Why Israeli doctors face an uphill wage battle

The effects of Israel's hard-pressed economy are being felt at all levels of the Israeli labor force. The wage dispute that sent Israel's doctors this week literally into the hills reflects, in part, the same economic situation that led last September to the grounding of the country's national airline, El Al, for four months.

A stagnating economy has caused the government to dig in its heels to oppose demands by the Israel Medical Association for doubling the salaries of doctors in public service. The doctors say current salaries are an insult to the profession.

As a result the doctors walked off their jobs and the medical staffs in Israel's hospitals were reduced to skeleton crews equaling about 10 percent of normal staff size.

The government position has been that the Israeli economy cannot afford the increases. Goverment officials point to an annual inflation rate of 160 percent, of the failure of the country's gross national product to increase last year for the first time since the 1950s, and of a rapidly growing foreign trade deficit.

The war in Lebanon and the continued Israeli presence there have added to Israel's economic difficulties.

In a dramatic turnaround May 23, the doctors announced before dawn that they would come out of their hiding places and return to their hospitals and the negotiating table. This came after the doctors said the night before that they would defy the government back-to-work orders at the risk of imprisonment. An estimated 30 percent of the doctors agreed to return to work Tuesday.

In a military-like operation the morning of May 22, thousands of doctors assembled at prearranged points and mounted waiting buses. Only after the buses began rolling did convoy leaders open sealed envelops distributed by the strike committee telling them their destination. The object was to stay out of reach of officials wishing to serve them with back-to-work orders. The move came after three months of partial strike.

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