Essential services

Does the sudden shut-down of a health fund constitute a strike in an essential service?

May 25, 2013 22:51
3 minute read.
Rambam Hospital

RambamHospital_210513_A. (photo credit: Rambam Hospital)

Does the sudden shut-down of a health fund constitute a strike in an essential service? This is a legitimate subject of debate. Patients of the small Kupat Holim Meuhedet had no warning when they found the clinics closed one morning last week.

To them this looked like a wildcat strike in an essential service, although in strictly legalistic terms this is moot because a work dispute had been declared and life-saving functions were not discontinued.

On the face of it, the union complied with the obligatory relevant strictures before launching its one-day warning strike, except to inform those who depend on Meuhedet’s services and except for being minimally fair to the acting director-general, Zev Wurmbrand, who was installed in office only two work days beforehand.

Specifics and legal technicalities aside, this hardly noticeable little episode illustrates yet again the alacrity to strike, to flex muscles and to punish members of the public who had made plans and appointments. The crueler the effects are on ordinary folks caught in the middle, the more potent the strike weapon. In other words, the more a given union is able to hold the citizenry to ransom, the greater its clout and bargaining power.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid is pushing legislation that is geared to spare us from some of the worst outrages – as long, of course, as the unions obey the law. Last year, railroad employees brazenly defied back-to-work court orders.

The pending bill, an amendment to existing legislation, would prohibit strikes at airports (such as the one that last April paralyzed Ben-Gurion Airport and left helpless passengers stranded), the Israel Electric Corporation, the seaports and elsewhere.

The legislation would require workers to submit to arbitration. Strikes would not be tolerated to press for pay hikes, or to protest projected reforms, restructuring or privatization. Strike action would be allowed only in cases in which wages had been withheld.

Unsurprisingly, the very suggestion that strikes might be banned in given services sufficed to raise a hue and cry about curtailing the right to organize and bargain collectively in the workplace.

The truth, however, is that such limitations already exist – i.e. in the IDF, police and other security forces.

What is self-evident for soldiers and cops, ought to be just as self-evident in other essential services, where the workforce possesses the ability to flick indispensable switches, endanger lives or otherwise wreak havoc and inflict enormous economic damage.

The very threat by the strategically situated few to harm the general population is inherently unconscionable.

There have been legislative attempts to curb the right to strike, but these have by and large gone nowhere.

Such legislation is hardly as unjust as populist politicians make it out to be. Bills of this sort have been adopted in most Western nations, where they made a palpable difference. Britain is a clear case in point. After the Conservatives curtailed the freedom to down tools at the slightest provocation, the economy perked up.

Succeeding Labor governments did not rush to rescind what they realized was a good thing.

In our setting, the Histadrut labor federation, dominated by an oligarchy of the country’s 13 monopolist unions, has for years hardly put the interests of the have-nots at the forefront. It evinced no qualms to sanction strikes by the most powerful unions, which willy-nilly endanger the jobs of the most vulnerable workers.

Omnipotent unions can cripple the economy, threaten to shut down numerous plants, cause mass layoffs, cost Israel valuable foreign markets and lose it credibility, to say nothing of doing incalculable long-term harm. Instead of justly shielding the workers’ legitimate rights, unions with a stranglehold on the rest of us stymie any change by the mere threat of resorting to undisguised intimidation.

Considering the vulnerable state of our economy, sabotage from within cannot be tolerated. Long-overdue restraints on the ability to shut down essential services without warning and without polling all union members should be enacted. It is time ordinary citizens were granted protection from the ambitious whims of union chieftains.

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