The doctors’ strike: There is a better way

If we're prepared to learn from experience of other countries, there's better way than suffering periodic disruption of public services.

Doctors demo311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Doctors demo311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
That the current doctors’ strike enjoys a measure of public support despite being deprived of sorely needed medical attention indicates a sympathetic understanding of their cause. A discerning public understands not only the unfairness of the low salaries that doctors in the public service are paid, but that the best interests of patients are adversely affected when physicians and nurses are required to work abnormally long hours while being so grossly underpaid.
In the main, the striking doctors are uncomfortable about the situation, and it is to their credit that they have tried to cope with their ethical dilemma by restricting their protests to limited sanctions since early April. It was not until June 20, after intensive talks failed, that they announced the open ended general strike (which remains unresolved at the time of writing), compounded by more than 1,000 resident doctors handing in letters of resignation.
Yet, if we are prepared to learn from the experience of other countries, there is a better way than suffering periodic disruption of health and other essential public services.
For example in 2002, when a nurses’ strike in Norway was considered threatening to national health, the government announced that it would pass compulsory arbitration legislation, resulting in an immediate resolution of what had seemingly been an irreconcilable dispute.
It is perfectly feasible to establish a system that will ensure that, by mediation and arbitration, collective wage agreements can be settled in a manner that respects the rights of workers without weakening the bargaining position of either party, while at the same time avoiding the risk of depriving the public of essential services.
What I suggest is the immediate introduction of legislation requiring compulsory labor arbitration whenever a strike is threatened in any sector that provides essential services. An agreement imposed by an arbitrator that both parties can live with – even if not considered ideal by either – is obviously better than one arrived at under coercion of a strike.
The concept is not unfamiliar in Israel. In fact, a private petition has been presented to the High Court by the state asking the court to order binding arbitration between the Treasury and the doctors as, according to the petition, the chances of reaching a deal otherwise is “near zero.”
OVER THE years the Knesset has considered (but rejected) several compulsory arbitration bills. Interestingly, the Likud included an undertaking to introduce compulsory arbitration in its 1976 election manifesto, but sadly, no concrete steps have been taken.
The present situation, in which union leaders can order a strike without consulting their members, is undemocratic. We don’t know whether the majority of grassroots members understand the reasons for the strike, nor whether they agree. An essential requirement before any strike can be called should be a secret vote by union members.
If they agree, then the next step should be non-binding mediation. If mediation fails, the next step must be binding arbitration. Certainly, there will be difficulty in selecting an arbitrator or arbitrators, but it is not insuperable.
Each party chooses an arbitrator in whom it has complete confidence. The two arbitrators may then select an umpire to resolve any disagreements between their positions or recommendations of the arbitrators.
Looking at what happens elsewhere, we find, for example, that Southern Korean labor law makes special provisions for ensuring the continuity of public services. Specifically, any form of industrial action affecting essential services may not take place before prescribed steps have been taken, including mediation and arbitration.
In Ontario, Canada, the Labor Relations Act requires that labor disputes in hospitals and homes for the aged be settled by binding arbitration, and it is interesting that the definition of “hospital” includes a laundry or power plant operated for one or more hospitals. Two other Canadian provinces – Alberta and Prince Edward Island – have legislation prohibiting the right to strike in the healthcare sector entirely. In Alberta, the government may also declare a public emergency when a strike (or the possibility of a strike) puts the health and safety of the public at risk, and the parties may be forced to binding arbitration.
Many more examples can be cited of the successful application of compulsory arbitration in settling labor disputes.
The writer is a commentator on current affairs. His website is