From the Archive: When Jewish teachers unionized

Julie Wiener

A Tel Aviv kindergarten class in the 1930s, a time when Jewish teachers in Israel and at North American Jewish schools were organizing labor unions. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Tel Aviv kindergarten class in the 1930s, a time when Jewish teachers in Israel and at North American Jewish schools were organizing labor unions. (Wikimedia Commons)

The National Labor Relations Board recently dismissed a complaint filed against a Philadelphia Jewish day school whose board unilaterally stopped recognizing the longtime teachers union.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

In its ruling, which the American Federation of Teachers has said it plans to appeal, the NLRB said it lacked jurisdiction over the matter concerning Perelman Jewish Day School, presumably because it is a private religious institution.

Until the latest blow, Perelman’s 38-year-old teachers union was one of the few still remaining in an American Jewish school — in the past few decades and for varying reasons, several such unions have gone out of business. But in the mid 1930s, with unions flourishing throughout the United States (and in British Mandate Palestine, where Hebrew teachers staged a national strike), labor was on the rise in Jewish schools, especially in New York.

In April 1934, New York’s Central Committee of the Hebrew Teachers’ Union held a meeting intended as a “first step in the process of organizing and uniting Hebrew teachers,” JTA reported.

The union claims that the situation existing in Hebrew schools is chaotic; that many of the teachers have not been paid for months, and that the very existence of the Hebrew Schools is endangered.

A month later, four teachers at the Yeshivath Torah M’Zion in Brooklyn declared a strike “and for four and one-half hours each evening are tramping back and forth in front of the school … with placards strung around their necks informing the public that the institution’s Board of Directors is unfair to labor.”

Their demand: $20 weekly including summer months and religious holiday vacation. Believed to be the “first strike in many years involving Hebrew school teachers,” the protest in the Brownsville neighborhood came after a Central Committee of Hebrew Teachers’ Organizations investigation found that “the teachers could be sufficiently well paid for their services from the tuition fees alone.”

Not unlike today in the dispute between Perelman’s board and its teachers, the Brooklyn school’s board preferred to deal with teachers individually rather than with a union:

“We will settle with the teachers,” [board president Abraham Solowitz] informed the Jewish Daily Bulletin on the telephone Friday, “but we will have nothing to do with their union.”

A few days later, the school’s parents “resolved that they would fully support the teachers’ demands” and would “form a parents’ committee to meet with the directors and present their demands.”

A year later, the Central Committee staged a “one-day stoppage” involving more than 1,500 teachers throughout New York. A statement issued by the teachers group noted that teachers with 15 to 20 years of experience “have been forced to teach at a salary of $24 or $20 per week” and that along with direct salary cuts, they have endured forced vacations without pay and salaries withheld for several months.”

The walkout, one organizer explained, “was not directed against any one institution, school, person, or organization. It was held purely for the purpose of arousing public opinion against the conditions under which the Hebrew teachers in this city have been laboring for many years.”

Julie Wiener is JTA’s online editor. Follow her on Twitter @Julie_Wiener