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February 1, 2017 8:42 am

What It’s Like When Jerusalem Goes on Strike

avatar by Gidon Ben-zvi

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A Jerusalem light rail train. Photo: Leinad via Wikimedia Commons.

A Jerusalem light rail train. Photo: Leinad via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been a hard week to be a father of young children in Jerusalem. Public day care centers across Israel’s capital have been shut for three days and counting, amid a budgetary standoff between the city and the Israeli Finance Ministry over unpaid wages.

Earlier in the month, the Histadrut labor federation also declared a one-day bus strike in Jerusalem, over a wage dispute between workers and management at the Egged bus company.

And let’s not forget about the growing, stinking piles of trash dotting the Jerusalem landscape. You guessed it: A strike has resulted in garbage across the city being uncollected, blocking roads and disrupting the local light rail service.

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This latest spasm of public sector labor unrest has unleashed a flurry of WhatsApp messages from confused people who are having trouble keeping up with the fast-breaking developments.

Needless to say, the wave of strikes battering the Holy City raises questions as to the right of groups to strike.

While strikes and slowdowns have declined dramatically in other Western countries over the last three decades, they have only increased — sharply — in Israel. And this has made it more difficult for Israel to compete in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

Israel’s severe labor problems are the result of the country’s highly centralized economy. As noted by Evelyn Gordon, the incentive to strike is much greater in the public sector. Workers in the private sector are much less likely to strike, one reason being that an extensive labor dispute could push a teetering company to close. In the public sector, however, such a fear is baseless. After all, when was the last time you heard about a government ministry or agency closing after failing to turn a profit?

Despite a slate of reforms to transform Israel from a centralized, socialist economy to a competitive market system, the size of the public sector remains among the highest in the West. Moreover, a large portion of the services provided by this sector are monopolistic.

In addition, the power of militant workers committees, who have every incentive to strike, has contributed to the increase in the number of strikes in essential services.

Finally, and quite astonishingly, Gordon points out that there is virtually no direct legal limitations on the right to strike in Israel. For example, countries such as the United States, Canada and Japan have banned strikes outright in key public sector industries, referring all labor disputes to binding arbitration. In Israel, however,”…such a ban exists only in one narrow area of the public sector: the police and other security services,” Gordon writes.

One tried and true way to minimize the damage of labor disputes is to implement binding arbitration, which would ban the vast majority of strikes. Arbitration resolves claims and disputes inexpensively and expeditiously by having them heard entirely by an independent arbitrator. Employees, however, claim that they suffer under arbitration — which they claim is designed to favor employers.

Until the Israeli government takes concrete steps to ensure that public sector disputes cannot cripple the entire economy, fathers like me will continue to live on a razor’s edge — between crunching numbers at work and changing dirty diapers at home.

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