by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
In my rebellious youth, I always supported Trades Unions. The record of how the world, in general, has treated workers is not a good one. Although the first Unions were founded at the end of the eighteenth century, in many ways treatment of workers deteriorated in the West, dramatically, during and after the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.
Employers putting profits above all else, treated workers inhumanely, from child labor to long hours for subsistence pay with no rights or benefits, all under horrific conditions.
Tragedy after tragedy befell workers in mines, factories, foundries, and sweatshops because there was virtually no protection given to them. Troops were sent in to quell protestors and mercenaries such as the notorious Pinkertons were hired by big business to keep strikers and unionists out of factories and intimidate workers.
But unions got stronger, and their cause was helped by tragedies such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan which caused the deaths of 146 Garment workers who died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. Most of the victims were recent Italian and Jewish immigrant women and girls aged 14 to 23. This all gave impetus to legislation designed to improve conditions and workers’ rights. Much of it was spearheaded by Jewish men and women devoted to socialist values. Even so, discrimination in unions was common until well after the Second World War which kept Jews, racial minorities, women, and immigrants out of higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs.
Sadly, whether in religion, politics, sports, or charities, too often good intentions get undermined by selfishness and corruption. The rise of Unions was supposed to protect workers’ rights, but too often they became dens of crime and discrimination themselves. For many Americans, the Labor movement was personified by Jimmy Hoffa. He became an important regional figure in the Teamsters Union and was the boss from 1957 until 1971. It was the largest by membership in the United States, with over 2.3 million members at its peak. But Hoffa became involved with the Mafia. And in 1975 he disappeared, never to be found.
I had an old school friend who, for a while, was remarkably successful in the New York Real Estate construction in the 1980s. He told me that before construction could begin, he had to meet with Union representatives who always brought guns into the meetings and laid them down on his desk to negotiate.
In Britain, much as we were brought up to respect Unions it was clear that they had a negative aspect too. What was called restrictive practices, special limitations, and privileges demanded by Unions often led to waste. They stood in the way of progress by refusing to modernize or support more efficient ways of working. Most notoriously in the docks. The battle to restrain them culminated in Margaret Thatcher’s monumental struggle with the Miners 1984-1985 which proved to be a watershed in reviving the dying British economy.
Unions were and are much more powerful in Europe than in the USA which was one reason the USA succeeded industrially as Europe fell behind. Yet they still play a significant role in the way they use their power to influence policies and spread their ideology that currently includes propagating anti-Zionism and is inimical to Jews. Once upon a time, many Jews were involved in unionism. No longer. And over the years Labor and Unions have declined significantly as working conditions have improved. Overall, union membership rates in the USA have declined steadily over the years, and in 2021, the first year of Biden’s presidency, falling to its 2019 rate. There have recently been signs of increasing interest in organized labor but in the case of Amazon and Starbucks, the campaign to unionize in some branches has been led by local employees rather than big Union organizers. Why? Because many workers no longer trust unions.
I was not surprised when I read that President Biden vowed to be America’s “most pro-union president.” The Unions pour vast sums of money into Democratic politics and have a very powerful voice. Biden has also spoken out regularly about the importance of worker unions. The White House routinely hosts labor leaders for meetings with the president and senior administration officials, and a White House task force led in part by Vice President Harris is preparing policies aimed at increasing union membership and worker power.
This baleful influence is best illustrated by the teachers’ unions (there are several) and their long-running opposition to Charter Schools. Charter Schools are private schools that often make use of redundant state facilities. They are usually more efficient and disciplined and have a far better record of lifting more poor children out of failure. And unlike Union, State schools, they can remove incompetent and criminal teachers and reward excellence. Obama, who supported Charter Schools, once he was elected, capitulated to the Teachers’ Unions.
His government ended up blocking the expansion of Charter Schools where they could.
You might have thought that teachers would want to support the poor and disadvantaged. But no, Union privileges and restrictive practices take priority. Another test case has risen in New York recently. The United Federation of Teachers is suing a new charter high school run by Vertex Academies to prevent its opening. New charters are prohibited in New York City because of a cap imposed by state legislators at the union’s behest. Even though the New York City charter school center reports that 81,000 applicants are competing for 33,000 seats at Charter schools. The result is that pupils often end up in a neighborhood high school which is the very high school they were trying to escape from in the first place.
Most of my blogs are concerned with Jewish religious or political issues. But I care deeply about wider issues too. Education is one of them. I have always emphasized the importance of education as a path toward self-sufficiency and success in life and supported the underprivileged. But when I see politicians block progress and impede moves to improve the lot of the very minorities they pretend to care about, the hypocrisy of it infuriates me. As much as all the other examples I excoriate those who profess a moral or religious superiority but in fact only care about their own interests, power, and pockets. Too many politicians claim they are committed to helping the poor and the underprivileged. But that seems to stop at their office doors. Vested interests be damned.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.