Q. What does Judaism say about going on strike?
A. Work is viewed in Judaism as the natural occupation of human beings as well as their dignity and glory. Contrast the Greeks and Romans for whom, as JH Hertz wrote, “idleness was for ages the mark of nobility”. Because work is good for worker, employer and society, said Rabbi David Halevi, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, no-one should too readily resort to strike action and withdrawal from work.
The worker has the duty not to waste the employer’s time or compromise the quality of his work. But Jewish law tends to take the side of the employee; he is not a slave, and even if he wishes to withdraw his labour in the midst of a task it is his right as a free person.
However, there are two qualifications set out in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 6:1-2); a third developed later. The worker must act with responsibility; he is treated severely if he would cause irretrievable loss by his action and/or if the work is urgent and cannot be left uncompleted. Secondly, if the worker is not a wage-earner paid for his time but a contractor paid for the job, he cannot withdraw without a penalty. Thirdly, if a contract governs his employment he has a personal commitment and cannot automatically withdraw his services.
In a dispute in relation to whether the employer has fulfilled the conditions of employment, the parties must go to arbitration. Only if the employer refuses to go to or abide by the arbitration may the employee strike.
What about strike action by teachers? The particular concern of the halachah is with Torah teachers, because they are not ordinary workers and their profession is not ordinary employment: they are carrying out God’s work and their withdrawal would diminish the Torah and jeopardise their pupils’ souls. The principle is that what they are doing is a mitzvah and they are not paid for the mitzvah but to compensate them for now having no time available to earn a living in another trade or profession.
Hence, a Torah teacher may not go on strike and must find another way of drawing attention to a grievance. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein suggests that in an extreme situation there may be a brief work stoppage in order to exert some pressure. He argues that financial stress or anxiety may affect a teacher’s work, and his/her fulfilment of the mitzvah of teaching Torah may suffer for lack of peace of mind.