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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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