The physicians triumphed over the treasury, maybe even scored a knockout. Labor sanctions, a good PR campaign and the mix of fear and respect we all feel toward doctors added up to a considerable achievement in the face of a weak Finance Ministry and a prime minister who only wants calm.
What we'll remember from this long struggle is "the house cleaner gimmick." Throughout their fight the physicians placed medical residents in the vanguard, arguing that it was outrageous that trainee physicians earn less than cleaners because their hourly wage is listed as NIS 30 on their payslips.
But the claim is a half-truth, because residents' salaries include various payments on top of their basic hourly rates. They receive quadruple or sextuple time for on-call shifts. A resident in an outlying area of the country who earns NIS 18,000 a month will receive NIS 27,000 after the new contract goes into effect (with six on-call shifts a month ). One can argue that the increase was insufficient, but it's a far cry from a cleaning woman.
The victory of the physicians can be viewed through the erosion of the treasury's position. At first Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said he wouldn't give the doctors even a penny more than the general collective bargaining agreement, because they were not a deprived sector. But when the work actions dragged on and pressure on the treasury grew, Finance Ministry wages director Ilan Levin offered a 28 percent increase over the term of an 8-year contract. The doctors demanded more.
Then, after four months of strikes and slowdowns, the treasury upped its offer to 40 percent over nine years. That was something Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman could agree to as a basis for further negotiations. A 17-page contract was hammered out, and both sides were sure the dispute was over.
But on July 20, the residents' revolt began. They said the contract short-changed them, and they submitted resignation letters. They even formed a competing organization and demanded their own representatives to the negotiations. Then senior physicians from the center of the country came out against the agreement, after determining that the hinterland was getting more - at their expense.
Recognizing that the IMA was on the brink of collapse Eidelman stopped the talks, denied the understandings his organization had reached with the treasury and began a hunger strike during which he walked to Jerusalem on foot. His actions restored his leadership position.
Luck was on his side too. The tent protest began, and Steinitz and Netanyahu were eager to strike the physicians' sanctions from the agenda. That's why they agreed to pay the doctors more. The 40 percent became 49 percent, adding NIS 2.7 billion annually to the state budget.
And because Eidelman is an ideological kind of guy, he fought for and obtained 1,000 slots for new doctors and a number of other benefits aimed at healing the long-neglected ills of Israel's public health system.
The bottom line is that everyone should remember that the doctors are not a deprived group. They don't belong to the part of the middle class that can't stretch their salaries to the end of the month and see no future. A rosy future awaits the residents. After four to six years they will be specialists, with the ability to improve their financial situation with additional, private work. It's a privilege that doesn't exist for state-employed engineers, for example.
For that reason the physicians should be satisfied with their new contract. Residents too. Other Israeli workers can't even dream of such pay hikes.
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