1. What does Jewish law have to say about going on strike?
2. Is it permissible for workers to go on strike?
3. Torah Teachers and Doctors
4. Girls’ Schools and Secular Studies
What does Jewish law have to say about going on strike?
The question which we will be dealing with in what follows 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 particular 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 via 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 buildup of social tension; on the other hand, and more importantly, the court decision will be of a objective and balanced nature, as is not the case today. 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 disagreement be brought before a Rabbinic court, and that only if the employer refuses to participate in deciding upon a court does it become permissible to call a strike. In the same vain 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. Somebody 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, as is the case in our time, the Rabbis and Rabbinic courts are not involved in such public matters? Are the laborers permitted to go ahead and establish legislation without a halakhic foundation? Many authorities hold that, indeed, in the absence of Rabbis 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 discrepancy 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 - and it is to this question that we turn in the following chapter.
Torah Teachers and Doctors
In the present chapter we shall address the question of teachers or doctors going on strike, and its permissibility from the point of view of Jewish law.
Let us start by recalling what we already noted in the previous chapter, namely, that on a fundamental level the striking of workers is prohibited by Jewish law. The reason for this is that because 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, but 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 that they 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 goes for 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 discrepancies 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 it appears as if 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 - sometimes 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.
Girls’ Schools and Teachers of Secular Studies
We have thus far learned that Torah authorities are not comfortable with workers resorting to strikes as a weapon to settle work discrepancies. Rather, disagreements between employers and employees must be settled by an agreed-upon court. Today, though, it has become accepted practice for laborers to go on strike, and since both custom and the legislation enacted by a particular community shape the law, under certain circumstances it is permissible to participate in a strike.
However, concerning Torah teachers and doctors, the law is different; because their work constitutes the fulfillment of a commandment, it is forbidden for them to go on strike. The reason for this is that because there is a Torah obligation, any Jew who is capable of teaching Torah or treating the sick must do so even free of charge. The only reason that such people receive pay at all is so that they be free to teach Torah and treat the sick and not have to search for other means of livelihood. So long as they have not found other work and are at any rate unoccupied, they must continue teaching or healing the sick.
Therefore, any time that there is a disagreement between teachers of Torah, or doctors, and their employees, it must be settled by choosing a court to adjudicate concerning the dispute - not through striking. Only in a situation where the employer is reluctant to choose such a court or to uphold its decision is it permissible - after receiving the consent of a Rabbinic court - to go on strike.
Yet what about women Torah teachers? Perhaps because women are not bound by the commandment to study Torah as are men, their work is no different than any other profession that does not constitute the fulfillment of a commandment? It would then appear to follow that, according to the accepted practice, it is permissible for them to go on strike.
In truth, though, women are only exempt from studying Torah after they have learned all of those laws which apply specifically to them as women and all of the fundamentals of Jewish faith; so long as they have not reached such a level it is a Mitzvah to teach them. It follows that whatever the girls are taught in school constitutes the fulfillment of a Torah commandment. When young women feel a need to learn more, their studies are necessary in order to deepen their faith and attachment to the Torah. This sort of study, then, also constitutes the fulfillment of a commandment, and it is forbidden to refrain from it.
What’s more, it seems to me that in every Yeshiva middle school, high school, or girls’ school in which secular studies are part of the curriculum, it is forbidden to discontinue these studies as well. The reason for this is that when secular subjects are taught in such a way that they are subordinate to religious studies, they too are considered a branch of a Mitzvah. For the Sages of the Talmud teach that he who "knows how to calculate the seasons and the constellations, yet refrains from doing so - of him it is written: ‘The acts of God they view not, and the work of His hands they do not see’" (JT, Shabbat 75a). In addition, the Rambam, the Ramchal, and many other Torah scholars, explain that this does not mean that astronomy alone is important and worth mastering; rather, the intention is that whoever is capable of utilizing his wisdom in order to understand the workings of nature, yet refuses to do so, is guilty of ignoring the work of God. For God reveals Himself to us through His creation and via the sciences. The same talmudic portion explains that Israel’s mastery of secular sciences causes a sanctification of God in the eyes of the nations. In addition, the Vilna Gaon would say that for every field of secular knowledge in which a Jew is deficient, he also lacks one hundred ways of grasping the Torah.
Accordingly, secular subjects too, when weaved into a larger study program of religious studies, are viewed as assisting - and even belonging to - a Jew’s faith and Torah education, and it is forbidden to discontinue them for the sake of a strike. Hence, once again, any disagreement between employer and employee must be settled by choosing a court to arbitrate the disagreement. Yet, I am obliged to make mention of the fact that there are authorities who hold that the prohibition against striking applies to religious studies alone. My humble opinion, as I have stated, is that it is forbidden for any component of the educational program in religious schools to go on strike, for the entire study program should be seen as an indivisible unit intended to educate the boys and girls to live well-rounded lives of faith in this world. Because such an educational program is equivalent to one big inclusive Mitzvah, it is forbidden to suspend any of the studies therein.