It will happen soon. In the middle of the scorching summer, the Interior Ministry will stop issuing passports, the port workers will declare a strike, the trains will stop running, the garbage will pile up on the sidewalks and Ben-Gurion International Airport will shut down. It's an annual ritual, an inseparable part of the wage talks in the public sector.
A general strike is inevitable because the government is weak and cannot stand up to pressure, the coalition is in shambles and the prime minister is only concerned with his personal survival. This is an opportunity to extract yet another pound of flesh.
The chairman of the Histadrut Labor Federation, Ofer Eini, is demanding a mind-boggling wage increase of 10.4 percent for 700,000 public sector employees. This translates into an additional expenditure of NIS 8 billion a year - an enormous and totally unrealistic figure. Why 10.4 percent? Because that is the increment government ministers received at the beginning of 2006, says Eini.
So what's the connection? The ministers received this increment because their wages were linked to the index and salaries had not been updated for a long time. In the public sector, wages are not linked to the Consumer Price Index. Civil servants get seniority and pay scale increments, and their salaries are raised by collective wage agreements, local and nationwide, which yield much more than any linkage to the index. But Eini wants to enjoy both worlds.
Eini knows that in the past few years, the public sector has not suffered. Wages went up despite the zero inflation rate. Net wages rose, too, because less income tax was deducted, which means an increase in living standards. But the economy is growing, and he thinks that the public sector deserves a piece of the pie.
Here, he may be right. The public sector should receive an increment, but the question is how much. The treasury says half a percent and no more. This rigid stance is a response to an unhealthy practice that has evolved since Ehud Olmert came to power. It turns out that whatever the amount Eini and the treasury agree on, it doesn't much matter. In the end, Eini will go to Olmert and squeeze out another couple of percentage points. Because Olmert will always oblige.
We saw it when the prime minister intervened in the local authority wage crisis, and again in the battle over teachers' salaries. We saw how he gave in to Stanley Fischer, and agreed to pay director-general's wages to 68 senior employees at the Bank of Israel. He paid out large sums to the army and the teachers. He agreed to slash the cuts planned for the 2007 budget by half. He allowed the polio compensation bill to pass in the Knesset, and distributed generous sums for "social welfare" projects.
The trouble is that all this generosity has led to gross and unprecedented overspending and a huge hole in the state budget. Because Olmert aims to please. He is always looking for a compromise that will make everybody happy. He wants to slap people on the back, and plop down on the sofa with them to watch a good game of soccer.
But a leader who is good to everyone ends up being bad for everyone. When you overstep the budget, the economy suffers, business comes to a halt, investors pack their bags, the dollar soars, inflation rises, unemployment skyrockets and the coffers for social spending run dry.
On Sunday, the government begins talks on the 2008 budget. All the problems will be laid out on the table: the demands of the defense establishment, the demands of the educational system, the wage negotiations. Will the new finance minister, Roni Bar-On, make the grade? Will he survive the pressure? Will he reach a realistic wage agreement with Eini? Will he have the courage to stand up to the person who gave him the job and say "enough is enough"?
Economic stability, growth, employment and social welfare outweigh any short-term political considerations.
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