Yuval Steinitz- Tess Scheflan
Yuval Steinitz, left, and Ilan Levin. Trying to head off the strike. Photo by Tess Scheflan
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The Histadrut labor federation is threatening to shut down the entire public sector at 6 A.M. tomorrow unless the Finance Ministry signs a new wage agreement for 2009-2011 today. The Histadrut has been threatening a strike since last week.

Negotiations continued late last night as senior treasury officials met with Histadrut leaders. The meetings will continue today, and possibly go into the night.

But the most important meeting, between Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini and Ilan Levin, the head of the treasury’s wage and labor agreements department, ended without an agreement last night. Levin and treasury budgets director Udi Nissan also met with the head of the Histadrut’s trade union division, Avi Nissenkorn, but nothing was settled.

A breakthrough could come today, when Eini meets with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau is not involved directly in the talks, but is being updated regularly.

Levin said yesterday that a strike could be prevented and an agreement reached by the end of the week. “It is possible to prevent the strike if each side takes the necessary step toward the other,” he said.

The Histadrut is demanding that all 750,000 public sector workers receive a 3.5% raise in each of the three years covered by the new labor agreement − all told, nearly an 11% increase in salary over the period of the new contract.

The treasury estimates the cost of these demands at NIS 10 billion, and is offering only a 0.5% annual increase, or 1.5% over the three years. The treasury says every percentage point will cost the state about NIS 800 million.

Nissenkorn said the Israeli economy was not in a recession during the global economic crisis and that public-sector workers contributed their share by giving up some of their wage benefits. Now that the economy is growing, he said, the time has come for public-sector workers to receive a real raise.

The Histadrut rejected a treasury proposal to give a larger proportional increase to public-sector workers with relatively low salaries, saying such a raise would allow inflation to erode workers’ wages.

Shraga Brosh, president of the Israel Manufacturers Association, said yesterday he does not expect there to be a strike. He said the negotiations were almost completed.

“Both sides knew that what could be achieved after the strike started could also be achieved even without a strike,” he said. “They also know the high cost to the economy of every day of a strike − NIS 800 million a day.”

But the Histadrut is still busy preparing for a possible strike.

Officials of the 15 public-sector unions met to ensure that any strike would be total. Union officials advised the public to get any important official business out of the way before tomorrow.