By Ginger Adams Otis of the NY Daily News

When is it ethical for a Jewish institution to use non-union labor? It’s up for debate.

A renovation of the storied Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan has sparked a heated Rabbinical discourse among students, faculty and alums — all using the Talmud as their guide.

The catalyst was JTS’s decision to make Gilbane Building Co. its general contractor for the massive project in Morningside Heights.

Formerly an all-union shop, Gilbane now uses an “open-shop” model — meaning any company can bid on the parts of the renovation project up for grabs.

That set off a predictably angry response from various unions hoping to scoop up the Gilbane contracts — and also an impassioned reaction from JTS students and grads, who question the ethics of the decision.

“The whole issue of the rights of workers within the Jewish tradition goes to the time of the Talmud. The Conservative movement, which the JTS is a part of, has written about and passed statements in support of workers rights for decades,” said Arieh Lebowitz, of the Jewish Labor Committee.

“We should be respecting the conditions under which things are made, and the traditions between the Jewish community and the labor world should be respected,” he added.

The first phase of JTS’s multi-million dollar overhaul started in May — demolition and debris-clearing — did use union labor, the seminary said.

But where it goes from there is up to Gilbane, as the general contractor.

The new “21st Century Campus” won’t be finished until the fall of 2019. The pricey project was funded by the $96 million sale of some JTS land to private developer Savanna, which plans to build a 32-story condo tower next to the seminary’s old library.

When the renovation is done, JTS will have new dorms, an auditorium and a new library it says will contain one of the world’s largest collections of Judaic and Hebraic books, scrolls and manuscripts.

“The exterior of our new buildings will be brick, but the interior will be filled with Torah study, music, camaraderie, debate, new ideas, and new modalities,” Marc Gary, the executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at JTS, said in a statement when the project was announced.

Once it became clear Gilbane was going to “open-shop” for the bulk of the job, members of Local 46 Metallic Lathers and Reinforcing Ironworkers and Construction and General Building Laborers Local 79 began to hold protests outside the seminary.

They didn’t have any success with JTS leadership, but their plight did strike a chord among current and former seminary students.

Some alumni wrote to JTS to “express our concern regarding the use of non-union workers.”

The note also quoted rabbinical doctrine on how to treat laborers.

“Unions often protect workers against forms of abuse and our tradition recognizes workers rights to organize in order to determine wages and enforce the conditions that they set,” the letter said, quoting from the Talmud tractate Bava Batra.

JTS has responded to the firestorm by holding meetings with its students and other concerned members of the Conservative community.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the JTS rabbinical school, told the Daily News a special safety committee was set up to oversee the project.

He also said there would be union involvement in some if not most of the work.

“Going forward, much will be done by unions. The real question is, does it have to be an exclusive closed shop to meet a religious requirement, or are the requirements broader than that,” said Nevins.

“The bible talks about not depriving workers their wages, or delaying wages, it’s about worker safety, stewardship of the earth and a safe environment,” said Nevins.

“Unions are good at accomplishing these goals, but unions are not the same as these goals,” he added.

But Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights organization and a JTS alum, said she met with the seminary leadership to discuss the issue and still had concerns.

“I think that JTS has every intention of doing the right thing, and the people who are making the decisions are friends and colleagues who have strong values and want to protect the workers. But without a union, the workers really have no protections,” she said.

She noted that JTS had said it would pay a living wage and competitive wages, but stopped short of committing to paying the prevailing wage across the unionized trades.

Also, Gilbane as the main contractor will sign deals with other contractors for specific portions of the work — and those subcontractors might themselves bring in third-party contractors, she added.

“I’m glad JTS has created an anonymous complaint procedure … but in a non-union shop, a worker can be fired for refusing to do something dangerous or even complaining about it,” she noted.

Jacobs said her concerns are rooted in the Talmud and its scripture on workers’ rights.

“There’s a line that says, ‘If you withhold a worker’s wages, it’s like you are taking the worker’s life.’ It recognized people take great risks because they need money,” she said.

She added that Jewish law is extremely clear about protecting laborers, especially low-income ones most vulnerable to exploitation.

“There is a very strong tendency to support workers unionizing and that begins with permission in the Talmud for workers to organize themselves to more modern 21st century rabbinical legal rulings that speak more explicity about unions,” she said. “They are clear that unions are the best way to protect workers from being taken advantage of and paid badly.”

Gilbane has responded to the criticism by pointing to its safety record — noting its never had a fatality on a New York site.

“Gilbane’s overriding focus is on constructing quality buildings across New York with a safe, productive and engaged workforce. We employ both union and non-union labor to meet this objective,” a spokesman said.

“A safety culture is at the heart of every project we undertake and we are proud of our successful efforts to prevent worksite injuries. … Industry leaders have consistently rated Gilbane as one of the safest contractors in the nation,” the spokesman added.

But Local 46 and Local 79 have also pointed out that until recently, Gilbane was an all-union shop — and therefore its clean track-record is due in no small degree to the training and safety practices of the labor trades.

At least 32 hard hats have died over the past two years on New York construction sites, according to union and city officials. The majority of deaths were at non-union sites, according to available data.

Those deaths were remembered Tuesday when hundreds of unionized hard hats took to the streets of Manhattan to follow behind a horse-drawn hearse — a mock funeral procession for their fallen co-workers.

The funeral route traced a series of worksites with a history of unsafe conditions, according to the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York that organized the event. It included two sites run by Gilbane.

Melissa Shetler, an organizer for Local 46, said she welcomed the passionate dialogue swirling around JTS.

“One of our real concerns is the safety of everyone. I’ve had apprentices who’ve had really dangerous experiences on open-shop sites because the person they worked with was not properly trained,” she said.

Another concern, Shetler said, was that open-shops would create a “tiered” pay scale.

“One of the best things about hiring union is that everyone, regardless of race or gender or background, is paid the same amount,” she said.

“This could create a tiered system of higher-paid and lower-paid and higher-skilled and lower-skilled, and that’s just going to undermine the whole system of equality that unions fought to bring about,” Shelter said, as she marched in Tuesday’s procession.

The Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry real estate group that counts Gilbane among its members, issued a scathing statement in response to the unions’ protest event.

“Local 79 and the Building Trades should be ashamed of themselves for pulling this cheap, disrespectful stunt just weeks after the tragic death of a construction worker on a union worksite. It is these disingenuous antics that reveal that Local 79’s argument is not really about safety — it is about politics,” said Joshua Reap, vice president of public affairs for ABC’s Empire State Chapter.

“Three months ago, ABC proposed a comprehensive, ground-up safety plan for the city that would keep construction workers safer while maintaining a fair playing field for workers across the industry,” he said. “Union leaders should step up and join us.”

Story first appeared in the NY Daily News.