More Than Salaries at Stake in Strike by Israeli Doctors

Israel’s Likud-led government, after little more than a month in office, squared off this week for its first major confrontation with the powerful Labor-dominated trade union movement.

The issue is the Finance Ministry’s cancellation of overtime pay for doctors who work a second shift in operating rooms.

Some 12,000 physicians employed by Kupat Holim, Histadrut’s health care agency, began an open-ended protest strike Sunday. They were joined in a one-day sympathy strike Tuesday by another 12,000 doctors who work for government hospitals or public health clinics.

The public service doctors announced later that they would continue their job action with “rolling sanctions.” The tactic is to shut down public health services in different geographical regions of the country on different days.

A government spokesman accused Histadrut of “cynical use of salary demands for political purposes.”

Finance Minister Yitzhak Moda’i said they were being used for “extraneous and non-economic purposes.”

Histadrut countered that the government was using wage issues to break the backs of the unions.

Health Minister Ehud Olmert justified his cutback of overtime by contending the extra payments to physicians are illegal, because they violate national wage guidelines.

Olmert argued that the second shifts had already achieved their purpose, which was to reduce the severe backlog of patients who had to wait as long as a year for elective surgery.

The doctors retorted that the lines would now return.

UNDERMINING PUBLIC HEALTH?

The overtime pay accounts for about 30 percent of their wages. The Treasury opposed it as a drain on the public purse and a pretext for wage demands in other sectors of the economy.

The workers committees of Israel’s 13 largest enterprises already have warned of strike action if the government continues its “assault” on the country’s wage structure.

“If they use court orders to withdraw salary increases against doctors, they can use court orders against us,” a spokesman for the workers coordinating committee said.

Salaried physicians also accused the Likud government of trying to undermine the entire concept of public health. They cited the recent offer to sell a government hospital without consulting its medical staff.

Another example was the recent granting of licenses to open private hospitals where the well-to-do can have elective surgery for a high price without waiting.

Histadrut charged that Likud has long sought to reduce membership in Kupat Holim, the country’s largest health care agency, which provides free medical care to Histadrut members, who comprise some 80 percent of the work force.

But all physicians fear for their economic future if general health care salaries are reduced. In fact, Likud’s own Leumi sick fund, along with the independent Maccabi and Meuhedet funds, joined the government hospital walk-out Tuesday.

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