The Knesset House Committee approved yesterday, by just one vote, a bill sponsored by MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) banning the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation from serving as a Knesset member at the same time. If the bill becomes law, Amir Peretz will be forced to choose between the legislature and his position as Histadrut chief.
Shinui boss Yosef (Tommy) Lapid has embraced the bill with open arms. "I've been waiting for a bill to eliminate the dual role of the Histadrut chairman for a long time, and I'm glad Sa'ar has taken the initiative," he gleefully said yesterday.
It is no wonder Lapid supports the move. When he was justice minister two years ago, he pushed for a commission of inquiry to reexamine the role of the Labor Courts. In other words, a commission to recommend closing the Labor Courts, which have been issuing rulings repugnant to the state and business since 1997.
Sa'ar's proposal, backed mostly by the Likud and Shinui, threatens the very foundations of the economy. True, Peretz is not just a trade union man who sees himself bound to the workers' interests, but is also, and even mostly, a politician. Nowadays he is campaigning to be Labor Party chief and dreaming of becoming prime minister. True, during the decade since he took over the labor federation it has become a bastion of political appointments and shown signs of turning into a political party.
But all this does not mean the Histadrut chairman does not have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to get involved in politics and serve in the Knesset. The organization, whose mission is to protect the interests and improve the conditions and pensions of the workers, will be weakened and perhaps disappear from the public arena if it finds itself with no foothold in the Knesset. Weak labor unions make a weak country.
Lapid would no doubt put it this way: "Peretz has his hands at the economy's throat. He's the national `striker' and must be stopped. The Histadrut needs to be cut down to size."
But the opposite is actually the case: Peretz is actually a sworn enemy of strikes. He is constantly fighting with strong unions that prefer striking over talking. As far as the Histadrut's power is concerned, it has been a long time since it was a powerful body that acted like a state within a state. The Histadrut of the last 10 years is weak, encompassing only about a quarter of the workers.
It's not only Likud and Shinui MKs who support Sa'ar's proposal. No doubt it has the blessings of many Labor MKs who look with disfavor on Peretz's race for the party crown. The treasury is also doubtlessly not sorry about the blow to Peretz and to what he represents: organized labor in Israel.
There's no little hypocrisy in the attempt by Sa'ar and Lapid to settle accounts with Peretz and finish off what is left of the labor federation. Would Sa'ar and Lapid think of clipping the wings of other sectors of society represented in the Knesset?
What about the powerful farmers' lobby, which includes no less than 20 MKs, or legislators representing the Negev or the Galilee? What about the Leumit health maintenance organization, whose representative, Abraham Hirchson, sits in the cabinet? Has any MK considered forcing him to give up the Ministry of Tourism? Evidently not, because Hirchson, like the MKs representing the agricultural sector and the periphery, is not seen as a threat.
Strangely, Amir Peretz and the Histadrut, who represent salaried employees in an economy where business holds the power, are seen as the disturbing element. The effort to get rid of them should serve as a warning signal regarding the proper balance of Israeli labor relations and our democracy.
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