Social workers protesting
Social workers protesting: They wound up with a 25% raise, but nobody is happy about the outcome. Photo by Moti Milrod
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The strike by the social workers failed. Yes, they got a 25% raise, but they signed the agreement because they had no choice after the Labor Court spelled out that it wouldn't support allowing their strike to continue. The unhappy result is that the social workers will get a raise, but they will remain frustrated and discontented. No question, that is not a good end to their struggle over pay.

But the social workers brought that unhappy conclusion - an agreement that they abhor - on themselves, through their inexperience in negotiating. There is somebody very experienced in negotiating who could have spared them that miserable outcome: the Histadrut labor federation, led by Ofer Eini. But Eini let the social workers stew in their own juice, and helped them bring about their own ruin.

Eini did that by refusing to stand firm against the foolishly recalcitrant trade union representing the social workers. He neglected to explain the price of their resistence.

Eini had handled the talks over pay on behalf of the social workers, negotiating with the Finance Ministry, and after two weeks had an agreement in hand. But the militant and inexperienced union representing the social workers rejected the agreement summarily. That was the point at which Eini should have explained that their behavior would have a price.

He should have spelled out they didn't stand a chance of reaching a better agreement, whether because the treasury wouldn't budge or because the Labor Court wouldn't stand for their bucking the Histadrut's position. Eini should have explained that continuing the strike would lead to pointless suffering, including the loss of a month's pay, which isn't much to begin with. Like a strict father looking out for the welfare of his children, Eini should have insisted they not be allowed to hurt themselves.

He should have done that by telling them that he wouldn't support their battle any more, and used his power to declare further sanctions illegal.

Eini, in other words, should have shown leadership, preventing the social workers from causing harm to themselves.

But first and foremost he's a politician, building his image as champion of the working man. Standing firm against the social workers would have made him the bad guy and Eini doesn't play the bad guy. So he stood by and let the social workers bleed for two more weeks, at the expense of their pay, until the Labor Court sent them crawling back to him to sign the agreement he'd reached a fortnight before.

Essentially Eini used them to drive home a message to all workers: Do. Not. Rebel. Against. The. Histadrut. It will cost you.

He did the same thing with the state prosecutors, letting them strike on for 40 days after rejecting the terms he'd worked out with the treasury. But that didn't work out as he'd hoped, as they had the Supreme Court's backing and the prime minister didn't want to buck them either. The social workers' rebellion worked out better for Eini.

Unlike teachers, for instance, Israel doesn't have many social workers: One would think it could pay them more without feeling the pain. But then other groups would rush to demand raises, which in a normal country with priorities wouldn't be an issue: It would shrug that one group deserves better pay and that would be that. Not here: Every public-sector raise is perceived as a precedent. The Histadrut could change that by helping to set priorities. But that requires leadership and for somebody to be the bad guy standing strong against powerful unions.