Labor strikes have become the Israeli national pastime.

It’s only halfway through the second inning, and already things are looking down for team Israel.  It stepped up to the mound, swung and missed a fast ball in the form of a general strike by the Histadrut Labor Federation, the powerful union that predates the state. Strike one.
At the conclusion of the 4-day general strike that saw airport delays and garbage piling up in the streets, it looked like team Israel could make a comeback, but then it got a curve ball from the trains. Strike two. 


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The trains remained shuttered for nearly a full day after the umpire (the Tel Aviv District Labor Court) ruled against its union, but just as they started running again, a group of overwhelmed nurses decided they’d had enough and…strike three! 


If the economy were a game of baseball, Israel would already be out.  Fortunately, the economy follows rules that are slightly more complex than baseball, so Israel still has a fighting chance.


Don’t get me wrong – the causes behind many of the strikes are worthy. The general strike, for example, aimed to equalize conditions for government-hired contract workers, who often do the same level of work as their full-time peers for lower pay, with fewer benefits and with less job security.  The government certainly needs flexibility to hire contract workers for temporary projects, but teachers, cleaners and other employees that go to work at the same job for years on end do not fall into that category; many industrialized countries severely restrict or outlaw altogether such unfair employment practices.


Yet despite all these good reasons, it is absurd that the Histadrut has the power to shut down the entire country over the fate of these workers, about 100,000 people.  In the most recent strike, the Histadrut shut down medical clinics, university administration, trains, banks, cultural institutions including several museums and theaters, the post office and, for several hours, Ben Gurion international airport (which would have been closed longer had the National Labor Court not commanded otherwise).  By the end, Israelis were overwhelmed by the stench of garbage piling up in the streets, short on cash due to empty ATMs and frustrated with the struggle to get to work.


And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: in addition to the trains and nurses that went on strike, the general strike followed a municipal strike in January, a Jerusalem light rail strike before that, and doctors'' strikes in prior months. 


The Ministry of Finance says that every day of general striking costs the economy 2.5 billion NIS (but this figure is self-serving and dubious, given that the average daily GDP of the entire economy last year was only 2.22 billion NIS—strikes are damaging, but they don’t stop the entire economy from running).  But even if it just stops the nearly 1 billion NIS in daily government spending, a strike has serious consequences—numbers aside, it is clear to anyone who could not get to work or pay their bills or send a package that the strike interferes with productivity.


Is this normal?


As it turns out, it’s not.  When compared to other similar countries, Israel spends a disproportionate amount of its time on strike. According to the International Labour Organization, which collects such data, Israel spends more time on strike than any European nation (for which data is available), with the occasional exception of Lithuania.  In terms of days spent striking per 1,000 workers, Israel’s average from 1999-2007 was 390.  In the United States, the number is so low that it is often rounded down to 0.


“The strike was unnecessary,” the Finance Ministry told The Bottom Line, arguing that its positions did not change drastically during the strike. “We have our principles, and we will not change them if it will damage the economy in the long run.” 


That is not necessarily true; striking is an effective tool.  Four days of strike managed to accomplish what months of negotiations failed to.  It is entirely possible that strikes occur so frequently because Israeli labor laws are too permissive, not because the unions are too strong.  But, the scale suggests otherwise—calling a general strike is like using an atom bomb to destroy a tank.  There are other ways of effecting change—lobbying, legislating and of course, narrower strikes. If there is a problem with contract workers, it is the contract workers that should go on strike, not the majority of those maintaining the public infrastructure.  Ultimately, that sort of “targeted strike” would best demonstrate the value of the work performed by, in this case, the contract workers, and ensure that Israel’s economy does not strike out.

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