How should Jewish workers balance the issues of being treated fairly in the workplace, with maintaining necessary services and infrastructure? A case in point is the recent protests in France by hundreds of thousands of workers who felt mistreated, but whose actions threatened to lead to strikes that could cause gasoline shortages, cuts in train and air travel, bedlam at schools, and cuts to electricity. How does one balance the competing values of self-care with maintaining communal services?
How should workers balance the issue of being treated fairly in the workplace and maintaining necessary services and infrastructure? A case in point are recent protests in France by hundreds of thousands of workers, threatening to engage in strikes that could cause gasoline shortages, cuts in train and air travel, bedlam at schools and cuts to electricity.
From the earliest days of Jewish tradition there has been a concern for the way workers are treated. Many midrashim present the abuse we suffered as slaves in Egypt as a counterpoint to the way any employer should treat workers. The Torah seeks to protect the dignity of the worker and their right to prompt payment of salaries. The story of Raba bar bar Channan (B. Baba Metzia 83a) illustrates the degree to which the sages protected the worker:
Some porters [negligently] broke a barrel of wine belonging to Raba bar bar Huna. He seized their clothes [as payment]. They complained to Rab. ‘Return them their garments,’ he ordered. ‘Is that the law?’ Raba bar bar Chanan enquired. ‘yes, because of the verse (Proverbs 2:20): ‘That you may walk in the way of good men.’ He returned their clothes ,then they said. ‘We are poor men, have worked all day, and are in need: are we to get nothing?’ ‘Go and pay them,’ Rab ordered. ‘Is that the law?’ Raba bar bar Chanan asked. ‘Yes, and keep the path of the righteous.’ (Proverbs 2:20)
Even though the workers were clearly negligent, Raba bar bar Chanan owed them their wages and dignity.
What is the case, however, when the public welfare is at stake?
The examples presented by the questioner illustrate the numerous ways in which labor disputes can quickly impact a greater public. Considering the competing interests of the workers, the employer, and the public, I would summarize the Jewish position this way.
First, our tradition affirms the right of workers to organize for their own benefit (see Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 231:28).
Secondly, when there is a public interest at stake the community bears a responsibility to intercede to help find an equitable solution to the dispute.
Finally, the employer and the employees may be forced to submit to arbitration in order to find a solution to the dispute as quickly as possible.
While the possibility of a strike always exists, it should be held as a last resort. It is worth noting that there was a lengthy physicians strike in Israel in 1983. Several rabbinic authorities ruled that it was unconscionable for the physicians to strike because they had a Torah-based obligation to care for the sick and not to “stand idly by the blood of their fellow man” (Leviticus 19:16) and that obligation took precedence over their right to strike. While these authorities ruled that the physicians may not strike, they also noted the obligation of the employer (in this case the Israeli government) to honor their request for compensation. The physician's strike, because it directly involves the preservation of life, is different from other kinds of labor disputes. Nonetheless it illustrates the tension present when employer-employee relations affect the public interest.
Jewish ethics do not permit workers to be held to “specific performance”; in other words, workers cannot be forced to work, no matter what.That would constitute slavery. However, workers can be held liable for the financial damage caused by their refusal to live up to a previously agreed contract.They have the right to unionize, but unionization does not include the right to strike without regard to the economic consequences for their employer, so long as their employer is fulfilling the terms of all agreements between them.
The category “vital services” does not have an exact parallel in Jewish sources.The tradition does distinguish a category of workers whose work constitutes a religious commandment, such as firefighters, doctors, and teachers of Torah.In theory, such work should be done by volunteers.However, such work often requires extensive training and availability that necessitates professionalization, and once professionalization has occurred, contracts made with such workers are enforceable by both sides.There is extensive discussion in the response literature of whether teachers of Torah have the right to strike in nondire circumstances.
However, it seems to me that workers in oil refineries and other “vital service providers” do not fall into the category of “mitzvah workers” outlined above.
Accordingly, I do not see any Jewish reason to object to the French workers' strike, assuming that the damage it causes is purely economic.However, since they are, as best I understand, striking to protest a general government policy rather than a breach of their specific contracts, then if they are breaking an existing contract, under Jewish law they can be held liable, either personally or through their unions, for the economic damage they cause.They also have no specifically Jewish entitlement to reclaim their jobs of they are replaced while striking, although I suspect that there are specific provisions of French law on that subject.
The Talmud (Yoma 38a) reports on what might be considered the first recorded strike in human history.The House of Garmu held the secret of how to prepare the show-bread that was prepared for the Temple.They refused to perform their function unless they received higher wages.In order to break the strike and end their monopoly, other workers were brought in but the substitutes were not as competent and unable to reproduce the same quality bread.Ultimately, the House of Garmu returned to their jobs.
It is particularly since the establishment of the modern state of Israel that workers rights have intersected with essential services.That is to say, should utility workers strike, the entire State may be in jeopardy and the needs of the majority cannot be trumped by the demands of the minority.(See Moshe Silberg’s excellent study Talmudic Law and the Modern State.) Workers rights to organize has been validated by sources as early as Maimonides (Laws of Sale 14:10) and as recent as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat 1:58, 59).Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook orally ruled that workers in Israel have a right to organize, press for better working conditions, and even strike if necessary.Yet Rav Kook and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg advocated submitting any labour dispute to a rabbinic court for resolution.It seems as if rabbinical authority anticipated that some matters have grave consequences and cannot be held hostage by demanding workers.
In effect, workers benefits and communal services must be fairly balanced.
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