Chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, MK Amir Peretz, succeeded in reaching an agreement with the treasury over the port reforms two months ago, without exercising the threat of "the mother of all strikes." Since then, he has averted strikes at Israel Discount Bank and several smaller work places. In general, Peretz, who is looking to advance in politics and become a candidate to lead the Labor Party, has abandoned recently the image of the man who wreaked havoc through debilitating strikes.
With the Discount and ports crises behind us, the strong unions, on which the Histadrut depends, have waved a red flag in front of Peretz: the Bachar reforms that will take the mutual and provident funds away from the banks. Peretz doesn't want a bank strike, but according to the demands of Leumi union chief Louis Roth, Hapoalim union chief Shirley Amzalag, and workers' representatives at other banks, the Histadrut this week declared an industrial dispute for the entire banking sector including the Bank of Israel and the stock exchange. At the end of the 14-day cooling-off period, the thousands of workers in the sector will be able to take industrial action, including striking. As part of the protest, union leaders will instruct bank branches to shut down and not refill ATMs so that no one can withdraw cash.
Up till now, the Histadrut made do with a verbal campaign against the Bachar reforms, mostly through press ads. These ads served not only the unions, but also management, which has been encouraging the campaign behind the scenes. The threat of a strike moves the campaign up a level.
The Histadrut and the bank unions claim that the reforms will bring sweeping changes, which will include the dismissal of thousands of banking sector workers. But how many? "Thousands" was glibly thrown into the air, but former head of the professional union department of the Histadrut, Shlomo Shani, was more precise: 4,000 will lose their jobs. "We are responsible for the job security of the workers. That's what we were elected for", Ricky Bachar, head of the Discount Bank union, said. "To prevent the expected wave of dismissals, we are prepared to go to war."
But this scenario of thousands becoming jobless seems a little far-fetched. Assuming the government remains stable after the disengagement and pursues the Bachar reforms, then we can split bank workers employed in the fund sector into three: the first are good workers that the banks will want to keep no matter what. They will be moved to other positions, and for some, it may represent a promotion opportunity.
The second category, the largest, includes average or above-average workers who will leave with generous compensation. Many, though not all, will be taken on by the insurers and brokers who will be running the transfered mutual and provident funds. The rest will seek work elsewhere.
The third group is the problematic workers. The banks will happy to see this lot go, but since they are not used to dismissing staff without the union's say-so, except in extraordinary circumstances, they also will be offered voluntary redundancy packages according to normal banking sector terms - veteran workers could be entitled to a grant of at least NIS 1 million or to early retirement financed by the bank.
Implementing the Bachar reforms will bring better terms for the public. In that light, the claims by bank workers appear exaggerated and absurd. Nevertheless, bank management should sit down with them and reach an agreement before the strike begins.
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