Unions as a means of protecting human dignity is echoed in Jewish law

GETTY IMAGES Union members hold a sit-in in the rotunda of the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on … Continued


Union members hold a sit-in in the rotunda of the Michigan State Capitol to protest a vote on Right-to-Work legislation on Dec. 11, 2012 in Lansing, Mich.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Legislature gave final approval to a right-to-work law, paving the way for the state to become the 24th in the nation to pass a so-called “right to work” law.

This law, which allows workers in union shops to opt out of paying union dues will have drastic negative effects on workers’ wages, and on the right of workers to have a voice at work. In the short term, workers who stop paying dues will continue to enjoy union benefits without contributing to sustaining the union. In the long term, such laws are invitations to employers to seek out workers who will not join the union, such that the workplace soon becomes non-union. Without a strong union, workers lose their collective voice altogether.

This likelihood represents a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 64th anniversary we celebrated Monday. The rights protected by this document include “protection against unemployment,” “just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity,” and “the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

This emphasis on unions as a crucial means of protecting human dignity is echoed in Jewish law. Virtually every major Jewish legal authority who has written about unions has supported the right of workers to organize, even to the point of forbidding scabbing.

In the United States today, an idealization of the “free market” has taken over much political discourse. Jewish law understands that there is no such thing as a free market. Instead, the rules of the marketplace arise from the intersection between local and national policy, power relations between employers and workers, and local culture. Even while asserting that employers must follow “the custom of the place” in all aspects of workplace law, the rabbis of the Talmud refuse to allow this custom to arise on its own. Instead, they empower the townspeople—and even the workers themselves—to set wages and other working conditions.

Later Jewish legal thinkers concretize these provisions as support for union organizing. One prominent rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Tzion Meir Chai Uziel, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Palestine/Israel from 1939 until 1953, ruled:

Rabbis have also understood that the power of unions derives from their collective bargaining abilities, which include the right to strike. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel from 1973-1983 and the spiritual leader of the Shas party, 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).

In a condemnation of scabbing, 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).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s point gets to an issue at the heart of the current struggle in Michigan. Proponents of anti-union laws are attempting to change the culture of work, such that employees consider only their own needs, and not the collective benefit. In the short term, some workers might benefit from this arrangement. But in the long term, all workers end up with a worse deal than before. Without collective bargaining rights, workers will find themselves in a race to the bottom in which everyone ends up with less money, and fewer protections than before.

Judaism does not promote a quixotic vision of low-wage workplaces as paradises for the workers. Nor does Judaism say that we need to distribute all wealth equally. Instead, Jewish tradition allows people to succeed and to become wealthy—but prohibits doing so on the backs of other people. There is an assumption within Jewish law that the lowest wage workers will be just scraping by. And yet, employers may not pay so little that workers cannot support themselves and their families, nor may employers stop workers from advocating for themselves by means of a union.

Some might ask why Judaism—or, for that matter, Christianity, Islam, or any other tradition—should weigh in on American labor struggles. For me, Rabbi Feinstein’s comment gets to the heart of the matter. While today’s arguments about unions are mired in partisan politics, our religious traditions force us to step back and ask broader questions about what it means to live together in community. All of our traditions offer thousands of years of wisdom about how to create just societies, and how to ensure that no one gets left too far behind. In the midst of vicious political rhetoric, religious tradition demand that we ask more fundamental questions: Do we want to build a society in which a few profit at the expense of the many? Or do we want to build a society in which each of us sees our own well-being as bound up in the well-being of others?

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition.”


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