Israeli general strike called off as negotiations begin

Chair of Histadrut Labour Federation
Chair of Histadrut Labour Federation

The public sector strike scheduled to begin Wednesday morning has been postponed indefinitely, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini decided Tuesday after meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Submitted by Ed on February 27, 2007

During the meeting, Olmert promised to intervene personally in order to expedite the payment of withheld wages to municipal worker employees and to "personally follow the progression."

The strike was meant to protest a delay in the payment of wages to between 7,000 and 8,000 employees of 40 local authorities and 16 religious councils.

Eini told a press conference Tuesday afternoon that the cabinet would discuss in its upcoming meeting the problem of withheld wages, as part of a promise by the finance and interior ministers to resolve the issue in the near future. He also said that Olmert had promised to intervene personally if a solution was not found or if obstacles were encountered.

In a letter to Eini, Olmert accepted the Histadrut's request to convene the cabinet to discuss the withheld wages. Nevertheless, the prime minister did not respond to the federation's request to decide during the meeting the transfer of wages from the government to the local authorities.

Eini had said Monday that only an "explicit commitment" by Olmert to discuss the wage issue at the next cabinet meeting could postpone the strike.

"The cabinet does not deal with authority workers," Olmert wrote in his letter, but added that it was "up to it [the cabinet] to promise proper and appropriate progress, including the obligation to pay the salaries of workers."

IEC to launch sanctions
Employees of the Israel Electric Corporation announced earlier Tuesday plans to launch sanctions to protest a bid by the state to privatize the IEC, one day before the Histadrut labor federation was set to strike over salary non-payment of local authority employees.

The labor court on Monday night authorized a request by the IEC workers to impose sanctions, in response to the government's unilateral legislation calling for reforms that will break the IEC's electricity monopoly.

Only emergency crews will be on call to deal with crises that may emerge in the national electricity production and supply. A week ago, the Knesset passed the first reading of a contentious bill to reform the production and supply of electricity in Israel.

The IEC sanctions came as the Histadrut labor federation was readying for the public sector strike, which was scheduled to start at 6 A.M. Wednesday.

On Monday, Olmert turned to Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson in an effort to prevent the strike, but did not address Histadrut leaders directly. Union officials said Monday, "Signals were received from the Prime Minister's Office, but no actual negotiations are taking place and in no concrete agreements have been achieved that would head off the strike."

In response to threats from the Histadrut, Hirchson said Monday night that the union "knows full well that there's no reason to hold a general strike. We are bound by the [National] Labor Court. The state is making every effort to see to it that local authority employees receive their wages speedily." Hirchson said that wages are going unpaid in 30 local authorities, after the problem was solved in the remainder.

Eini declined Monday night to specify which areas of the public sector would be on strike, sayi ng only that "efforts will be made to keep harm to the public to a minimum." The Histadrut is considering a "soft strike" that would include government ministries, municipalities (including garbage collection), the income tax, customs and VAT authorities, the ports and probably train service but not flights or health services. A final decision will be made only tonight, in accordance with the progress in Tuesday's negotiations with the treasury and the Interior Ministry. In any event, the private sector - including supermarket chains, stores, banks, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and Egged and Dan bus service - will not be affected.

"It is inconceivable that workers are not being paid and their pension fees are being stolen by local council heads, and no one bats an eyelid," Eini said Monday. He said the case has been deliberated in the National Labor Court, under its president, Judge Stephen Adler, for eight months, during which time representatives of the finance minister have promised to transfer the monies to the local authorities and the religious councils.

"Despite these promises," Eini said, "and despite the Histadrut's one-day strike of three months ago, workers are still not being paid their wages on time," he said.

Eini said he had intended to begin the strike Monday but decided to give Olmert until Wednesday morning to announce that the wage issue would be on the agenda of this Sunday's cabinet meeting "and not pass the issue on to the finance and interior ministers." Eini added that one way to deal with the problem would be to impose sanctions on the relevant mayors and council heads. The union leader said there was no connection between the strike over non-payment of wages and problems in the new round of negotiations between the Histadrut and the treasury over wage agreements for 700,000 public sector employees.

Hirchson said the long-term solution to the wages problem is to implement a recovery program in the 30 problematic authorities that would guarantee that the money disbursed by the government goes to the workers and not to other creditors.