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Histadrut chair Amir Peretz has become a real chum of Bank Hapoalim stockholder Shari Arison these past few days. He has breakfast at the home of the billionaire heiress and they both stroll outside afterward to meet with the press, smiling warmly, full of cooperation and great affection. But only a month ago, before the elections, Peretz used Arison as his campaign engine. He plastered posters around the country, proclaiming: "Shari Arison is laughing... 900 families are crying... Bank Hapoalim earns more than NIS 1 billion and fires 900 workers."

Shari Arison was insulted. Will Peretz be offended too when in a few days the pensioners' committee of the Building Workers Fund starts putting up similar billboards? "Amir Peretz is laughing... 17,500 families are crying... the Histadrut has robbed the pensioners of NIS 600 million and refused to repay it... they have left us with no support for our old age. For years we built the state, we paid into the Histadrut pension fund and they took the money without our knowledge and spent it on decadance and office extravagance... the Histadrut refuses to pay us back... Amir Peretz, return your plunder to its owners!"

Behind the publicity campaign is a long and shameful story. The building workers' pension fund is one of the oldest, set up in 1945. For many years the Histadrut enjoyed the monies of the fund's members (as it did with monies from other pension funds). The fund's cash was used to finance various activities of the labor federation. Money was sent to Hapoel, Na'amat, the Organization for Working Mothers, Noar Haoved v'Halomed and Histadrut Hapoel Hamizrahi, funding the salaries of union workers all over the country and buying valuable properties.

The fund itself, a relatively small one, behaved with amazing extravagance. At the height of its corruption the fund employed 200 workers. It had 50 branches country-wide, manned by politicos and former union activists who enjoyed excellent wages and company cars without really having anything to do. The fund was also obliged to "invest" a huge sum of NIS 200 million in the workers' company, with unlinked, negligible interest and which was redeemed by the Histadrut at 100,000th of its value. Is there no limit to the daylight robbery?

In the wake of this waste and corruption, the Building Workers Fund collapsed in 1996. If the state had not stepped in and injected vast sums of taxpayers' money, retirees of Solel Boneh would today be receiving no pension at all.

Today, the fund is suing the Histadrut for the return of the NIS 600 million that it claims was stolen from fund members. Peretz has refused to cough up, as he has refused every demand from fund managers to return assets belonging to the funds. The pensioners meanwhile fear that one day the treasury will stop replenishing the empty coffers and they will be left without pensions, "Amir Peretz is laughing... 17,500 families are crying."