Doctor walks to national labor court_311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When children fight, Israeli parents often impose a familiar ritual. The warring
kids link their little fingers and say in unison, “brogez brogez, af pa’am”
(fight, never), “sholem sholem, l’olam” (peace forever). The “sholem” may last
for weeks, or for less than 30 seconds.
In Israel’s fractious society,
with left vs. right, religious vs. secular and labor vs. capital, the law courts
are increasingly asked to play the similar role of the responsible adult. This
is especially true in bitter ongoing labor disputes. According to the “World
Competitiveness Yearbook,” Israel ranks second-last in labor relations among 50
countries, with 128 working days per 1,000 inhabitants lost to strikes yearly.
(In contrast, in half of the 50 countries, it was less than five working days).
That’s a total cost of roughly $50 million.
Almost invariably, employers
(usually the Finance Ministry) appeal to the National Labor Court to order
strikers back to work. Regrettably, the Labor Court now appears to be siding
with the employers and with the government, at the expense of workers’
legitimate rights. At this moment, medical residents, women basketball players,
Wolfson Hospital nurses, Ashdod Port workers and the Histadrut labor federation
on behalf of contract workers (see The Report, “The Vulnerable Employee,”
November 21) are battling for their rights.
The Labor Court seems to me
to be unfairly siding against them, in many instances.
Take for instance
the doctors’ strike, which lasted from March through August. The residents are
the backbone of Israel’s hospital medical care and work long shifts for low pay.
They rejected the collective agreement signed last August by the organization
that represents them, the Israel Medical Association, not least because it fails
to address the underlying issues: crowded hospitals, lack of nursing staff and
poor working conditions. In protest, many of the residents resigned. Under Judge
Nili Arad, the Labor Court declared their resignations invalid, saying the mass
resignations were a “collective protest,” calling them a “strike in
Since when in a free country do courts force people to work
against their will? The Finance Ministry says that if every splinter group can
reject a collective bargain signed by their leaders, there will be
But, in my opinion, logic and justice trump legal
Not only do labor problems escalate into strikes, but court
decisions seem to work their way up to the Supreme Court. Arad’s ruling on the
residents went before a three-judge Supreme Court panel. On November 17, Supreme
Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch ruled against the residents, saying, “They
are taking the law into their own hands.”
Frankly, I miss Steve Adler.
Adler was trained at Cornell University’s famed Industrial and Labor Relations
program, under Prof. Harry Katz. He made aliya in 1968 from Flatbush, Brooklyn,
after working for America’s National Labor Relations Board.
He headed the
National Labor Court from 1997 until he retired in November 2010. He was
regarded as tough and fair. He once stopped a teachers’ strike, viewing it as
partially political. But he also ruled frequently on workers’ behalf, including
granting overtime pay to legal interns.
He once said that his best
mediating experience came from raising five sons. Adler was a great listener. He
always treated both sides with respect, listened to their case patiently and led
endless hours and days and nights of collective bargaining, focusing on a fair
Israel’s justice system is adversarial, with prosecutor and
defendant. But the Labor Court was designed differently. It is based on the
German labor court system and seeks justice through compromise.
that compromise, the court must be unbiased, meticulously fair, patient and
respectful. I regret that much of the immense personal capital Adler built up is
being dissipated as the Labor Court becomes increasingly adversarial.
some of the blame must be laid at the feet of the Finance Ministry and its head,
Yuval Steinitz. The Finance Ministry invariably tries to pass society through
the narrow eye of its budgetary needle. It opposed the Histadrut’s fight for
contract workers, because paying those workers fairly would burden the budget.
It opposes the medical residents’ right to quit, I believe for the same reason.
And it frequently uses the Labor Court to squelch legitimate industrial
The problem is getting worse. The economic slowdown I wrote
about earlier in The Report has now reached Israel, hitting tax revenues and
creating a NIS 4 billion ($1.08 billion) budget shortfall.
Ministry will likely fight even harder now against the downtrodden
be fair, Israel has so far avoided the chaos in Greece, Italy, Ireland,
Portugal, and even America, where reckless government spending created a
debt that cannot be repaid.
But fiscal conservatism cannot, must not,
come at the expense of the working poor, the lowest-paid segments of
And the Labor Court must not become a weapon for making this happen.
the wake of the social protest movement, labor is again organizing to
rights. The result often ends up on the doorstep of the Labor Court. Let
court and its head judge respect and protect the fundamental human right
workers to organize and to protest.
The cost of strikes is very high. But
for a free nation, the cost of disenfranchised workers is even higher.The
writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.