Culture, Global, Justice, Politics

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.
Update: Yesterday’s Jewish Exponent published this letter from the President of AFT Pennsylvania.

7 thoughts on “Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

  1. I heard from a friend that teaches there that Schechter in Newton, MA just busted their union as well.

  2. De-unionization, including of education, is a growing trend at every level, public and private. I’m supportive of the principle of collective bargaining and employee protections, but I also have witnessed first hand the use and abuse of power by educational unions with little regard for children or teaching. It would be helpful if the unions themselves led educational reform, instead of mismanaging their authority and responsibility, while relegating outrageous growth in costs to taxpayers.
    In Milwaukee, for example, it was not at all uncommon in the past decade for the public school system to increase their budget by 15% per year! That’s more than a 30% increase in 2 years, because the costs are cumulative. All the while closing down schools because of falling enrollment. These vast expenditures did not reflect on educational outcomes, graduation rates, etc. The county administrators were (and are) in the teachers’ union’s pocket, and are often elected from within union ranks. It was union people arguing with union people over how much to raise the tax levy for schools. And if the money all went “for the children”, it would be one thing, but it rarely does. The biggest budget growth in Milwaukee public schools over the last decade was in administration. How many secretaries and consultants does administration need? It’s pure cronyism.

  3. As education costs go up, educators themselves are feeling the squeeze. In higher ed, for example, adjunct and contingent professors teach the majority of classes, but are left waiting semester to semester for their next contract. They’re also not paid a middle-class salary and often receive sucky benefits.
    At my own alma mater, Seattle University, I’m helping former classmates who’ve returned to the school to unionize. They wanted to teach there out of deep love of it’s Jesuit social justice tradition — the very thing that brought us all there as undergrads. The administration is similarly using their exemption as a religious institution to argue they are exempt from union law.
    This use of religious exemptions to oppose collective bargaining strikes me as abusive of the intended purpose of that exemption.

  4. KFJ,
    Is it really such a simple formulation? Your efforts to unionize the adjunct/associate professors, and thus increase their salary and benefits will lead to additional costs that, at a time of falling state and federal subsidies, which have their own dynamics, mean ever-higher student tuition. Ten years ago, I was paying about $3000/semester for undergrad tuition, which I was able to manage on a part time job. Since then, the same tuition at the same school for the same credit load is more than $5000. I could not have managed that working part time.
    I’m not against these adjunct professors earning a living wage. I do wonder how broad a view you take in thinking through the costs of the changes you seek to advance, and who is going to bear that burden.
    And that goes for the article as well. At every Jewish school I’ve been to, there are a certain number of students on full or partial scholarships based on need, and a certain number paying tuition that is already, well, insane – $20-40k out of pocket, per year, per child. I’ve never seen a fiscally comfortable Jewish school’ everyone is struggling. I fully understand why the schools are doing everything they can to hold their budgets together. Whatever additional costs there are will be shifted to tuition, perhaps pricing more families out of Jewish education.
    Everyone wants theirs – the students, the teachers, the administrators, the unions… These are unsustainable trends. Is anyone doing any thinking about how to control or even lower these cost curves long term? I actually asked a very similar question to a friend who is involved in local Dem politics and is working on efforts to eliminate state funding for private schools in Wisconsin, which is a big cause celebre for WEAC here. His response was, “that’s not our problem”.
    Well, I guess it’s my problem, and my money doesn’t grow on trees either.

  5. @Victor – factors driving the cost of University tuition:
    1 – Universities are in a pissing match with each other to see who can have the nicest shiny new toys (classroom buildings, dorms, fitness centers).
    2 – There are MANY more middle managers (deans and assistant deans) at Universities than there were in the past. The actual number of full time professors at schools has remained fairly stable but the number of staff has grown.
    3 – Easy money; there are so many students willing to take out ridiculous loans in order to “afford” college that there is no cap on how much schools can charge.
    If unions are driving costs up in any way their contribution pales in comparison to the above factors.

  6. Victor,
    Your questions are good. The issue it seems to me is that the answer usually ends up being that we pay the teachers (and the support staff) less. Rather than this way of thinking, it should be a requirement that when a school does its capital campaign there should be a line for salaries. It is always harder to raise money for salaries (or other expenses) than for brick and mortar, so there should be a more thoughtful way of doing it. If you want your name on the building, there has got to be a plan to pay teachers good salaries.
    The tuition rates of most Jewish day schools (except for the right wing Orthodox schools) supposes that the community going there is upper middle class and upper class. The folks who teach their kids should be treated as being as important as their lawyers or accountants, because they are.
    It is not an excuse that the mission is important. It is true that the mission is important, and the educators are committed to the mission, and therefore the institution has to be committing the resources to fund the mission.

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