Unions are in the news lately as the financial crisis leads to political pushback against their economic power. The details are complex and beyond my expertise, and I claim no insight into the matter (see here for opinions on both sides: pro, con). I wish to examine here the place for unions in Judaism.
Avram Lyons, a labor activist, declares in a recent essay that “Halacha — Jewish law — is explicit and unequivocal in its support of the rights of workers to organize and be protected in their work” (link). While that is true, a recent study on the subject shows a more nuanced relationship between Jewish law and unions.
R. Dr. Aaron Levine is the doyen of Jewish economics. He has devoted his career to examining the attitude of Jewish law to economic policy. His latest book is The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics, which contains 33 essays on a variety of complex issues of Judaism and economics, written by leading scholars around the world. The list of contributors is so impressive that an editor complained to me there was no one sufficiently competent remaining to review the book, so she had to ask someone incompetent like me.
R. Dani Rapp, Associate Dean of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University and a Dayan at the Beth Din of America (who, if I recall correctly, majored in Economics under R. Levine’s tutelage before going to law school), wrote the book’s article on unions (“The Employee Free Choice Act, Unions, and Unionizing in Jewish Law”). The following is based largely on his excellent treatment.
Trade guilds are ancient and are recognized in the Talmud as authoritative representatives of workers (Bava Basra 8b-9a; Bava Kamma 116b; Tosefta, Bava Metzi’a 11:12). When all members of a trade gather together, they have the authority to negotiate as a block, to coerce new tradesmen to join them and to prevent strike-breakers. But even when a minority unite, they can reach mutual and binding agreements (see commentators to Bava Basra 8b-9a, such as Ramban, Ritva, Nimukei Yosef).
A caveat to this rule is important. The Gemara affords overriding authority to an adam chashuv, a leading Torah scholar. He serves as a public advocate, nullifying a union’s decision if it damages the public by, for example, raising prices above market rates. The public can override union decisions that cause financial harm. In times and places where no adam chashuv no exists, the public can appoint their own oversight board to ensure that unions act responsibly (see Responsa Semikhah Le-Chaim, Choshen Mishpat no. 15 – link).
Judaism supports the right of workers to unionize and bargain collectively, including striking when necessary. However, Judaism also recognizes that unions advocate solely for their members and not for the welfare of the general public. Labor relations boards or other oversight commissions must ensure that unions do not damage the general economy in their zeal to protect their members. And if those oversight committees fail, the public may assert its right to rein in unions to protect the broader community.