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The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange shut down on Tuesday after a few days' hiatus in tensions between management and staff. Labor representatives claim that TASE chief executive Ester Levanon went abroad without authorizing anybody on her behalf to continue talks with the workers about their grievances.

Management denies the claim, saying it was always prepared to discuss the employees' demands. Meanwhile, there was little choice but to close the exchange, given that the workers refused to turn on its computer system.

The labor dispute at the stock exchange, which has been going on for many weeks, is largely based on the union's request to switch most of the 80 workers employed on personal contracts or through manpower companies - mostly computer personnel and economists - to the terms of the collective employment agreement.

Another bone of contention is the magnitude of pay rises. Employees say they want a 5%-7% increase per year, though management says that the exchange's 150 employees are demanding an unreasonably high 51% raise over three years.

Gershon Gelman, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation Tel Aviv district, said he supported the workers and condemned the TASE management for resorting to delaying tactics.

"TASE employees are upset over the timing of Levanon's trip to New York. While tying up loose ends on a cooperation agreement and signing contracts in a foreign language, she is doing just the opposite in Tel Aviv, ignoring us completely. Over there she is dashing off to preside over the opening of trade, and here she is closing down the exchange," expostulated labor leader Yitzhak Lerner on the TASE CEO's trip to the U.S. last Saturday, as labor relations at the TASE deteriorated.

"If Levanon treated talks with TASE labor representatives with the same degree of seriousness that she does meetings with potential investors, we would be seeing a very different picture. We would certainly have taken a huge step toward an agreement," Lerner said.

The two top officers who supposedly remained in Israel to continue negotiations - the senior vice president of TASE's human resources Yosi Levi, and senior vice president of IT and Operations department Yoni Shemesh - are not authorized to make decisions that would lead an end to the strike.

Lerner maintains that the two VPs went to London a few days ago to attend a professional conference, and Levanon had planned to join them, but she remained in Israel instead because the workers held a strike that day. He confirmed estimates from within the exchange that at least one purpose of the strike was to jeopardize her trip to London.

"More veteran employees than myself report that they have never seen a situation where the CEO fails to personally attend discussions with workers' representatives over a new labor agreement," the labor chairman emphasized. "Members of management are trying to create the impression that they are wooing us, so that we will meet with them to discuss our claims. The truth is, they are willing to hold only short meetings of two to three hours each. They will agree to longer meetings only on the condition that we call an end to all sanctions. We won't agree to that, of course, since that is our leverage."

Ido Hartuv, TASE's PR manager who is himself in Macau, said that despite labor's claims that management is not investing time in talks, the parties have been meeting daily with Levy - who is certainly authorized to make decisions - in participation. "Levanon isn't cruising the Caribbean. She is on a business trip to New York to sign an agreement with Nasdaq and participate in a conference of 120 potential investors in the TASE. We are shocked at the ease with which labor and the Histadrut have decided to suspend trade," the public relations manager said.

Nevertheless, he added, Levanon has said that she is considering cancelling her participation in the conference, and returning to Israel to renew labor negotiations. Sources within the TASE management said that labor's decision, led by Lerner, to renew sanctions "is meant more to embarrass Levanon than to truly promote negotiations for a new labor agreement."