Bringing Labor Courts Back to Center Stage

A committee chaired by former Supreme Court justice Yitzhak Zamir has been evaluating proposals to restructure the labor courts since early last year. One proposal under consideration involves canceling the courts' independent status and bringing them under the control of the Magistrate's Courts.

Zamir has advocated the integration of the labor courts into the general court system in the past. Because of this, MK Haim Katz (Likud) has called upon Zamir to disqualify himself as committee chair. National Labor Court President, Judge Steve Adler, is also concerned about what the committee might recommend.

The elimination of the labor courts' independent status would mean dismantling a decades-old institution that has served as an address for workers, employers, pensioners and those appealing decisions of the National Insurance Institute or pension funds regarding monetary awards or monthly allowances.

For now, it seems that Adler can relax. Any threat to his position would seem to have passed. Public criticism of Adler, backed by a number of employers and which motivated the justice minister to create the committee, seemed to have evaporated. The consensus now is that the Labor Court under Adler and the court's vice president, Judge Elisheva Barak, has played an important role in halting strikes and settling major labor disputes.

In 2003, Uriel Lynn, president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, opened a campaign against the labor courts and Adler. The reason - a number of rulings by a panel of judges headed by Adler that allowed the Histadrut labor federation and strong unions to strike public services.

Adler further aggravated Lynn by saying that manpower agencies were like those who smuggle women into Israel to work as prostitutes. Lynn owns a personnel placement company.

Lynn believed Adler's rulings favored the Histadrut and public-sector workers against employers. Lynn also felt that Adler's remarks about manpower companies crossed a red line. Two of Lynn's friends, Lapid and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, managed to get the Zamir committee appointed.

The threat to Adler's position have now faded into history. This year, Lynn has been appointed to represent employers in the labor courts, and has completely changed his tune regarding Adler.

"Yes, I was outraged that Adler and Barak inserted their ideology into their rulings, which is improper," says Lynn, "but in light of the Labor Court's behavior in 2004, I have much praise for their decisions. The court had the wisdom to create a balance concerning the right to strike in Israel, making it clear that this right is not absolute. This is a different concept.

"I saw this during the port strike last August, which caused immeasurable damage to Israel's foreign trade," continued Lynn. "Adler understood the interests of the economy and ordered the port workers back to work. My opinion was reinforced in September when I saw how Adler halted the last strike organized by Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz - a strike that affected the whole public sector, the banks and the stock exchange. Adler did not allow Peretz to flex his muscles for more than a day. True, in a calculated public relations move Peretz extended the strike for one more day, showing contempt for the public, but that is another story."

Adler can be credited with more than just ending the port strike and stymieing a general strike. He also helped resolve the worst crisis ever in the local authorities. Adler wore down the representatives of the Union of Local Authorities, the treasury and the Histadrut. Time after time Adler summoned them and made them report on meetings they had held, for hours.

When all parties were exhausted, Adler dictated a solution that obligates the local authorities and religious councils to pay their workers' salaries to the last shekel, and to implement recovery programs that will result in 5,000-7,000 layoffs.

On the other troublesome labor front this year - the education system - Adler preserved a balance between the teachers' desire to strike and the needs of the students. Secondary school teachers were allowed to hold a short protest strike, as part of their struggle against layoffs in the wake of Education Ministry budget cuts.

Nor did Adler allow Israel Discount Bank workers to do as they pleased. When workers' sanctions prevented the bank from publishing its second quarter results, reducing the value of the bank's shares, Adler declared, "I have reached the conclusion that the workers' sanctions at Discount are illegal, since they are designed to prevent the sale of the state's controlling stake in the bank. Furthermore, a strike that disrupts stock exchange activity and reduces credibility damages the capital market, and could result in the flight of investors from the exchange and even from the Israeli economy. The strike also infringes on property rights, which are no less important than the freedom to strike."

Adler's balanced approach, which, it seems, judges in the regional labor courts have not yet adopted, brought the Labor Court back to center stage in 2004 during labor disputes that shook the economy. Adler has earned a reputation as someone who is capable ending difficult strikes while creating consensus among both employers and workers' representatives.

Many attorneys, even those who have never been admirers of Adler's methods, say that the Labor Court under his leadership, comprised of professional judges from the ranks of both employees and employers, has proven its value and effectiveness.

Many parties have left Adler's courtroom feeling victorious, but the real victory was usually that of the court, headed by Adler, who does not always rule based on the dry spirit of the law, but rather strives to achieve compromise based on both law and the principles of justice.