law, Jerusalem, 1982.
    • Z. Yaron, Mishnato shel ha-Rav Kuk, Jerusalem, 1974.