Banning the right to strike

Public-sector workers enjoy more benefits than anyone else yet they also demand the unlimited right to strike, even if it means endangering the population.

high court justices 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
high court justices 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
On December 16, a man was stabbed to death in Tel Aviv. It subsequently emerged that the chief suspect in his murder had been safely behind bars two weeks earlier, having been arrested for another crime. But due to the prosecutors’ strike, he was released: The court would not accede to a police request to keep him in custody unless the prosecution backed it, and thanks to the strike, no prosecutor was present in court to do so.
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This man was far from the only dangerous suspect freed due to the six-week strike. Nor were such releases its only unacceptable consequence. Other suspects remained in jail for additional long weeks while their trials were on hold due to the strike, though they may ultimately be proven innocent. And even purely monetary cases can have life-or-death consequences. For instance, the strike ended just before NIS 95 million confiscated during a probe of an organized crime ring came up for judicial review, and the court might well have returned it - thus enabling it to finance new crimes - had prosecutors not been present to justify its continued retention.
Taxed with such problematic results, prosecutors repeatedly asserted that the right to strike is a basic right which must be upheld no matter how much damage it does. That is nonsense. Even in Israel, this right is limited; the law bars both policemen and career soldiers from striking. And some democracies impose far more sweeping restrictions: The US, Canada and Japan, for instance, bar civil servants in a wide range of key industries from striking. 
What is true, however, is that the prosecutors are models of responsibility compared to unions at other public-sector monopolies. This was their first strike ever, and their demands were generally not unreasonable. Reimbursement for work-related expenses, for instance, is certainly justified. And while the 25% raise they initially sought was excessive, they are right that since prosecutors face off against the country’s top criminal and corporate lawyers, the state must pay enough to keep competent young lawyers from fleeing public service, even though it can’t match top private-sector salaries.
In contrast, strikes at Ben-Gurion Airport are almost annual events, while port strikes, like the one that began this week, erupt every few years. And both these unions generally strike for completely unjustified reasons - like dockworkers demanding more pay when they are already among Israel’s best-paid workers, earning on average three times the nationwide average wage.
Yet these strikes can be no less devastating than the prosecutors’ strike. Since Ben-Gurion is Israel’s only international airport, a strike there severs aerial ties to the outside world, while also severely damaging a major industry: tourism. And since the major ports are all controlled by the same union, a port strike shuts down all of Israel’s commerce with the outside world - a crippling blow for a country where exports account for 35% of gross domestic product.
Nor should we forget monopolies like the Israel Electric Corporation, where strikes are rare because the government kowtows to the union’s every whim rather than risk provoking one. As a result, the IEC has higher wage costs than any other comparable company in the world,  which leave it so perennially short of cash that it can’t finance  construction of vitally needed new power plants. Or the fire services, now preparing for their umpteenth strike of the last several years, even though this clearly endangers public safety.
Public-sector workers enjoy two enormous advantages over their private-sector counterparts. First, they have almost total job security, because union rules make them practically impossible to fire. Second, thanks in part to the unions’ powerful voting blocs in party primaries, they typically manage to wangle raises from the government even during recessions, when private-sector workers often face pay cuts if they are lucky enough to keep their jobs at all. During the deep recession sparked by the second intifada in 2001-03, for instance, the public sector actually grew by 46,000 new workers even as the private sector shed 73,000 jobs. And while private-sector workers saw their paychecks slashed during those years, airport and dock workers won raises of 8% and 10% respectively over a three-year period - well above the inflation rate at that time.
One could certainly question the justice and wisdom of these perks. But one thing is clear: As long as public-sector workers continue to enjoy these extremely valuable benefits, the state is eminently justified in forbidding them to strike in exchange.
It’s high time for Israel to abandon the European model it has followed until now, under which civil servants enjoy a virtually unlimited right to strike, and adopt the model of non-European democracies like the US and Japan. Israel has more than enough other problems to contend with; it does not need to add endless, unjustified public-sector strikes to the list. And unlike so many of its other problems, this one is entirely in its own control.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.