Worker strikes in Jewish law

Not only must an individual live according to the halachah, the Jewish State as a whole is to administer its affairs according the Divine instructions set forth in the Torah, and which have been illuminated and explained by our Sages of all generations. The establishment of Medinat Yisrael is an undertaking of gigantic proportions, with equally great challenges and new questions that did not face us during our scattered and nomad conditions in the exile, where we existed as minorities in foreign countries, ruled over by non-Jewish governments. And while we still have some distance to go before Medinat Yisrael transforms into Malchut Yisrael, our ideal Torah Kingdom, it behooves us to prepare ourselves for the great, awaited day by studying the halachot related to all aspects of running a Jewish State in accordance with Jewish law.

For example, according to the halachah, is a worker strike the proper way of dealing with labor disagreements?

Firstly, if it is customary in the country for employees to engage in work strikes to improve their wages, it is permitted. Most of the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) maintain, however, that this permission is conditional on first receiving the approval of the Beit HaDin (a court of Jewish law). L’chatchillah, (from the outset), strikes are not the correct way, for labor disagreements should rather be brought before a certified Beit Din for clarification and judgment. Only in this manner can the disagreement be decided in the most complete fashion. Arbitrating differences before the Beit Din would prevent damage to the economy through the unnecessary shut down of factories, industries, and services, and the loss of work days which every work strike entails. It would also prevent social conflict and tension. And most important, the ruling of the court would be just and balanced, unlike the situation today, where there are workers who have greater clout than others (such as dock and electric plant workers), so that they have been able to demand substantially higher wages than the norm, because the country does not have the ability to function effectively while they are striking. In contrast, social workers, who perform equally important and often critical services, and who work just as hard, receive a fourth of the average electric worker’s salary, because their strikes do not have a direct effect on the decision makers in high places.

For these reasons, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, maintained that all labor disputes be bought before a Beit Din, and only when the employer is not willing to carry out the Beit Din’s instructions is it permitted for workers to strike. In the same light, Rabbi Uziel wrote that a Beit Din should be established, composed of Torah scholars and experts in economics and sociology, in order to judge work-related disputes (T’chumin, Vol.5, pg.295; Mishpat Uziel, Hoshen Mishpat 42:6-7).

In this fashion, the economy can flourish without suffering the negative influences of damaging strikes and unfair power tactics. In addition, the salaries of workers throughout the market place will be higher.

Are Workers Permitted to Strike?

If an employee agreed to work for a specific period of time, he is not permitted to renege on his obligation. If he breaks his agreement, his employer is justified in rebuking him, but he cannot sue him for damages. If a work strike causes the employer monetary loss, the employer can sue the workers for damaging his business, and they have to compensate him over the harm they caused by having broken their original work agreement. Someone who is unhappy with his salary can stop working at the end of his work contract, but he cannot quit in the middle.

These rulings are the basic halachah, but communities and certain professions can establish their own enactments and customs, including rules regarding work strikes, even when they are held during the period which an employee was contracted to work. This holds true on the condition that these enactments are made with the agreement of a Beit Din, or an outstanding Torah scholar who is involved with the affairs of the community, so there will be no injustices in the rulings.

Today, when rabbis and Jewish courts do not supervise public matters, is it permissible for community leaders or professional associations to make their own enactments which are not in line with the basic halachah? Several poskim, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, state that in a place where Torah scholars are not consulted over community matters, it is permissible for worker unions to organize strikes as they see fit (Igrot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpat Vol.1: 58-59). In contrast, many poskim maintain that is forbidden for workers to strike without permission of the Beit Din. This seems to be the opinion of Rabbi Auerbach (Tichumin 5, pg.289); Rabbi Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 2:23); and Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi (Oseh Lecha Rav 2:64). Therefore, every worker who wants to participate in a work strike should confer with an authorized posek who can decide according to each specific situation whether striking is permitted or forbidden.

Doctor and Teacher Strikes

We learned that the basic law forbids workers to strike, since employees generally agree to work for a certain period of time, and by striking they go back on their word. However, the citizens of the State can decide that workers are permitted to engage in labor strikes, even though they have not quit their jobs. According to many poskim, this permission is conditional on the agreement of a recognized Beit Din or leading Torah authority.

This, however, is true regarding regular jobs where no mitzvah is involved, above and beyond the important mitzvah of parnassah, supporting oneself and one’s family, which every job involves. In contrast, teachers of Torah are prohibited from striking. The fundamental rule is that whoever can teach Torah has the mitzvah to teach, even without getting paid. The practice of giving teachers a salary is so they will not have to seek out some other livelihood, so they can be free to teach. All the time that a teacher doesn’t look for another type of work, he must continue to teach his students. The same is true for doctors and nurses. Since there is a mitzvah to heal the sick free of charge, even if their salaries are not in par with their expertise and long hours, it is forbidden for them to strike. Obviously, they are free to seek out different work, but as long as they have not begun some other type of job, since they are available, it is their obligation to continue to treat the sick. Work disputes for people involved in professions categorized as mitzvot must be settled through discussion and halachic clarification, not through work strikes.

Only in exceptional cases, where the employer is unwilling to appear before a Beit Din or go to a mediator, and where it appears that without striking, the educational system, or the public health system, will be damaged, can a worker seek the counsel of the Beit Din, and only after he receives the Beit Din’s approval, is it permitted to strike.

This article appears in “Peninei Halacha: Ha’am v’ Ha’aretz”, and was translated from Hebrew.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed; The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper; His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English; Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at:
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