Unions and a Worker’s Right to Strike

By Professor Cyril Domb

The Torah pays special attention to the duty of employers to their hired workmen whose position is regarded as very vulnerable: “You shall not oppress a hired workman – you shall pay his wages every day, for he is poor and yearns for them.” (1)

Unfortunately the industrial revolution led to mass exploitation of employees by avaricious and well-entrenched employers. The workers were forced to toil for long hours in unhealthy conditions and the threat of dismissal and unemployment always hovered over them. By banding together in organized professional groups the workers were able to fight against exploitation and establish reasonable conditions of employment.

During the first half of the twentieth century, unions grew steadily in numbers and strength, and even characteristic Jewish professions like the Hebrew teachers and shochtim became unionized. Torah authorities began to discuss the halakhic status of unions. R. Moshe Feinstein (2), in answer to a question, pointed out that unions were already known in Talmudic times. In Tractate Bava Batra 9a, we read of a group of butchers who made an agreement that each would have one particular day of the week allotted to him, and no one had the right to slaughter on a day different from his own. (This must surely be the first recorded union in history.) R. Moshe showed great sympathy with the cause of the unions, and dismissed the anxieties of the questioner about participation in a non-Jewish organization. A union is basically a partnership between its members, analogous to a business partnership, and there is no objection in Jewish law to such partnerships.

R. Moshe affirmed the right of the union to strike for better conditions and even to prompt non-members of the union to join the strike (provided that persuasion and not force was used). A similar attitude to unions was taken by Rabbi R. Rafael Katzenellenbogen in an article in HaMaayan. (3)

The question of arbitration is also discussed in the Tractate Bava Batra. One of the rules of the butchers’ union had been to fine anyone who slaughtered an animal on the wrong day by destroying the skin of his animal. They proceeded to execute judgment on one of their members who broke the regulations, and he called them to a Din Torah to claim compensation. Rava allowed the claim, and when Rav Yeimar demurred that they had a right to enforce their agreement, Rav Papa explained that this was only so in the absence of a person of distinction and responsibility. When such an authority is available, his approval of the agreement is needed to make it binding. Since Rava was a recognized authority and had not been consulted, their agreement had no validity.

In discussing the case, Ran (4) points out that the affairs of the union are not a private matter, since their actions can cause loss to other members of the public, and can lead to price increases. Hence they must submit to an appropriate Torah authority, when it is available.

Rambam (4) includes this legislation in his code as follows:

Professional workers have the right to arrange among themselves that one of their members will not work on the day allocated to another (or any alternative arrangement); and that anyone who breaks the agreement will pay a specific fine. This applies only where there is no responsible authority qualified to organize the affairs of the city, and to further the interests of its citizens. When such an authority is available, their arrangement is not valid… unless they had his agreement.

A second question to R. Moshe Feinstein concerned a possible strike by Torah teachers. Here R. Moshe showed great reluctance to permit anything, which would interrupt the children’s Torah studies. If the teachers went ahead with their strike, there could be no justification for preventing others from taking over the teaching while they were absent. Even here R. Moshe showed sympathy with the teachers, and suggested that if their situation was really desperate and if as a result of the strike a quick settlement would be achieved (i.e., in a day or two) it might just be possible to find a basis for permitting the strike.

During the past two decades, radical changes have taken place in the status of unions and their membership, and the legitimacy of strikes within a Torah framework needs serious reconsideration. The following typical examples will illustrate this point.

A few weeks ago a friend of ours, an elderly lady, had to undergo an extensive series of X-ray tests in an Israeli hospital. We went to visit her and found that even though she had been through the several preliminaries of bowel evacuation and severely restricted diet, she was worried that her efforts might be in vain, since the X-ray technicians were on the point of staging a strike. Could there be any moral justification for adding substantial physical strain and discomfort to the mental anxiety of a person in this position?

A year or two ago, the El Al staff staged a strike which paralyzed Israeli transport for several days. In recent weeks, all Israeli airport employees went on strike, with the same effects. Besides the danger which this posed to Israel’s security in her embattled situation, the loss of foreign currency was a serious setback on the economic front which is of not much less significance than the military front. This deliberate action was taken by a group of people those salaries are among the highest in Israel. One could not by the remotest stretch of the imagination represent the strikers as underprivileged and exploited workers,

A few years ago, the miners in Britain, staged a national strike. Since electricity supplies depend vitally on sufficient stocks of coal being available, it was clear that within a short time cuts in electricity would have to take place. The strike was deliberately timed for mid-winter when its effect would be most marked. Cuts in electricity result in the lack of heating for a substantial number of homes, and hence entail serious risks to the health of the sick and aged. If the strike had gone on for more than a few weeks, the results would have been quite devastating since many other essential services depend on electricity – even sewage disposal could be affected.

The miners had a strong case and could certainly be represented as exploited workers. They are forced to stay underground for long periods in unhealthy and even dangerous conditions and they are doing a job of vital importance to the nation. But surely this does not entitle them to take action, which puts the life and health of other members of the community at risk. The strike organizers issued a statement that in any emergency workers would be available to guarantee essential supplies. But how is it possible to define clearly when an emergency arises? Is it not more true to say that an interruption of essential supplies poses a risk to the life and health of some members of the community?

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the developments described above is the fact that the major sufferers are innocent third parties who are not directly involved in the dispute. There can surely be no Torah support for any deliberate action, which threatens the health and possibly the security of other members of the community. But the Torah would also insist on an effective mechanism for settling grievances, and the example in Tractate Bava Batra points clearly in the direction of arbitration by a reasonable Torah authority. Such arbitration can only succeed if the authority enjoys the confidence of both sides – hence the importance of public approval to such an appointment. Possibly it might be necessary to follow the standard Torah procedure for settling monetary disputes of appointing three dayanim, one chosen by each side, and one agreed upon by these.

But an implicit aspect of any Torah society is the voluntary acceptance of Torah discipline, and of the decisions of Torah authorities. Arbitration is useless when each side reserves the right of independent action if the decision of the arbitrating body turns out to be unfavorable to it.

The changes in unions and strike patterns discussed here have been paralleled by a general decline in moral values in the Wesdemocracies. No one has clearly identified the causof this descent and one may not unreasonably suggest that it is a result of the spread of a secular humanistic philosophy which tries to maintain ethical values while denying that they need any religious foundation. Once a well-defined code of ethics has been abandoned, ethical decisions are left to human judgment, and human beings are liable to foster an outlook that is in tune with their own interests or prejudices.

The time is particularly appropriate for reasserting Torah values, and investigating how they can be applied to current problems.

In Israel, the possibility that Shomrei Torah U’Mitzvot will provide the dominant leadership can no longer be dismissed as too remote to be of practical concern. We must therefore try to equip ourselves to demonstrate the truth of the verse in Deuteronomy 4:6: “For this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, that when they hear all these great statutes they will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'”

Dr. Cyril Domb is a Fellow of the Royal Society, editor of Bar-Ilan’s BADAD  Journal and former Academic President of JCT. He is the Director of the Nebenzahl Institute of Human Safety and Accident Prevention at the Jerusalem College of Technology. He is also an Emeritus Professor of Physics at Bar-Ilan University.


  • 1. Deuteronomy 24:14-15
  • 2. Igrot Moshe to Choshen Mishpat, Responsa 58, 59
  • 3. HaMa’ayan, 5 Tishrei 5725, p. 9.
  • 4. My attention was drawn to this by Mr. J. Galas, who lectured to the British AOJS on this topic in 1975. His lecture was reproduced in the Jewish Review.
  • 5. Hilkhot Mekhirah 14:10-11.