School Boots Teachers’ Union, Fueling A Debate Among Conservative Rabbis

Just days before the start of classes this week, the trustees of a Conservative Jewish day school in suburban Detroit pulled the plug on its teachers’ union.

The controversial move followed an August 16 decision by the State of Michigan Court of Appeals, which said that teachers in religious schools throughout the state do not have the right to unionize. In the wake of the ruling, which came down in response to teachers seeking to unionize at a Catholic high school, the Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit ended recognition of its own long-standing teachers’ union.

“Teachers can decide whether to continue to work at Hillel based on the offers and terms and conditions of employment,” Steven Freedman, head of the school for the past two years, told the Forward.

The decision — which could apply to thousands of teachers in the state, according to some estimates — comes as the Conservative movement’s top lawmaking body prepares to consider a teshuvah, or religious ruling, dealing with unionization and other related employment issues. The author of the proposed ruling, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, told the Forward that her opinion defends the rights of workers to unionize, and that it classifies as an ethical obligation the hiring of unionized workers in industries in which unions exist.

“Workers don’t have a voice anymore if they don’t have the ability to bargain collectively,” said Jacobs, director of outreach and education for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a Chicago-based liberal advocacy group. Members of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards are expected to debate the opinion, starting at the body’s September 21 meeting.

Jacobs criticized the Hillel school’s decision, saying that stories in the Talmud and rabbinic law throughout the centuries can be interpreted as supporting workers’ rights to organize.

“Jewish organizations have an obligation to treat their workers well, and I think unions are ultimately the only way that workers can guarantee that they’ll be treated well,” she said.

But national leaders of the Conservative movement declined to offer an unambiguous endorsement of labor unions. “The crucial aspect of Jewish values in any employer-employee situation is really how employees are treated,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. Robert Abramson, a past head of the Hillel school who now serves as the director of the department of education at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, agreed that rabbinic law requires fairness to employees. But, he added, unions themselves do not necessarily have a “sacred” status. “There were lots of vested interests that came with unions, including individuals’ power,” he said.

Within the general world of American private schools, the Hillel school’s 40-year-old teachers’ union was somewhat of an anomaly: More than 2,000 independent schools exist nationwide, according to a spokesperson of the National Association of Independent Schools, but most are not unionized, including Jewish day schools.

The Hillel school’s 21 board members voted unanimously to end its union August 21, one week before the return of students, and while the faculty was still negotiating a new contract. Teachers initially seemed poised to fight the decision, but by the end of last week they had signed individual personal-services agreements that offered similar terms to the final offer negotiated by the union.

Detroit-area Conservative rabbis discussed the school’s decision at a recent meeting but declined to take a joint position.

Rabbi David Nelson, religious leader of the nearby Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Shalom, told the Forward he had called the teachers to communicate his support. If “you understand Jewish law, you have to have sensitivity toward the working person,” Nelson said. The sages “didn’t earn their living from being rabbis — they had occupations; they were shoemakers.” As a result, he said, “there was genuine awareness that you have to treat [workers] in a beautiful way.”

Freedman, who previously spent 13 years as the director of a synagogue’s religious school in suburban Philadelphia, said that the administration and board of trustees at Hillel will continue to deal with the teachers in a fair and open manner, and to ensure that they remain some of the most highly paid private school teachers in the nation. He defended the board’s decision as in keeping with the ethos of independent schools, which value autonomous decision-making and direct relationships with teachers.

The school has a right “to govern itself — to set its own curriculum, to determine the credentials of its teachers — without outside parties,” Freedman said. “I don’t believe that employees and employers are on equal footing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a voice.” He alluded to the fact that the vast majority of American workers — 92% of private sector employees in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — do not belong to unions.

By the start of school Monday, Freedman said, there had been a “sea change” in the attitudes of the teachers, whom he characterized as “moving on” and “very excited” about the arrival of their students.

But Robin Lash, who had served as head of the teachers’ union, classified the mood as “quite somber” and said that many of her colleagues were still grieving over both the loss of their union and the sense that the board had acted unilaterally and hastily.

The Hillel teachers belonged to the Michigan Federation of Teachers & School Related Personnel. The recent court decision centered on the efforts of teachers at a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers Institute of Michigan to join the other major teachers’ union in the state, the Michigan Education Association.

Many of the terms and conditions of the union contract at the Hillel school — including firing for just cause and the ability to appeal such decisions to an outside arbitrator — were incorporated into a new employee handbook, which the administration and teachers agreed to finalize over the course of the year. But, Lash said, only time will tell how the teachers will fare without their union.

“Part of what a union provides is what I call a system of checks and balances,” she said. “It doesn’t allow an administration to be arbitrary and capricious to employees, and it enlightens employees on the expectations of management.”

The situation still could change, with the Michigan Education Association planning to appeal the recent court decision denying religious schoolteachers the right to unionize. Observers, however, said the decision is unlikely to be overturned by the right-leaning Michigan Supreme Court.

Mark Cousens, general counsel for the Michigan Federation of Teachers, told the Forward that it was not enough for teachers to rely on the good will of religious institutions.

“No religion that I know of has doctrine which includes a salary scale and things like how many hours we teach a day,” Cousens said. “I think what the school doesn’t understand at all is that there is a great deal of dignity in having a mutually satisfactory bilateral relationship.”

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School Boots Teachers’ Union, Fueling A Debate Among Conservative Rabbis

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