The strength of organized labor differs radically from sector to sector. Take Ashdod Port’s workers.

Because 1,300 longshoremen monopolize central and southern Israel’s maritime artery to the world, they are in a unique position to extract demands no matter how much these demands are disconnected from reality or from good economic sense.

And the dockworkers are nobody’s fool. They exploit their position to the hilt.

Just this week it was reported that in accordance with a yet-to-be-signed agreement reached with the government in May, about 140 longshoremen are slated to receive monthly wage hikes of between NIS 3,500 and NIS 5,000. After a 9-percent salary hike just two years ago, the average longshoreman receives a gross monthly salary of NIS 25,000, and some earn as much as NIS 70,000. The average salary in Israel is about NIS 9,000, and the medium salary is much less.

Pay increases enjoyed by the dockworkers at Ashdod over the past few years have been granted with the understanding that the port would gradually lose its monopoly over maritime commerce and be exposed to competition. Dockworkers, however, have jealously guarded their monopoly and have torpedoed reforms that would allow private businesses to run some of the docks at Ashdod.

Similarly, Israel Electric Corporation workers, who are in a position to pull the switch on the nation’s power, and Mekorot workers, who control our water supply, enjoy an average monthly salary of NIS 22,000, among the highest in the public sector. And railway workers, who control one of the most important means of public transportation in the country, just signed a particularly generous work agreement.

Under the circumstances, it was refreshing and encouraging to witness the nation’s nurses reach an agreement with the Treasury after “just” 17 days of labor sanctions.

Unlike the longshoremen or the electric company workers, nurses, faced with the sick or helpless, are unable to stage a full-fledged strike because they realize the immediate, potentially fatal, consequences of such a move.

Besides, most have a high level of sensitivity and compassion that attracted them to the profession in the first place and that makes abandoning patients an anathema.

Nevertheless, the Treasury did not take advantage of the compassion of some 28,000 nurses in the public health system and agreed to the demand for a wage hike of 14%, or NIS 1,100 to NIS 1,600, to their basic monthly salary over the next four-and-a-half years.

Most of the increase will be made in the first year.

We hope the salary hike will improve the sorrowful state of affairs in our nursing profession by attracting more women and men to the field. According to a Health Ministry report released Sunday, there is a significant dearth of nurses, which means those who are on the job are severely overworked and are often forced to be on duty on Shabbat and on holidays and to perform extra shifts and work overtime.

There are just 5.95 nurses per 1,000 Israelis compared to an OECD average of 8.6, according the ministry report, and unless the trend changes, the situation will only get worse: In 2011, just 12.1 Israelis graduated nursing school for every 100,000 residents, compared to an OECD average of 34.4.

The Treasury and Health Ministry officials, including Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, should not have put the nurses through 17 days of degradation.

Nurses’ demands were modest and the labor dispute could have been avoided altogether. Instead, it was disingenuously claimed that reaching a deal right before elections was an impossibility.

But at least the Treasury and the Health Ministry quickly backtracked and prevented even more suffering – for both nurses and for patients forced to postpone non-urgent treatments and operations.

In an environment in which labor disputes are too often solved by force and coercion and the strongest unions exploit their strength, the relatively quick conclusion of the nurses’ strike is proof that things can be done differently.

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