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The Jewish Ethicist: Disorganized Labor

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

Is it disloyal for me to leave my union?

Q. As a middle manager in a large company, I'm at the highest level of management still represented by the union. Now top management is trying to persuade everyone at my level to leave the union and sign a personal contract. Is this disloyal to my union comrades? The union has done an excellent job of protecting our rights in the past.

A. Your feelings of loyalty to your union are commendable. Jewish law has acknowledged for millennia the advantages workers can obtain by being organized for mutual benefit. The formal way in which this is recognized in our law is by giving workers' guilds the status of a town or community, thus giving them the authority to make binding internal regulations. (1) So as long as you do remain in the union, you are bound by its rules and at least minimally obligated to advance the interests of the union as a whole.

At the same time, a person who thinks he would have it better in another town is always allowed to move, and by the same token a person is allowed to leave a union too. However, your case has a leniency as well as a stringency compared to just picking up and leaving.

The stringency is that you are not leaving your workplace to start a new career. You're continuing in your same role but now as the rival of your erstwhile union comrades. In some ways this contradicts the very foundation of union solidarity. Otherwise it could be too easy to break up a union by relatively modest management concessions to a seceding minority. (Though of course workers may still decide that in the long term they are better off with union protection.)

The leniency is that you already occupy a management position, and it's clear that at some stage managers and workers really do have conflicting interests. The management level immediately above you is already non-unionized. So there may be a genuine logic to having your level of management identify with those above more than those below on the chain of command. I think everyone accepts that the very top management doesn't belong in the union, and so it becomes a question of where to draw the line.

I think the ethics of this question turn mainly on the motivation for this management strategy. Perhaps this strategy is meant to benefit the shareholders (who may prefer less expenditure on worker salaries) at the expense of the workers. If so, then it's a normal part of the give and take of business. Workers certainly have every right to defend their own interest, while it is management's job to represent the interests of owners. If this is the case, then you are perfectly justified in deciding where your best interest lies. You may want to switch loyalties in accordance with the changed situation; or you may decide that your long-term interest in the continued protection of the union, combined with your gratitude for its past achievements, make you more comfortable remaining an insider.

Another possibility is that management is trying to strengthen itself at the expense of workers and shareholders alike. We mentioned in a previous column (see Exorbitant Execs) that managers don't always act as the loyal agents of shareholders, and they sometimes seek to expand and exploit their power. I view this tactic as beyond the normal and legitimate struggle between employer and worker. If this is your understanding of the situation I think it would be praiseworthy to resist the "divide and conquer" tactics of management.

Whatever you decide for yourself, I recommend being very circumspect in criticizing the decisions of your peers. First of all, the ethical landscape is very ambiguous and you should avoid being overly judgmental; and second of all, you will have to continue to work with these individuals and it is simply imprudent to create unnecessary ill will.

SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, 331:28

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

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