Ofer Eini - Tal Cohen - 05082011
Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini at Thursday’s rally in Tel Aviv. Photo by Tal Cohen
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Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini took the contract workers out of mothballs and is now riding into the horizon on them.

Two and a half years ago he was at the height of his powers, the man who dragged Labor into the coalition with a far-reaching agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Eini became the "nation's arbitrator," and later signed a new public-sector wage agreement. When the power went to his head - he called Ehud Barak an "idiot" in a television interview. But that "idiot" jumped the drowning Labor ship at the last moment to found Atzmaut and forced the Labor ministers to desert the Netanyahu government for the political wilderness.

Eini, shorn of his political power and disdained by the young social revolutionaries of the summer, searched for an issue that would put him back in the spotlight and found the contract workers. I'm relevant, popular and powerful once again, he is signaling Netanyahu. I can call a general strike and cause damage to us all.

That is not to say that the contract workers are not an important issue. They are. But calling a general strike so quickly, without exhausting the potential of negotiations with the treasury, when Israel is so vulnerable to fallout from the European economic crisis?

Eini did not even threaten a strike over the exponentially deeper issue of the "social protest," and for good reason: It was identified with Daphni Leef and Itzik Shmuli, not with him. But the contract workers are "his," and he has an itchy trigger finger.

It should be noted that Netanyahu comes out well with Eini. Not only does he not attack him, he even says Netanyahu understands the problem and is willing to compromise but is thwarted by the evil people of the treasury's budget division. Eini wants to forge a new alliance with Netanyahu, but sees the Finance Ministry as nothing but a punching bag.

Ironically, Eini and the Histadrut are the main reason Israel has so many contract workers. By being so inflexible about work security for public-sector employees they effectively forced administrators to achieve flexibility by bypassing the unions and hiring workers through contractors. And some of them are horribly exploited, with low wages and no social benefits.

That must be fixed, and should be the focus of Eini's campaign. He should also fight to change the public-sector tender system, from one that awards the lowest bidder to one that provides fair wages and social benefits to workers. If he does that, and agrees to give government employers a degree of "administrative flexibility," it will eliminate the need for so many contract workers in the public sector.