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
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
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.