Crossing the Line in an Israeli Labor Dispute

The legal battle over a union at Pelephone pitted the scions of two venerable Israeli families with distinguished social activism records against each other.

Pelephone is set to become the first Israeli cellular service provider that is a union shop, with the imminent signing of a collective labor agreement at the company. Buckets of bad blood were shed by both sides during the bitter battle over worker representation, in which the sides were represented by two renowned labor lawyers, both scions of families with distinguished records in social activism.

Representing the Histadrut labor federation and the nascent Pelephone workers' committee, Orna Lin – owner of the Orna Lin & Co. law office – is the daughter of former MK Amnon Linn and granddaughter of legendary Haifa mayor and labor organizer Abba Hushi. Taking the side of management, Sigal Pa'il, a partner at Asher Heled & Co. law offices, is the daughter of former radical left-wing MK Meir Pa'il. Both have stinging comments to make about the dispute.

Pail: "The lines were crossed by everyone at Pelephone. The exploitation of Pelephone customers by organizers, personal incitement on Facebook and demonstrations targeting managers and lawyers and the placing of a giant inflatable rat (a worldwide symbol depicting labor scabs) under my office window went too far. I've never seen such a dirty campaign. Under these circumstances, management – which took a beating and wasn't given the chance to deal properly with labor organizing in its back yard – also didn't behave calmly."

Lin: "Pelephone management, which didn't pass up any opportunity to shatter the efforts by the workers to organize, exceeded all bounds in its brutality. And Sigal knows that this behavior … is what thrust the events at Pelephone into the center of public attention. This behavior is what induced the Histradrut to stand so steadfastly at the side of the workers.

"With respect to blatant acts by workers, like displaying the inflatable rat, it must be understood that labor organizing initially needs to be aggressive. It isn't realistic to start out by sitting with management over coffee and cake because such things don't go smoothly at the initial stages. Organizing activity always starts out covertly, until the activists attain the signatures of at least a third of company employees in order to achieve recognition as required by law. Pelephone management crossed a red line … by calling the Histadrut a 'political cancer.' "

Pa'il: "Orna ignores the fact that the workers' organization can't declare itself as a representative without providing management with the workers' signatures. Just as Orna claims that every outbreak of organizing activity is tough, I would say that when one-third of the workers want to affect the destinies of the other two-thirds, it isn't a trifling matter. The Histadrut, without presenting registration forms, decided to declare 'we're here.' True, management isn't entitled to forcibly thwart the organizing of workers, but let's understand that this is a cellular company operating in an aggressive market in which none of the other companies is organized."

TheMarker: Attorney Pa'il, despite your background, you mostly represent employers and always appear in court cases against the Histradrut.

Pa'il: "It's true that I represent several employers, including Pelephone and Ynet, but when I appear against the Histadrut I am actually representing the side of the workers, as with, for example, the former workers' committee of El Al in its battle against the Histadrut and management, the Secondary Schools Teachers Organization, the water authority workers, and the workers' committee of Israeli Educational Television. I represented the railway workers' committee pro bono to protect it from attack. I'm not against the Histadrut; It's the home I grew up in. I consider it something sacred, but it's mistaken in its approach to workers' committees that are often forced to contend with it, rather than contending with the employer. This happened at the railway and also at Maman (cargo terminals), where workers battled the Histadrut because of the wage agreement it signed."

TheMarker: The issue of compulsory arbitration is now on the table, at least as far as the government is concerned. Can this serve as an effective tool for avoiding labor strikes?

Lin: "Compulsory arbitration is meant for nothing but applying pressure on workers not to stand in the way of reforms. It's a way to threaten the Histadrut into behaving nicely – otherwise the reforms will be passed without it. The moment the compulsory arbitration law is applied on services deemed as 'essential,' like the ports or Israel Electric Corporation, and prevents strikes from occurring there, it will be expanded to weaker workplaces. This means the elimination of the right to strike in Israel."

Pa'il: "I also see a danger in it. A responsibly acting workers’ organization sometimes needs to use the strike weapon to redraw positions. Strikes are part of democracy."

Lin: "If compulsory arbitration replaces the right to strike, the government will do all it can to extend arbitration endlessly. The best arbitrator I know is the labor court. In every case where the court judges acted as arbitrators in disputes between workers and employers, they brought about a speedy end to the dispute or an end to the strike."

TheMarker: But employers don't consider the labor court as being objective and believe it is biased against them and in favor of the workers.

Pa'il: "Except in the instance of Pelephone, where the National Labor Court issued a ruling against the employer, in all other instances it depends on the case and on the judge."

Lin: "The only one accusing the labor court of bias in favor of workers is (Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce president) Uriel Lynn. I don't agree with his claim. The employer is several times as strong as the worker and interprets this the wrong way, and then the labor court comes in and works to narrow this gap. But the labor court also imposes restrictions on workers' organizations and has developed a rule whereby the obligation of acting in good faith is also imposed on workers' organizations in their dealings with the employer – when declaring a strike, for example.

"The obligation of acting in good faith used to be applied only to the employer. The right to strike is also subject today to moderation. You can't go wild and strike whenever you feel like it. So, in the case of the electric company workers who disconnected a power plant from the flow of electricity, the court ordered them to connect the power plant as long as negotiations were being conducted with them over company reform – and only in the absence of negotiations would they be permitted to disconnect it again."

Pa'il: "I don’t agree with Orna's statement that there's a power gap in favor of employers. This was perhaps true until recent years, but today, when the new tools are Facebook, laptops, and smartphones, the employer's power has weakened because he can no longer abuse employees without it becoming known to all at the same moment. After all, you can't operate in the shadows today, as everything gets exposed. Unlike Orna, I am convinced that labor relations have changed – to the workers' advantage."

Tomer Appelbaum
Daniel Bar-On