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Debatable: Should Jews Support a Union’s Right to Collective Bargaining?

Rabbi Jonathan Blatch

Judaism has always championed workers’ rights.

The creation of the Sabbath emanated from ancient Israelite ideals of offering the laborer humane working conditions. The laws in Deuteronomy—“Do not abuse the needy and destitute laborer…You must pay him his wages on the same day…for he is needy and urgently depends upon it” (24:14-15)—protected workers from the whims of corrupt bosses and abuses in the marketplace. Rabbinic tradition supported safe working conditions and recognition of trade guilds (Sukkah 51b). And the Talmud implicitly recognized the right to bargain collectively, as per the bakers of the “shew bread” of the Temple (Yoma 38a), even though the rabbis preferred arbitration and negotiation over work actions (Baba Batra 9a).

The American Jewish tradition of support for union organizing and collective bargaining started more than 100 years ago, and intensified after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 employees, mostly young female immigrants, lost their lives because their employer kept them locked in their workplace. Since 1918, the Central Conference of American Rabbis has championed laws that help the American worker, including rights to bargain collectively (1918, 1920, and 1947).

Laborers’ abilities to form unions and engage in collective bargaining have resulted in fair and decent wages, as well as safer working conditions, for millions of workers—even for those not in unions. And the more satisfied the worker, the higher quality the work!

This past February and March, the governor of Wisconsin used his political muscle to weaken organized labor in the state. I am proud to be among the many rabbis in Wisconsin who demonstrated, led study sessions and worship, and rallied Jews to continue the state’s support of public employee unions.

The mandate of Torah is to bring dignity to humanity. What more Jewish accomplishment can there be!

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Madison, Wisconsin.

Rabbi Clifford E. Librach

Sentimental and irrelevant biblical invocations in defense of abused laborers to support public employee union demands are the stuff of bumper stickers, not cogent analysis.

Consider the facts: The economic success of industrial unions peaked some time ago. Only seven percent of the private workforce belongs to a union. In contrast, union membership in government jobs has risen sharply since 1960, more than tripling on average throughout the U.S., from 10% to 36%. And not only are the salaries of unionized state public employees generous by any measure, the workers contribute much less to their benefit packages than corresponding federal employees. Who granted them these “negotiated” goodies? State politicians—elected with hefty campaign contributions from many of these state employees. That leaves the rest of us—taxpayers who never had a seat at the table—with the bill.

Federal employees do not, and should not, enjoy such collective bargaining “rights,” which have been opposed in principle even by liberal leaders, from Roosevelt, LaGuardia, Carter, and O’Neill to the labor
icon George Meany.

As the amount of money in the public purse is limited, doling out more to one group that enjoys an
unfair negotiating advantage means giving less to another. Perhaps that is why Mishnah Yoma 3:11 specifically rebukes “organized” laborers (family monopolies) who extort exclusive public contracts. Negotiating unfundedpension and health benefits with politicians who lack the incentive to exercise restraint—for it is neither their money nor their “business”—is not only a form of extortion, but a threat
to the nation’s economic health.

Given today’s realities, there is nothing ethical or Jewish about collective bargaining for public employees.

Rabbi Clifford E. Librach is the spiritual leader of the United Jewish Center of Danbury, Connecticut.


Union for Reform Judaism.