(By Rabbi Jill Jacobs)
During the year that I spent in Jerusalem, at the Schechter Institute as part of my rabbinical studies, in 2000-2001, I learned that Schechter - the Masorti Movement’s academic institution in Israel - prides itself on the seriousness with which it approaches halakhah (Jewish law). I am surprised, then, to see the Schechter administration act in direct contradiction of halakhah.
A few weeks ago, the Schechter faculty returned to work from a partial, week-long strike after contract negotiations between employees and the administration broke down. A year earlier, the institution had unilaterally imposed pay cuts of 5-11 percent on employees, citing these measures as a necessary response to the financial crisis and more specifically, the death of the institution’s largest donor. Even while cutting employees’ pay, the institution continued with the construction of new academic buildings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. After the cuts, employees decided to organize a union.
According to Dr. Paul Mandel, a faculty member and union leader, Schechter did everything possible to stop the union. When employees sought to gather employee signatures to form a union, they used an employee list provided by the administration. But when they reported that they had reached the necessary percentage to form a union, Schechter produced new employee lists with names of former workers who were no longer on the payroll. The administration also publicly disparaged the union in an effort to dissuade employees from joining. And once the union was formed, Schechter allegedly paid tens of thousands of shekels per month to an consulting firm charged with breaking the union.
The major issue in the current negotiations is the attempt by Schechter to force workers to accept a contract that would restrict the workers’ right to strike in the future. Such a contract would strip the union of its essential, defining power and therefore amounts to curtailing the employees’ ability to unionize at all.
Virtually every major modern Jewish legal authority who has written about unions has supported the right of workers to organize and of unions to strike. Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Palestine/Israel from 1939 until 1953, ruled:
The law allows [unions], so that the individual worker will not be left on his own, to the point that he hires himself out for a low wage in order to satisfy his hunger and that of his family with a bit of bread and water and with a dark and dingy home. . . Therefore, the Torah gave the Jewish people the full and legal right to organize these, even though it is possible that [such unions] will result in a financial loss for the employers. (Mishpetei Uziel, Choshen Mishpat 52:6)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared that unions may “make use of strikes in order to raise wages, or to ease work conditions, or other such things“ (Yechaveh Da’at 4:58).
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a preeminent 20th-century American rabbi, even concluded that if a majority of workers goes out on strike, the minority may not cross the picket line to work. Furthermore, he wrote, the company may not hire non-union replacement workers. He based this decision on the principle of "ka paskat lei l''hiyuti" –one person (the replacement) may not take away the livelihood of another (the striker) (Igg’rot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 59).
However, Feinstein approached teachers’ strikes more cautiously, allowing them only if the teachers "do not have enough for their needs, so that as a result, it becomes difficult for them to teach the students well, and if it is clear that if they do not teach for a day or two, then the employers will pay them on time or raise their salaries” (ibid). By beginning with a short-term strike that did not include full-time faculty of the rabbinical school, the Schechter employees successfully balanced the tension between defending their own rights and letting the students continue their Torah studies.
By fighting the formation of the union, and by trying to deny employees the power of striking in the future, the Schechter Institute is acting in opposition both to major halakhic authorities and to an official position of the Conservative Movement, of which the Masorti Movement is the Israeli branch.
In 2008, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a teshuvah (legal position) that I wrote, which obliges institutions affiliated with the movement to comply with a series of Jewish labor laws.. Among these, employers must pay a living wage and “may not interfere in any way with organizing drives.” Those voting in favor of the teshuvah included the Israeli Masorti Movement’s representative to the committee.
What now? The Schechter Institute should move quickly to offer a contract that pays employees a living wage and maintains the union’s right to bring complaints and even to strike. In accordance with authorities including Rabbi Moshe Findling (Chukat Ha’avodah 61-62) and Rabbi Katriel Fischel Tschorch (Keter Efrayim 5727 18-19), Schechter must also pay workers any back wages lost during the strike. If negotiations break down to the point that employees undertake a full strike, Schechter employees and students may not cross the picket line. Doing so would be tantamount to “taking away the livelihood of another.”
The Schechter Institute has based its identity on a fidelity to halakhah. I hope that the administration will bring this dedication also to matters concerning the employees who work hard every day to make the institution a center of Torah.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition (Jewish Lights, 2009).