The answer to school strikes is baseball - opinion

In baseball, what often happens is that with arbitration looming, the two sides get close enough to come to an agreement, and arbitration is avoided altogether.

 YAFFA BEN DAVID, head of the Teachers Union, leaves the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem after negotiations, yesterday.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
YAFFA BEN DAVID, head of the Teachers Union, leaves the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem after negotiations, yesterday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

So after driving everyone crazy for weeks, sending parents and teachers alike scurrying in all directions to make military-grade contingency plans for a strike or no strike – the Israel Teachers Union and the government have agreed on a deal to keep folks off the picket lines for a couple of years.

Terrific. That’s plenty of time to implement a revolutionary approach to preventing strikes not only by teachers but also by doctors and other public service employees.

Spoiler alert – the solution comes from the world of sports. But even if you hate sports, this one is for you, too.

Batter up.

Baseball is a sport that originated in the US and is now played in many countries in the world. If you didn’t grow up with it, chances are you don’t understand/can’t stand it. That’s OK. The solution to teachers’, and doctors’ strikes isn’t found on the playing field, so you don’t have to learn a whole book full of rules and regulations, much less the unwritten rules (we might call them “oral law”) like, don’t run across the pitcher’s mound, don’t flip your bat after hitting a home run, don’t look back at the catcher. So you get a break there.

 Illustrative photo of a baseball.  (credit: Courtesy) Illustrative photo of a baseball. (credit: Courtesy)

Where you need to look is in the lawyers’ offices, the ones representing the players, the teams and the league. And not even during the summer, when the games are played. Well, now they’re played from spring through early winter, when it’s sometimes too cold to play the game outdoors – but that’s an inside-baseball problem that we’re not dealing with here.

Players are under contract to their teams. When the contract runs out, the player is free to negotiate a new contract with any team that wants him. (I’ll be using masculine pronouns here, folks, because at least for now, there are no women players in Major League Baseball. I hope you can forgive me this transgression for the sake of clarity.)

Often before a contract expires, there is a period of arbitration.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The nitty gritty of arbitration 

Arbitration is nothing new. Disputing parties can elect to put their case before an arbitrator. There are two types of arbitration – compulsory and advisory. In the first case, the arbitrator’s ruling is final. In the second, it’s just another stage in the negotiating process.

Arbitration hasn’t worked well in many cases because the warring sides tend to exaggerate their claims and offers before handing them over to the arbitrator. The expectation is that the arbitrator will pick a middle position between the two.

Then along comes baseball and revolutionizes the whole concept of arbitration, and here’s where it gets interesting (just in case the ins and outs of professional baseball haven’t riveted your attention and captured your imagination just yet).

If a player and his team can’t agree on a salary figure, they hand their final offers over to compulsory arbitration. So far that’s pretty standard.

Then the arbitrator chooses one or the other.

Wait, what? One or the other? No compromise? How does that even work?

Pretty well, it turns out. The two sides have an incentive to fit their offers and demands into a reasonable ballpark, so to speak. If the team offers $10 and the player demands $100,000, the arbitrator will choose the player. If the team offers $1m. and the player demands $650m., the arbitrator will choose the team.

So what often happens is that with arbitration looming, the two sides get close enough to come to an agreement, and arbitration is avoided altogether.

Sports moves in the public sector

THIS TRANSFERS easily to public employees, like teachers and doctors. When they strike, they’re harming neither their employers nor the government. They’re harming us, the citizens. So strikes in the public sector are clearly not a proper tool for these conflicts. Arbitration fits better.

Here’s how arbitration in the public sector would work: The government sets a target date for a negotiated agreement, and if an agreement is not reached, then it goes to compulsory arbitration, baseball-style. Either this offer or that one. No compromise.

Sure, there are lots of pitfalls. For instance, who’s the arbitrator? OK, each side picks an expert, and the president of the Supreme Court picks a name of one of the other Supreme Court justices out of a hat. He or she becomes the arbitrator, working with the experts. The selection is done in public. No tricks. No politics.

Fearing that the arbitrator might be pro-government or, conversely, pro-worker, the two sides whittle down their positions to their most reasonable. At that point they can submit to the arbitration process – or just settle it among themselves. No harm, no foul (sorry).

Of course unions would scream that this undercuts their power. In a way, it does, if their power is defined by the ability to shut down the system. If it’s defined by getting the best possible deal for their members, then no, it doesn’t diminish their power – it increases it.

Baseball players heading for arbitration complain that to make their point, their teams come up with all kinds of statistics to try to show that the player isn’t worth so much. Likewise, teams claim the players cook the books to make their cases stronger. Fine. That’s what the two experts are for in our adaptation – to make the cases to the arbitrator, who decides.

It’s important to note that this formula is meant only for the public sector. If a private company and unions want to adopt it because it works and it makes sense, that’s ok, too.

But the goal here is to put an end, once and for all, to the sad saga of the Israel Teachers Union’s bargaining with the Finance Ministry (not the Education Ministry, mind you) up to the 90th minute of the match, threatening to send us all into strike-bound overtime.

Oops, wrong sport. My bad.

The writer has been covering the Middle East since he moved to Israel in 1972. His second book, Why Are We Still Afraid? examines his career and comes to a surprising conclusion.