Think about it: Organized labor is in the news again

Putting the house of organized labor in order is an important task, but that it should not be done by trying to break the unions.

June 30, 2013 21:57
FOREIGN MINISTRY staff demonstrate near the Knesset, June 26, 2013

Foreign Ministry workers demonstrate 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

The subject of organized labor has occupied a prominent place in the news in Israel in recent months. It has come up in connection with two specific issues. On the one hand we have an enhanced process of unionization in sectors of the economy in which there was previously little or no labor organization, and on the other hand we have strong and well-established unions whose leaders have lost all perspective with regard to how they wield their power.

In the first half of 2013 around 21,000 formally unorganized employees were organized into some 40 new representative bodies, within the framework of the existing labor unions. In the whole of 2012 the figure was 13,000.

This process has taken place in such varied work places as HOT, Yad Vashem, Clal Finances and Burger Ranch, and includes parliamentary assistants in the Knesset and external lecturers in the Tel Aviv- Yaffo Academic College. It results from a meeting of interests of two groups.

On the one hand there are unorganized employees in all sectors whose economic security and future is becoming increasingly shaky in an economic system that is rapidly moving away from the principles of the benevolent welfare state, to those of extreme “survival of the fittest” capitalism.

On the other hand the trade unions, which lost most of the power that they wielded in the first 30 years of Israel’s existence, see the current situation as an opportunity to return some of their pristine glory, and have stormed the arena with zest.

The employers, on the other hand, with the support of the advocates of absolute laissez faire capitalism, are not too enthusiastic about these developments.

As far as they are concerned, they would rather have unorganized employees, to whom they can pay minimal salaries, offer minimal social benefits, and who they can fire at will, than employees backed up by trade unions well versed in the current labor laws and regulations, and eager to open new fronts where these become possible.

However, the uncompromising positions of many employers on the issue of organized labor have boomeranged. On the one hand they have led the Histadrut to initiate more stringent labor laws in the course of the previous Knesset, which inter alia oblige employers to negotiate with new labor representative bodies established in their organizations, and prohibit their barring workplace access to external trade union representatives. On the other hand, it has pushed growing numbers of disgruntled employees to turn to the labor courts.

In January the National Labor Court, headed by its president, Justice Nili Arad, ruled that employees may not harass or monitor employees in an attempt to dissuade them from organizing. The ruling bars employers from using scare tactics or threatening to fire workers for organizing, and even prohibits management publicly criticizing unionizing efforts.

THE SECOND issue that has brought the subject of organized labor to the headlines is that of overpowerful workers’ committees in some of Israel’s public monopolies, such as the ports in Ashdod and Haifa, the Electric Corporation, and the railways.

Two specific stories hit the headlines in recent weeks. The first concerns the Ashdod Port, where the over-powerful chairman of the workers’ committee, Alon Hassan, is able to slow down or totally stop work in the port based on a whim, offers his cronies perks in the most outrageous manner at the public’s expense, and does everything in his power to obstruct the government’s plan to open the ports to private competition.

A recent report by TV Channel 2 brought the situation to a boil when it revealed that in addition to all this, Hassan also owns several companies that offer services to and in the port, which have turned him into a millionaire.

The second story concerns the unilateral decision of the Electric Corporation workers’ committee to refuse to supply electricity to the construction sites of new private electricity generating plants, and all this as part of the struggle against the government’s plan to break the monopoly of the Electric Corporation and open the electricity market to competition.

Over this issue there is much greater public consensus than over the issue of the unionization of non-organized labor. Hardly anyone defends the conduct of the powerful labor committees in the public sector, or the bully tactics of their chairmen.

Where there are differences in approach is over the question of what should be done to mend the situation.

Those who are opposed on principle to organized labor argue that the phenomenon of men like Alon Hassan is a direct consequence of letting trade unions into workplaces. Those who believe in the importance of organized labor argue that the problem is not trade unions and organized labor as such, but rather not confronting manifestations of unacceptable conduct as soon as they appear, and allowing men like Hassan to accumulate power and assets over time without any effort being made to stop them.

The government now seems intent on confronting the issue of the problematic labor committees by means of legislation that will forbid strikes and slowdowns in public monopolies, and introduce mandatory arbitration in cases of disputes between the workers and the government (or its agents) in such workplaces. However, the only way mandatory arbitration can work is if there is good faith between the employers and the workers, and if both sides are truly committed to resolving disputes, rather than using them to gain points in power struggles. Unfortunately, this is not currently the situation.

The government initiative is unlikely to get through the Knesset in its present form, because there are many opponents to the concept of mandatory arbitration, which is seen by them as a means of weakening the employees rather than resolving problems. Opposition to the initiative is also likely to arise from within the coalition benches, since the Likud chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, MK Haim Katz, is also the secretary of the Israel Aircraft Industry workers’ organization.

While the proposed legislation, with appropriate checks and balances, could solve the problem of strikes and other obstructions in the public monopolies, it fails to address the problem of the likes of Alon Hassan. Here the problem is that Hassan’s outrageous conduct is not illegal, but only unethical.

Therefore it is necessary to limit by law the power that chairmen of labor committees are able to accumulate, and the activities that they may carry out with impunity. It might also be worth considering limiting the number of years that anyone can serve as chairman of a labor committee.

In short, what I am saying is that putting the house of organized labor in order is an important task, but that it should not be done by trying to break the unions, and preventing non-unionized employees from organizing. In other words, the baby should not be thrown out together with the bathwater.

The writer is a retired Knesset employee.

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