Labor rights and human rights

If physicians are not offered a wage that they consider worthwhile, they will ultimately not continue to work.

National Labor Court discussion of medical residents resigna (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
My 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 discuss.
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 therefore illegal.
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 hired.”
2. In practice, the court wrote, that if the interns refused to report to work they would be considered as in “abandonment of employment.”
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.
3. 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.
In this 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 employer.
Israelis, like citizens of other democratic countries, have basic legal rights which are enforced by the courts.
Israeli employees 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.
If 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.