Universities Ganging Up to Prevent Weizmann Institute Workers Organizing

In an unprecedented move, Tel Aviv University's administration demanded that a university legal clinic stop representing workers seeking to unionize at the Weizmann Institute.

The clinic therefore decided to transfer the case to an outside lawyer, so as not to harm the workers' efforts.

The affair began when workers at the Davidson Institute, which is part of Weizmann, decided to join the Koach La'Ovdim union. The university refused to recognize the union, prompting demonstrations by the workers, at which some were beaten by university guards. One of the demonstrators suffered a broken knee.

Following this incident, the Davidson Institute's chairman, Prof. Haim Harari, wrote to Tel Aviv's rector, Prof. Dan Leviatan, to protest the legal clinic's involvement.

Prof. Israel Bar-Joseph, Weizmann's vice president, said that this was a personal appeal by Harari; the university itself "didn't ask for anything and didn't write anything." But other sources involved in the affair said that Weizmann's president, Prof. Daniel Zajfman, also asked Tel Aviv to order the clinic to drop the case.

The clinic, which was established to provide hands-on experience for law students, published a notice on its Web site saying it had been "pressured" to stop representing the Weizmann workers. "In our view, this pressure constitutes inappropriate interference in academic freedom, infringement on lawyer-client relationships and infringement on the workers' right to organize," it said.

According to the clinic's deputy director, attorney Dori Spivak, the dean of Tel Aviv's law school, Prof. Hanoch Dagan, had rejected Harari's plea and authorized the clinic to continue representing the workers. However, the clinic decided that it was best to drop the case, lest the spat over its involvement distract attention from the main issue - namely, the workers' right to unionize.

A Tel Aviv University spokeswoman said that Leviatan considers it wrong for one university to intervene in another's affairs by siding with workers against the administration, and "as rector, it's his job to express his opinion on academic issues."

According to Prof. Alon Harel of Hebrew University, "this is the first time in the history of the clinics in this country that a university administration has thwarted a clinic's decision to sue another body. This precedent is liable to undermine the autonomy the clinics enjoy."