Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.”

In a FAQ available on its website, the PJDS administration uses all the familiar anti-union code words: “more flexibility,” “direct relationship between administration and teachers” “retaining and recognizing excellent teachers.” Essentially, this means that deprived of the ability to collectively bargain, the teachers are forced to bargain individually with the administration, with no counterweight to the corporate power of the school. There is no grievance or appeal process, and the administrators are free to hire and fire at will.

While the board’s letter claims that there will be no salary cuts during the upcoming year, there is no guarantee beyond that.

This situation is doubly distressing. First, PJDS was one of the few points of light in a bleak labor horizon in the institutional Jewish world. Almost no Jewish Day Schools have teachers represented by a union. It is distressing that after 38 years of following the vast majority of recognized halakhists who all say that union representation is both admirable and recognized by Jewish law, PJDS—a Solomon Schechter school, endorsed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—has turned their back on this legacy.

The tradition of worker protection is grounded in the Talmud, with the obligation of an employer to follow local custom in the case of work conditions, and the ability of workers to construct agreements which can then be upheld in court. The Rabbinic tradition grants the community the right to intervene on behalf of workers in the “private contracting” of workers and employers. This halakhic tradition continues to this day, with one of the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel writing in the last century that it is not believable that we would leave workers alone to face corporations without the benefit of a union, and more recently (2008), the Committee on Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement passing a decision (authored by Rabbi Jill Jacobs) that says, in part: “Jewish  employers should allow their employees to make their own independent decisions  about whether to unionize, and may not interfere in any way with organizing drives  by firing or otherwise punishing involved workers, by refusing workers the option for  ‘card check’ elections, or by otherwise threatening workers who wish to unionize.”

On its side, the PJDS claims that they are upholding the Talmudic teaching that “the world exists only by virtue of the breath, which comes from the mouths of school children” who study Torah. This is of course an important value. The irony here is that in one of Rabbi Feinstein’s first responsa concerning unions (1954), the issue at hand was exactly a teacher’s strike. Rabbi Feinstein rules that the obligation to teach Torah does not override the obligation to treat workers (including teachers, of course) with dignity. While Rabbi Feinstein is wary of the impact that a long strike might have on the teaching of Torah, he is however sympathetic to plight of the teachers, and sees no problem with the union and approves of collective bargaining. In any event, his cautious response in regards to teaching Torah would not in any way apply to the teachers who teach other subjects—for whom there is no obstacle to organizing or, if necessary, striking.

There is a second issue here — the growing class divide in the Jewish community. Tuition at schools like PJDS (and PJDS is far from the only school at this tuition level) is around $20,000 and senior administrators at PJDS make two to four hundred thousand dollars (according to the publicly available  2011 IRS 990 form) (some of the personalities have changed since then, but there is no reason to think the salary schedule has drastically changed). These are corporate salaries, and tuitions that are hard to afford on a middle class income. There is a growing concern that a Schechter or Community School education will only be available to the Jewish 1%. At the same time, the administrative mindset is increasingly impacted by a corporate culture which is overtly anti-union. This is an unsustainable model for a community that sees day schools as a way of training the next generation of Jewish leaders. What lessons do we teach when we put  tuition out of reach of a large segment of the Jewish population, and stand against rather than with our teachers who educate these future leaders?

It is important for the community as a whole, and communal leaders specifically, to remember that compensating the workers who make the matzot in a dignified manner is as important a mitzvah as eating the matzah itself.

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