Israel's National Labor Court Tells Employers: Don't Interfere With Unions

Sweeping decision bars management from exerting any sort of pressure on workers; employer representatives say they're being silenced, will appeal to Supreme Court.

In a major development in the law on workers' rights to unionize, the National Labor Court has ruled that employers cannot interfere, directly or indirectly, with employees' initial attempts to organize.

Wednesday's ruling came in a complaint filed by the Histadrut labor federation against Pelephone, which has refused to recognize a workers' local organized through the Histadrut. The cellular service provider claims that not enough employees have signed on as union members to give the local official status.

A panel of judges headed by court president Nili Arad said that Pelephone, a Bezeq subsidiary, must not try to foil organizing efforts or influence the workers' decision on joining the union. The court also barred employers from taking any action that might curb workers' right to organize.

The wide-ranging decision set standards that go well beyond the Pelephone case. The National Labor Court decision came in an appeal by the Histadrut of a lower labor court decision. Among the practices barred by the national court are employers' attempts to contact or meet with workers about their union organizing efforts, or to track such activities.

In the lower court, Pelephone was criticized for some of its actions in response to the unionization effort, but the court called on both sides to negotiate a solution.

Pelephone' stance is that it recognizes the right of workers to organize, but says employers also have the constitutional right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to express opposition to the workers' moves.

The company was backed by the employers' organizations, which argued that there was nowhere in the world where employers were totally barred from expressing themselves on their employees' bid to unionize. The National Labor Court did not bar employers entirely from speaking out on the matter, but did say such statements would be given more strict scrutiny to ensure they were not a means to improperly foil the workers' organizing efforts. The burden would be on the employer to show otherwise, the court ruled.

The National Labor Court also barred a number of other employers' actions, including the granting of unusual perks to workers due to their membership - or nonmembership - in a union. It also prohibited employers from writing into a worker's contract that he can't be represented by a union. Furthermore, employers were barred from setting up their own unions and expressing a position on rivalries between workers' groups.

Neither can they maintain lists on which employees have joined the union, intimidate workers who have joined, or seek to fire employees for organizing. Employers were likewise prohibited from giving preferential or discriminatory treatment to a worker depending on whether or not he joined a union.

Pelephone lawyer Asher Heled said in response: "At a time when the Supreme Court is permitting political expression that even prompts revulsion, this [National Labor Court] decision is made, ruling that the opinion of the employer cannot be heard." Heled said he expected employer organizations to appeal the National Labor Court ruling to the Supreme Court.

However, Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini said of the decision: "I am sure that the court ruling will bring about additional organizing efforts by workers in all sectors of the economy, and the workers will be the ones to decide on their own futures, without pressure from employers. I call on all of the workers in Israel to take your fate into your own hands. Organize without fear, because that's the way to improve your condition."

David Bachar