Top American rabbi says religious institute response to union is ‘not kosher’

A prominent American Conservative/Masorti rabbi has sharply condemned one of the movement’s flagship institutions in Israel over the way it has been conducting a labour dispute.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs accuses the Jerusalem-based Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies of breaking Jewish law and acting against the spirit of the Masorti movement in trying to keep some 30 faculty members from striking, the Ha’aretz news site reported today.

New Israeli national union centres outside of Histadrut ambit

The academics at Schechter have recently been organised by a new national union grouping, independent of the Histadrut, the Koach Laovdim – Democratic Workers’ Organization.

Koach Laovdim is one of two new, relatively small independent national trade union centres in Israel outside the ambit of the Histadrut.

The other independent national union centre is WAC Ma’an which has concentrated its union organising work in more blue collar areas.

Koach Laovdim has been particularly successful organising at academic institutions including at Israel’s Open University where in 2009 they organised a major strike.

Schechter’s attack on workers is contrary to Jewish law says one of USA’s most influential Rabbis

“What Schechter is doing is contrary both to Jewish law and to a responsum [religious legal treaty] the ( Masorti) movement accepted and I want Schechter to live up to both of those standards,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the author of “There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition.”

The 35-year-old New Yorker, who was named in Newsweek magazine’s list of America’s 50 most influential rabbis in 2010, is not personally involved in the labour negotiations but said she came to her conclusions after speaking to several Schechter employees.

Workers say bosses tried to styme union action during week-long strike in November

Schechter faculty members staged a week-long warning strike late last month to protest salary cutbacks the institute said was necessary in the wake of the global financial crisis and the 2009 death of its main donor, William Davidson.

Workers say management employed unethical tactics in trying to stymie their unionisation.

While the sides have returned to the negotiating table, workers are not ruling out a possible full strike in the future.

Schechter rejected all charges of unethical behavior, saying its actions were guided solely by concerns for the workers and the institution’s financial capabilities. It says it actually encouraged the workers to organise.

Schechter flagrantly breaking Jewish law regarding unions

But Jacobs says if the workers’ claims are true, Schechter is breaking with a 2008 reponsum she wrote detailing work relationships in the Jewish world, which the Masorti movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved.

“Schechter … is flagrantly breaking Jewish law regarding unions and regarding the policy of its own movement.”

Schechter management said they instituted a general salary reduction in June 2009 to avoid layoffs, as two thirds of their budget comes from donations, according to Eitan Cooper, the institution’s vice president for development.

Senior managers took pay cuts as well, even higher percentages than lower level employees, he said.

But the workers argue these cuts do not level previous salary increases the management received before the financial crisis, so that management is still above the wage of five years ago, while lower level workers now earn the same or less than they did at that time, said Paul Mandel, a senior lecturer at Schechter and one of the leader of the workers committee.

As union drive started management hired a union-buster

The leaders of the workers committee at Schechter say management tried to stymie initial attempts to unionize. “The minute we started [to form a union], the management started deriding us, maligning people who were joining and trying to convince people not to join. Apparently, they saw this as a tremendous threat,” Mandel said.

As the workers of Schechter started to unionize, becoming an official chapter of Koach Laovdim – Democratic Workers’ Organization, the institution’s management hired a consulting firm to conduct labor negotiations on their behalf. According to Mandel, this firm employed “questionable” and “obtrusive techniques of persuasion” and other methods “used by union busting people” in trying to undermine the workers’ resolve.

“The right way to go about such an issue is for the management to say, this is our budget, this is what our values are, this is what we’re trying to accomplish. Now let’s figure out how to accomplish this together,” Jacobs said. “And instead, what [management] did was make a unilateral decision about how they were going to proceed and handed that down, which didn’t make the workers feel accepted at all.”