How to Deal with the General Strike Phenomenon?

Ynet Hebrew edition, July 31, 2007

The conclusion of the most recent Histadrut -led general strike reflects a severe Israeli disease: Short-term solutions at the expense of long-term national interests. These short-term solutions have not solved labor disputes, which threaten Israel on a daily basis; they have papered-over the disputes, thus fueling numerous strikes, looming ahead. 


The menace of a general strike has become an Israeli brand, threatening Israel’s trade credibility, eroding its governance capabilities and taxing the Jewish State, economically, diplomatically and security-wise.  The systematic threat of general strike is a by-product of weak and visionless executive and legislature. 

A primary challenge facing Israel’s Cabinet and Knesset is not the resolution of a specific labor problem, but the formulation of a long-term, systemic, legislative solution, which would impose steep penalties upon violators of agreements, would minimize reckless abuse of the right to strike and would entice genuine labor-management negotiation. 


Why would labor unions conduct genuine negotiations if general strikes prove to be a most effective tool to achieve their aims?! The frequent use of general strikes, as a key tool in settling labor disputes in a particular sector of Israel’s economy, has transformed General Strikes into a form of Economic Terrorism.  Just like terrorism, it has been directed deliberately and systematically at the populace, in order to advance the interest of a particular sector.  Just like terrorism, General Strikes aim to undermine the confidence of citizens in the capabilities of their government, while injuring people’s security, income, freedom of movement, vital government services, tourism, and export and import, which constitute a key source of employment and income.   


In 1946, the US faced a similar challenge, as a result of a series of general strikes, which highlighted excessive power by labor unions, while severely taxing the US economy and the well-being of the people.  Consequently, Congress enacted the “Taft-Hartley Act” (Labor-Management Relations Act), overriding President Truman’s veto.  The act allows the president to appoint a board of inquiry to investigate labor disputes, whenever the president assesses that a strike would endanger national health or safety.  The president can ask the Attorney General to seek a federal court injunction to block or prevent a strike, and the court can order an end to a strike (by issuing a restraining order), or order the parties to the dispute to refrain from a strike, and attempt to settle their differences within an 80-day cooling-off period.  “Taft-Hartley” also prohibits secondary strikes, sympathy strikes or boycotts, limiting any strike to a particular employer.  It provides the president with the power to maintain order in certain emergency situations, such as a strike which threatens to paralyze an entire industry at the expense of national safety and well being. “Taft-Hartley” created a disincentive to general strikes and an incentive to a genuine negotiation.


US presidents have invoked the act 35 times, averting the wrath of 33 general strike work stoppages.  For example, in October 2002, President Bush requested that the Federal District Court in San Francisco issue a court order halting the lockout of US sea ports, lest they undermine national security and economic recovery. Twenty-nine ports reverted to normal activity following an 11 day strike.


Strong executive and legislature are not driven by short-term solutions to strikes; they initiate legislation, which deter violators of labor-management agreements, encourage genuine negotiation, minimize the need to strike and avert economy-paralyzing general strikes, which terrorize the public at large. They should introduce legislation, which protect the right to strike against a particular employer, but prevent damage to the overall market and the population at large. 


A prerequisite to the passage of such legislation in Israel would be a dramatic overhaul of Israel’s political system, which would highlight the power of the constituents (primarily) and their representatives in the Legislature, constrain the clout of interest groups, demand full accountability (to constituents) by the legislature and by the executive, introduce a US style separation of powers, checks and balances and full independence of the Legislature and would require district-winner-takes-all bicameral elections.   

Only a revolutionary transformation of the current Israeli political system will facilitate long-term policy formulation, improve governance capabilities, enhance Israel’s trade credibility, snatch labor-management relations from its current low ebb, remove the general strike machete from Israel’s neck and upgrade substantially the economy, security and global standing of the Jewish State.