Ethics @ Work: When is a strike not a strike?

If it's truly resignation, then there's nothing anyone can do - Israel does not allow slave labor and no one can be forced to work.

Doctors demo311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Doctors demo311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A months-long work action by physicians in the public health system finally came to an end last week as the Israel Medical Association, which represents the doctors, signed an agreement with the Treasury. It includes pay raises, better working conditions and a promise by the physicians not to take any work action for the next eight years.
But many interns are not satisfied with the agreement. Hundreds of them submitted their resignations, stating that at the agreed-upon pay levels it is not worth their while to stay on as doctors. The government is petitioning the Labor Court to view these resignations as invalid and to compel the interns to go back to work.
Who is right? The legitimacy of the original work action itself can hardly be questioned. One criterion for judging a strike or other work action by a union needs to be judged on whether it involves excessive exploitation of market power (the union is a kind of cartel), or defense against market power (if the employers collude).
In the case of the physicians, their pay and working conditions are not determined by freely competing employers, but rather by strict regulations of the public health system. A physician who is unsatisfied with his working conditions at one employer can’t merely threaten to leave to work for someone else; the public health system is united against him. The only recourse left in such a case is a strike.
But the interns’ action is something else entirely. If it is truly a resignation, then there is nothing anyone can do. The State of Israel does not allow slave labor, and no one can be made to work against their will (except through the army draft). Any doctor must abide by the conditions of the collective bargaining agreement, but no one can be compelled to be a doctor! If on the other hand it is not a true resignation, then it is certainly subject to the jurisdiction of the Labor Court. The physicians belong to a recognized union and thereby authorize it to bargain on their behalf. Striking despite the existence of an authorized agreement would constitute a “wildcat strike,” which the Labor Court is likely to view with a jaundiced eye.
In favor of the government’s position it could be pointed out that the resignations were submitted in an organized and centralized fashion: collectively composed and deposited with a lawyer to be submitted according to a centralized directive. That doesn’t sound like a bunch of individuals who separately and individually decided that a career in medicine is just not for them; it sounds like a work action meant to pressure the employer into yielding to workers’ demands.
However, I think ultimately the government’s position is difficult to maintain. There are two considerations involved.
One is distinguishing among interns. Among the hundreds of resignation letters, perhaps 90 percent are from interns who do want to stay on as physicians but want to bargain for better terms.

But probably at least a few dozen took a good look at the collective bargaining agreement, examined their earnings prospects for the coming eight years and truly decided that medicine is not for them. Certainly it was eye-opening for the public to see how little doctors earn; many of them could likely make much more elsewhere. A corvee of a dozen doctors may be better than one of hundreds, but it is ethically problematic nonetheless.
More fundamentally, a threat to resign is essentially different than a threat to go on strike. Even if it is coordinated, it is by its nature not a work action, but rather an end-of-work action. Beyond the last resort of a strike there must always be the ultimate last resort of resignation. Unless a court determines that the resignations are actually technically invalid, I see no way for the Labor Court to assert its authority over the resigning interns.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).