Opinion: For workers not to be slaves, we need organized labor

Yitzhak Gordon, Chairman of the Jurists Union.
Feb 15, 2023

My late grandparents fought for the right of Jews not to work on Shabbat during the Great Depression in the USA in the thirties. Many Jews in the US were among the founders and activists of the trade unions at the time. They fought for the fundamental rights of workers that today we take for granted: a decent minimum wage, a reasonable number of working hours, healthy and safe working conditions, protection against abuse and arbitrary dismissals, prevention of withholding of wages, and more.

This is an internal and rooted tendency in the Jewish mind and education – to fight against injustices, protect the weak, take care of workers’ rights, and stand against those with power and authority. It is the Torah that brought into the world already thousands of years ago a basic commandment in the relationship between worker and employer: “You shall not oppress a hired hand, the poor and the destitute… on the same day you shall give him his wages” (Deuteronomy 24).

Our situation is better than in the USA of a century ago, but let’s not kid ourselves: even today, workers need someone to protect them and fight for their rights and terms of employment. Between an employer with a lot of money and power and the individual worker, there are huge power gaps that almost automatically invite ignoring of the employee’s needs and demands and violation of his rights and demands by the system. Even high-paid workers who are confident in their status and power in high-tech or any other field can find themselves in an instant alone, injured and without rights, victims of discrimination, thrown into old age, dismissed at will, subject to abuse, or required to work an impossible amount of hours.

The employer is indeed the “owner of the house,” but the workers are not tools, objects, or means of production that he can do with as he pleases. They are human beings. They deserve fair treatment, decent wages, and adequate working conditions. They have a voice, they have needs. They are workers, not slaves.

To guarantee the rights of the individual worker and to bridge the power gap with the employer, the workers are given the fundamental right to organize and band together and to bear and negotiate with the employer about their conditions as a group. Of course, the employer does not consider the individual employee, but when the employees are unionized, he must listen to them and discuss appropriate and fair employment conditions with them. This is the critical role of organized labor and bodies such as the Histadrut, even nowadays.

But for the employer to listen to the unionized workers and not ignore them or replace them, binding rules of the game are required, which create the world of labor relations and balance the power of the employer. The primary tool in this area is the right to strike. This is the ability of the unionized workers to threaten that if the employer does not negotiate fairly, they will shut down the workplace and be protected by the law. Although they will not be paid for the time of the strike, they will not be subject to a lawsuit for it either. MK Simcha Rothman’s bill will seriously damage the right to strike and the ability of workers to fight for their rights. Without this basic tool, the employer will ignore them, fire them and sue them for causing damage, and the workers will be at his mercy. In such a situation, they will not be able to stand up for their rights and demand the basic conditions they deserve.

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