Histadrut Chairman Amir Peretz believes that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is interested in a crisis and a strike. "No one of sound mind can understand such a strange decision," Peretz said of Netanyahu's decision not to pay state employees who refuse to receive the public as part of their sanctions.
Netanyahu's step is indeed seen as brinkmanship by many - a move intended to show he is the boss. But if the finance minister has decided to break the rules of the game, Peretz has decided to move the pieces.
The Histadrut's decision to put 50,000 state employees back on strike starting Sunday is a dramatic move. It is hard to know what will happen until then in the head-on confrontation between Netanyahu and Peretz. Indeed, anything could happen.
However, a "person of sound mind" would also find it difficult not to understand what lies behind Peretz's decision to exchange (at this stage) the strike for sanctions. The treasury was well aware that he was trying to stage a deluxe strike, one in which people strike and get paid.
When there is a full-fledged strike, the treasury does not pay for strike days, thereby representing a "trade-off" for the strike. This is the main reason that the Histadrut stopped the strike a week ago because, had it continued, the workers would have lost a full week's pay, even though that week included a Friday, a Saturday, Memorial Day and Independence Day, which are generally holidays for the public sector. So why strike on holidays and have pay deducted? That would not be reasonable.
And that is how the Histadrut and the large workers' committees went back to the system that they love so much - sanctions. That is how such great damage is caused to the country's citizens, and how the economy is hurt. But the workers can claim that they "came to work," and therefore, are entitled to full pay.
As part of their work, 70% of all civil servants have to receive the public; during sanctions they receive no one and do not even answer the telephone. As long as there are no reception hours, it is hardly possible to do a thing. One cannot get an ID card or passport; one cannot register a transaction in the land registry office so there are no property transactions; it is not possible to put through building plans in the municipalities; one cannot get a driver's license; the income tax offices do not collect revenue for the state coffers; and at the ports, exporters and importers are faced with numerous difficulties. In that way, the economic activity of the private sector is also harmed.
In the past, when there were full strikes, the treasury would say that the strike days would be deducted from the wages, but the workers would laugh because they knew that, at the last moment, the treasury would bow to pressure and the politicians would want to go home and would want the workers' votes. So, in the end, something symbolic would be deducted from their pay and their vacation time, or they would have to work on the eve of holidays to repay some of the hours.
When it came to sanctions, the courts usually decided that only 30% of the workers' salaries should be deducted - because they came to work.
That is why Netanyahu decided to change the rules of the game this time and not allow a luxury strike. He hoped that pressure would come "from below," from the workers, who would realize that the sanctions are going to cost them money - but the Histadrut pulled out its weapon: a general strike.
The right to strike is a fundamental right in a democracy and counteracts the strength of the government and private employers. However, there has to be a counterbalance to a strike as well - it has to have a price. That is why the treasury was right when it decided to deduct pay for strike days (or sanctions that affect the public and the economy). Otherwise, there would be no bounds to the strike, and it would be possible to continue the work stoppage for much longer than necessary.
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