National Labor Court discussion of medical residents resigna.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel’s physicians’ union began a strike in March. After months of work
actions, generally responsibly planned to avoid genuine medical hardship, an
agreement was finally signed in August. However, this agreement did not satisfy
many doctors, in particular hundreds of interns. They concluded that under the
conditions of the new contract, it did not pay them to continue working as
physicians in Israel and collectively submitted their resignations – following
all legal and contractual requirements including the content of the letter,
notice period, etc.
The state appealed to the National Labor Court to
have this resignation deemed invalid as a collective work action rather than as
individual resignation. At that time, I wrote against this appeal.
opposition was two-fold: First of all, it is impossible to judge whether a
resignation is individual or collective.
And secondly, a resignation even
if truly collective should be legitimate. The entire mandate of the labor court
is to adjudicate disputes between employer and employee; as soon as the
relationship is terminated there is nothing more for the court to
To my great disappointment, the Labor Court ruled that the
collectively submitted resignations were indeed invalid. In response, the
resigning physicians submitted individual resignation letters. Amazingly, the
state again appealed to have the letters deemed invalid and collective; even
more amazingly, the Labor Court again viewed this as a collective action and
Here are what I view as some of the more bizarre and
disturbing aspects of the ruling: 1. Exactly what sanctions does the court
consider imposing on these “impostors?” (The court referred to the resignation
as a “strike in disguise.”) The worst sanction that can be made against an
employee is to fire him.
The court seems to gainsay the old saying, “You
can’t quit – you’re fired.” Their take is, “You can’t quit – you’re
2. In practice, the court wrote, that if the interns refused to
report to work they would be considered as in “abandonment of
I looked this term up in an official document and found it
defined as “when an employee fails to attend his or her place of employment on
an ongoing basis without receiving authorization for the absence or providing a
satisfactory explanation for his or her non-attendance.”
Does that sound
like an adequate characterization of a person who announced his intention to
resign weeks in advance, had his resignation cancelled by court order, and then
resigned again? “I’m resigning because I’m not getting enough money to make it
worth my while” sounds like a pretty satisfactory explanation to me.
The ruling turns the normal logic of negotiations on its head. Normally an
employer needs to be concerned that a contract is acceptable to enough employees
to actually enable work to continue. According to the court’s logic, an ideal
contract is one which is so awful that it leads to mass resignation. That way
the resignation will be viewed as a work action and the employees will be
ordered back to work.
It is understandable and even essential that the
Labor Court step in when the right to strike is abused by unions who take unfair
advantage of their legally-protected monopoly power to extract sanctions when
the competitive outcome would be to fire the union workers and hire cheaper
non-union ones. But in the case of the physicians the situation is the opposite:
It is the employer, namely the government, which is taking advantage of its own
monopoly power as regulator and employer of physicians to extract concessions
from them and pay them below market wages. Unlike many unionized workers,
physicians do in fact have unique skills and cannot be replaced.
case, it is not the public that needs protection from the workers, but rather
the workers who need, but did not obtain, protection from their
Israelis, like citizens of other democratic countries, have
basic legal rights which are enforced by the courts.
have some additional “labor rights” such as the right to strike, which are
enforced and regulated by the special Labor Court. But the right to resign is
beyond a labor right and to a large extent even beyond a legal right; it is a
human right. I understand that technically the interns are not being bound to
their place of work in a kind of servitude, but even being declared in
“abandonment of employment” is a kind of a sanction, and sanctions are totally
inappropriate for citizens exercising basic human rights.
I hope that
sanity will eventually be restored to the health system and that the state will
recognize that the cost of its workforce is not determined by the toughness of
the Treasury’s negotiators but rather by the ability of the salaries offered to
attract people who can actually do the job. Negotiations are wonderful but
ultimately the workforce is limited by the laws of supply and demand.
physicians are not offered a wage that they consider worthwhile, they will
ultimately not continue to work no matter what the Treasury, the union or even
the court thinks.