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Judaism: The Torah View on Workers' Strikes

Strikes can cripple crucial services, but are often resorted to after everything else fails. Are they allowed according to halakha?
Published: Thursday, December 20, 2012 11:55 AM


Q: I work as a nurse, and presently our union has initiated a strike which might be severe and prolonged. I have a suspicion that there is an ulterior motive behind organizing the strike right before the Knesset elections – to harm the chances of the Likud and the Right-wing parties from forming the next government.

For the last twenty years the Left was unable to come to power on the basis of its political ideas, and only when they were successful in diverting the public’s notice to social problems, did they get elected.

Afterwards, they concocted the Oslo Agreements, and all the calamities that were born out of it.

Maybe now they are behind the scenes, promoting the nurse’s strike in order to expel the settler’s from their homes, and to replace them with terrorists who will shoot missiles on the entire Coastal Plain? Such a life-threatening situation comes before salary conditions!

In such a situation, am I allowed to participate in the nurse’s strike, or perhaps, I and my friends should break the strike?

A: This is a significant question which should be seriously dealt with by Torah scholars. Let’s hope that the dispute will end soon, and we don’t have to delve into the issue and compose a specific answer to this question.

What does Jewish law have to say about going on strike?

The question which we will be dealing with in this article is whether or not work stoppage is seen by Jewish law as an acceptable way of settling labor-related disagreements. Let us begin by noting that if in a certain place striking is accepted as a legitimate means for bettering the welfare of laborers, it is permissible to strike. Yet, according to most halakhic authorities, this is on the condition that permission was first received from a Rabbinic court.

The objective of our inquiry, though, is to address the question on a fundamental level: Is it appropriate to settle work discrepancies by means of striking? The answer to this question is quite clear – the proper way of settling such problems is by addressing them before an agreed-upon court.

Only in this manner can the problem be definitively resolved. Such an approach is beneficial for a number of reasons: On the one hand, the financial damage which ordinarily results from the closing of factories and from work stoppage is avoided, as is the build-up of social tension; on the other hand, and more importantly, the court decision will be of an objective and balanced nature, unlike the current situation.

At present, there are some laborers who wield exceptional power because of their striking capacity. Electric Company workers, for example, have managed to secure huge salaries because the country is simply unable to function without their services. As a result, the average Israeli Electric Company worker brings home 15,000 NIS a month.

At the same time, social workers, whose task is no less important and who invest no less effort in their work, receive approximately one fifth of this amount. The reason for this is that their striking does not impinge on people who have a say as far as wages are concerned.

It is told that this was the opinion of Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, i.e., that all labor disagreements be brought before a Rabbinic court, and that only if the employer refuses to participate in deciding upon a court is a strike permissible. In the same manner, Rabbi Uziel wrote that a special court should be established, consisting of Torah scholars and specialists in the fields of economics and social structure, for the purpose of settling all such grievances (Techumin, vol. 5, pg. 295; Mishpatei Uziel, Choshen Mishpat 42: 6-7).

If such a course were followed, the economy would thrive without strikes or coercive measures, and the average wage would be higher than at present.

Is it permissible for workers to go on strike?

Is it permissible, according to Jewish law, for workers to go on strike? Obviously, a worker who has agreed to work for a certain period of time is prohibited from breaking his agreement; if he does, the employer, though unable to demand compensation, is permitted to reprimand the worker strongly.

And if the strike causes monetary loss to the employer, he reserves the right to take legal action against the striking employees. Under such circumstances they would be obligated to provide compensation for losses which were caused as a result of their having broken their contract.

Striking teachers are seen as being responsible for a “loss of time,” and under certain conditions it would become permissible to pay substitute teachers from the wages designated for the striking teachers. A person who is not satisfied with his wages can leave his work at the end of the period agreed upon in his contract, but it is forbidden to stop in the middle.

This is the law in principle. In practice, the citizens of a particular city or town, or workers associations representing various professions, reserve the right to establish legislation or define what is accepted practice in such matters, on the condition that such decisions are ratified by either a court or a leading Torah authority who is involved in public matters, and who can discern whether such decisions are indeed fair.

Yet, what happens when the Rabbi’s and Rabbinic courts are not involved in such public matters, such as is the case today? Are the laborers permitted to go ahead and establish legislation without a halakhic foundation? Many authorities hold that, indeed, in the absence of Rabbi’s who are involved and exercise influence in all aspects of public affairs, it is permissible for labor unions to organize strikes when they see fit to do so. This was the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, 58-59).

On the other hand, numerous other authorities hold that it is forbidden for workers to go on strike without the permission of a Rabbinic court, and this appears to have been the position held by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Techumin, vol. 5, pg. 289), Rabbi Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 2, pg. 23), and Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi (Aseh Lekha Rav, vol. 2, 64). Therefore, any worker who wishes to strike must consult a certified Rabbi capable of deciding whether or not striking is permissible according to the case at hand.

As has been noted above, though, the optimum solution is for the two sides to bring their differences before a court which has been established to deal specifically with such issues, consisting of rabbis and economists.

Yet, all of this holds true only as far as business is concerned; when it comes to Torah teachers or doctors the law is different.

Torah Teachers and Doctors

Let us start by recalling what we have previously noted, namely, that fundamentally speaking, the striking of workers is prohibited by Jewish law. The reason for this is that since the employee agreed to work for a designated period of time, so long as he has not given notice of resignation in the accepted manner, he must continue working. At any rate, the citizens of a given location are permitted to affect legislation allowing them to strike. Today it is accepted practice for workers to strike despite the fact that they have not resigned from their work.

According to many important Torah authorities, it is only permissible to strike with the consent of an authorized Rabbinic court, or one of the leading Torah authorities. Other opinions hold, though, that if there are no Torah scholars active and influential in such public issues, it is permissible for the workers themselves to call a strike even without such consent.

All of the above applies only to the sort of work which does not itself constitute the fulfillment of a Torah commandment; however, Torah teachers are forbidden from going on strike, for whoever can teach Torah is obligated to do so even without wages. The only reason that Torah teachers receive a salary at all is so they do not have to go looking for some other means of income; but if the teacher is not looking for another livelihood, he must continue to teach the pupils, regardless.

The same applies to doctors and nurses. Because there is a Torah obligation to provide medical treatment to those who need it, even without receiving payment, or even if their wages are not fair, it is forbidden for them to strike. Obviously such people are free to look for a different job, but so long as they have not found one, they must continue to treat the sick free of charge. Work disputes must be settled through agreement upon a court and accepting the court’s ruling, not through striking.

Only under very extreme circumstances - for example, where the employer refuses to rely upon a court decision, and apparently, not striking will be detrimental to the educational system or to public health - is it permissible to turn to turn to a Rabbinic court. If the court gives its clear authorization, then it is permissible to strike – for occasionally, the temporary annulment of Torah spells its long-term triumph.

Therefore, it is forbidden for a Torah teacher to participate in a strike without first receiving the consent of an authorized Rabbinic court or from the Chief Rabbinate. And even if the worker’s association that represents him threatens not to aid him in the future, it is forbidden for such a teacher to go on strike.

Consider the following analogy: If one was told that by refusing to eat non-kosher food he would lose certain privileges, he would nonetheless refrain from eating it. In the same respect, if a Torah teacher, nurse, or doctor is told by his representing association that if he does not strike he will cease to be represented, he is nonetheless obligated to refrain from striking (Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 59; Rabbi Auerbach, Techumin, vol. 5, pg. 289; Minchat Tzvi, vol. 2, 10).

By virtue of such selflessness, the teacher who upholds this law will merit becoming a true educator whose values direct his life. In this manner he will serve as an example to his students, and they will no doubt follow his example in glorifying the Torah, the Land, and the Nation.