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For some reason, half a million wage earners with Histadrut pensions are sleeping soundly. They, and their employers, deposit 17.5 percent of their salaries every month to guarantee them a decent retirement. What they don't know is that when the time comes for them to retire in another 15 to 20 years, there won't be any money to pay those pensions.

The pension funds' cash flow won't allow it. In fact, already today it's possible to declare that the funds are "bankrupt" because their deficits have already reached the amazing sum of NIS 56 billion - that's 37 percent of their total commitments to the insured wage earners.

In 1995 came the first attempt to dismantle the detonator of this ticking bomb. An agreement between the treasury and the Histadrut was signed. The government would provide state guarantees to the pension funds, on condition that the funds undertake major restructuring, and the salaries of the insured wage earners should not rise by more than 2 percent a year.

In a petition to the High Court of Justice, the agreement was ruled to not be a contractual obligation of the state. Furthermore, no restructuring has taken place to put the funds on firm footing. The detonator has not been defuzed and the monies paid into the pension funds are still teetering on the brink.

Meanwhile, veteran funds are run amateurishly and inefficiently in a sea of waste, political cronyism, and protection for friends of management. Longtime fund members subsidize new funds, while preferential treatment is given to some organizations. Premium collection from some members doesn't even take place. The funds have no reason to streamline and save because the overall feeling is that when the time comes, the state will step in and pay. But will the state have the resources to pay these huge amounts when other social and defense needs are also pressing?

In case one thinks this is all media exaggeration, it should be noted that one fund, the Construction Workers Fund, went bankrupt in 1996. The state was forced to appoint a executor, and transfers NIS 500 million a year to pay the 18,000 pensioners.

How did the pension funds reach this shameful condition? Was it necessary? The whole story is nothing more than one huge institutional corruption scandal. The funds financed Histadrut activity and Hevrat Ovdim at the expense of the wage earners who paid their monthly premiums.

They were a cornucopia for political activity by senior Histadrut managers, enabled early retirement at full pension for their VIPs and other associates, and provided jobs for "activists." They financed buildings for local union headquarters, but never bothered to register their ownership of the buildings.

It's high time for the hundreds of thousands of Histadrut pension fund members to break their silence. They should demand government action, new state-appointed managers who would implement comprehensive restructuring and start a criminal investigation of the Histadrut's robbery of the funds. It means no less than that when money was taken from the funds to give the Histadrut unlinked loans in the days of hyper-inflation. There is precedent for successful prosecution - Kupat Holim sued the Histadrut for large sums for past debts, and recently was compensated with NIS 500 million.

Deputy finance minister Yitzhak Cohen recently said "if the government has to send money to the funds to cover their deficits, the condition will be the government taking over the funds, just like it did in the bank share crisis." The Histadrut trembled at the prospect of its political power, appointments, and money store being taken from it, and immediately launched a campaign of threats and intimidation.

The state must immediately step into the fray and not wait until the funds finally collapse. Otherwise, we'll wake up one morning to find we have hundreds of thousands of pensioners - and not one with a pension.