Social Worker Strike in Israel Brings to Fore Systemic Issues in Social Service Sector

by David B. Marcu

The recent 23 day-long strike by social workers in Israel reflected not only their legitimate wage and work condition claims, but perhaps even more so, it bared a number of very serious underlying weaknesses in Israel’s social welfare system, as a result of a long running government policy of the privatization of services.

Non-profit organization (NPO) managers have long understood these cracks in the system, but the results of the strike may yet bring these long unaddressed and untreated issues to the forefront.

This strike, like many others that unfortunately happen far too often in Israel, was probably preventable, longer than necessary and its outcome was largely known before it began. In Israel, it is said that those problems that can’t be solved with force can usually be solved with more force. Here too, the Finance Ministry and the Social Workers Union probably could not have proceeded with an agreement without the noise, disruption and face-off that a strike provides. In this particular strike, the ending was particularly unusual as the union ultimately agreed to more or less the same terms that had been offered by the Government about 12 days earlier. Thus, significant achievements by the union nonetheless left a bad taste in the mouth of many of its rank and file.

But perhaps even more than we have seen in the past, this strike was fought out not only to improve the wages and conditions of social workers under public contract, but also for their colleagues who work in NPO’s. The privatization of many, if not most, social services in Israel has created two parallel systems in which public workers typically enjoy far better wages and conditions than those social workers employed by NPO’s (and it should be added, private, profit-making entities that also employ social workers). For this reason, the Social Workers Union made the unusual – and solidarity driven – demand that their colleagues in NPO’s also receive improved wages and work conditions.

But therein is the “catch”: although a preponderance of NPO-provided social services are funded by the Israeli Finance Ministry, this same ministry hasn’t, at least until now, generally intervened with regard to the wages of employees in these NPO’s. In fact, rates of reimbursement for services are usually set based on government designed “models” of staffing, which when funded, almost guarantee that an NPO without independent sources of funding will find it difficult to pay a better than low wage. This potentially makes them less competitive for the best employees and ultimately makes the Government’s stated goal of privatization of services a greater challenge.

The ultimate settlement of the strike, ironically, has possibly uncovered more problems that it solved. While a significant minimum wage for social workers for NPO’s was set in the settlement, no help whatsoever was provided for all other (non-social ) workers in social service NPO’s, and no known (at least as these words are being written) mechanism has been set to provide NPO’s with the promised funds to pay the increased wages of their social workers. As a result, a number of serious issues have emerged and must be considered:

  1. NPO’s frequently hire social workers in positions that are not mandated by government funders to be held by social workers, but by those with comparable or lower “classifications.” Will NPO’s be reimbursed for these increased costs? Nobody seems to know. For example, if an agency hires a social worker to serve as a program manager, case manager, coordinator or other position that can also be held by other professionals (such as psychologists, special educators or others), will they be reimbursed for those social workers in these positions? NPO managers fear the government will argue that no one mandated them to hire social workers for these positions, so why reimburse them? Perhaps even more problematic, if we are all surprised, and reimbursement for social workers in these positions is provided, what about their (non-social worker) colleagues? With two individuals working in the exact same job, one a social worker, and the other, say, a psychologist, will one earn dozens of percent more than the other? What kind of disruption might this cause?
  2. What about all the other all too often underpaid workers in the NPO? Did the social workers’ achievement in the resolution of the strike make any difference for them? Many social service agencies provide most of its services through front line “direct care” staff, who often don’t have more than a high school matriculation certificate, are of course not organized, and the inequity for them will only worsen as a result of the strike. How can NPO’s find a way to advocate for those people? Since these front line staff vastly outnumber their social worker colleagues, it is more than clear that the Finance Ministry will not respond well to pressure to significantly increase their wages.
  3. Finally, the precedent this settlement causes, whereby those who will be expected to pay (NPO’s) and those who benefitted from the outcome of the strike (their social worker employees) both effectively had no voice in the entire process – the prior negotiations, the strike, the negotiated settlement. For this reason, a feared outcome of the strike is that it will continue to weaken the valuable and critical non-profit sector in Israel.

NPO managers and Boards are waiting with trepidation to see what instructions they receive from their government funders regarding payment to social workers, and what funds will be available to cover these instructions (Will they match? Not a chance). Only time will tell whether the outcome of the 2011 social workers strike will lead to a reassessment of the roles of government, NPO’s and their employees. Until then, the true outcome of this strike is still a big unknown.

David B. Marcu is the CEO of Israel Elwyn, an organization that provides support services for children and adults with disabilities and their families. He is the immediate past president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, and is a member of the board of directors of the Israel Council for Social Welfare and the professional advisory committee for youth and disabilities of “Tevet”, the employment subsidiary of the JDC.