Medical mediation

When next clash between a labor union and the Treasury happens, conflict-resolution mediators should be brought in as quickly as possible.

Doctors residents x-ray 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Doctors residents x-ray 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
In August, the union representing well over 20,000 licensed physicians belonging to our fine public health service signed a landmark nine-year labor agreement with the Treasury, after months of bickering that climaxed in a hunger strike by Israel Medical Association Chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman.
However, a group of interns and doctors numbering no more than 800 rebelled against the agreement, claiming that it did little to seriously improve basic work conditions.
The interns and doctors rightly argued that the newly signed agreement did not guarantee a weekly day of rest; did not properly limit the number of marathon shifts interns and doctors were expected to perform every month; and did not provide sufficient financial incentives to entice young doctors away from private medicine and keep them within the public health system.
As these lines are being written, it appears that finally, after three months of battling, the dissident interns and doctors are on the verge of signing an agreement with the Treasury. The apparent resolution of the conflict is largely thanks to the intervention of two mediators: retired Supreme Court justice Prof. Yitzhak Zamir and University of Haifa Law Faculty Prof. Mordechai Mironi.
In mid-November, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch appointed the two men to resolve the dispute between Treasury officials and the interns and doctors.
At the time, Beinisch lashed out at the interns and doctors for walking out of hospitals in direct violation of a National Labor Court injunction.
Nevertheless, Beinisch and the other justices had the eminent wisdom to suggest mediation as a means of solving the dispute.
While the resolution of the conflict is a positive development, the behavior of the rebel interns and doctors, which at times deteriorated into bully tactics, as the Supreme Court noted, sets a disturbing precedent. The interns and doctors rejected an agreement signed by the IMA, their official union representative. Imagine what would happen if every time a labor agreement were signed with a union, say Ashdod Port’s longshoremen, or Ben-Gurion Airport’s air traffic controllers, a breakaway group, representing just a fraction of the unionized workers, would decide that the conditions of the agreement that was reached are not good enough and continue to strike. That is what happened with the rebel interns and doctors.
On the other hand, there is also a potentially positive side to this split. We might be seeing the beginning of the end of the Histadrut labor federation’s monopoly over organized labor and the creation instead of competing labor unions – a common phenomenon in many Western countries.
Based on news reports, while the basic framework of the nine-year agreement signed with the IMA back in August – including its duration – will remain unchanged, the proposed deal with the rebel interns and doctors allows for a reevaluation of the nine-year agreement in 2015. And the rebel interns and doctors will be entitled to independent representation during that reevaluation.
This means that the IMA has ceased to be the sole union representative of physicians. In future negotiations, Treasury officials might be forced to reach separate agreements with different groups of physicians.
There is nothing wrong with this as long as the Treasury knows in advance that it is not signing an agreement with all doctors, just those represented by one of two or more unions.
There is also an important lesson to be learned from this clash between doctors and the Treasury. For months the conflict remained unresolved and, if anything, seemed to go from bad to worse. Treasury officials, exhibiting no small amount of intransigence, adamantly refused to “reopen” the agreement reached with the IMA, while the interns and doctors insisted that the situation, even after the agreement, remained unbearable.
The real turnaround was achieved after the mediators, Mironi and Zamir, got involved. The next clash between a labor union and the Treasury is just a matter of time. When it happens, conflict-resolution mediators should be brought in as quickly as possible instead of wasting months in pointless bickering.