Finance Minister, Histadrut Chief Meet in Late-night Attempt to End Strike

The meeting between Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Histadrut labor federation Chairman Ofer Eini began in a positive atmosphere in an attempt to reach a settlement and end the public-sector strike that began yesterday. But by midnight, the parties had still not reached an agreement.

Sources at the Histadrut said if no real progress was made, the strike would continue today. Whether Ben-Gurion International Airport would be affected was not known by press time. Eini met earlier with Eli Cohen, the director of wages at the Finance Ministry, after the National Labor Court rejected a request to prevent the strike until a hearing on the petitions against it, to be held today.

Both Eini and Cohen said the general atmosphere of the earlier meeting was positive, even though it ended with no resolution.

According to sources close to the talks, the reason for optimism was a narrowing of the gaps between the treasury and the Histadrut.

The sources said Eini had agreed to come down from his original demand of 10.6 percent to 6 percent, and Bar-On raised his proposal to a 3 percent rise to pay and pensions for public-sector workers except those who had already received an increase in 2001, such as employees at the Israel Electric Corporation. According to the proposal, the addition would go into effect immediately and be from 3 percent for lower earners to 1 percent for higher earners, and would be apportioned over a period of three years until 2010. The strike by the country's approximately 700,000 public-sector employees was announced Tuesday evening after talks failed, and began yesterday morning. It encompasses, among other things, all government ministries, local authorities (including garbage collection), trains, ports and the postal authority, university administrations, employment service bureaus, and branches of the National Insurance Institute. Israel's border crossings with Egypt and Jordan will also close.

Sanctions were also felt at public hospitals. The Electricity Corporation and the bus companies did not take part in the strike.

The strike is set to reach Ben-Gurion International Airport at 8 A.M. this morning morning, 24 hours after it began elsewhere. National Insurance Institute benefits continued to be processed and paid as usual.

In the 12 hours before the airport was to be closed, it planned takeoffs every three minutes for a total of 120 flights carrying 20,000 passengers, Channel 10 TV reported.

El Al was advising its passengers to go to the airport, located outside Tel Aviv, five hours before flights were scheduled to depart instead of the usual three hours. It moved up the departure times for at least five flights scheduled to take off after 8 A.M. today.

Judge Steve Adler, president of the National Labor Court, yesterday ordered the state and the Histadrut to submit a report by last night on the wages paid to public sector workers and how they had eroded over the years since the last wage agreements were signed in 2001, if such an erosion had taken place.

Adler also asked for a report on the number of unionized workers in the public sector, copies of existing collective wage agreements and an account of daily financial losses caused by the general strike both directly and indirectly. The account is to include projected losses caused by the strike at Ben-Gurion Airport.

The court rejected petitions early yesterday morning seeking to prevent the strike from coming into effect. The court rejected the appeals after considering them throughout the night, issuing a statement that the state is obligated to negotiate with the Histadrut and the unions.

The various bodies said they did not dispute the basic right of public-sector workers to strike, but argued that "the right to strike was relative" and that "heavy damage and indescribable suffering would be caused the public, which is not a side to the dispute."

As a means of pressuring the striking workers, Cohen announced yesterday morning that the state would deduct pay for work days missed due to the strike. Workers participating in partial sanctions will also face deductions.

Before the strike was launched, Bar-On offered Eini a two-stage increase to public-sector wages, amounting to a 1 percent addition by 2009. The treasury had previously been willing to offer only a 0.2 percent increase. Eli Cohen, the treasury's head of wages, later upped the offer to 0.4 percent, plus local corrections to certain worker groups.

Eini refused, saying the proposal was "like offering to buy each worker two falafels."

Bar-On said that complying with the Histadrut's demands for an increase of over 10 percent would exceed the budget, thereby impeding growth and creating unemployment. "Agreeing would compromise the government's ability to reach its objectives and combat poverty. It would keep it from helping the less affluent social strata."