Histadrut Gearing Up for General Strike Tomorrow

The Histadrut labor federation is ready for the public sector strike scheduled to start at 6 A.M. tomorrow to protest a delay in the payment of wages to between 7,000 and 8,000 employees of 40 local authorities and 16 religious councils.

Union chair Ofer Eini said yesterday that only an "explicit commitment" by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to discuss the wage issue at the next cabinet meeting could postpone the strike.

Yesterday Olmert turned to Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson in an effort to prevent the strike, but did not address Histadrut leaders directly. Union officials said yesterday, "Signals were received from the Prime Minister's Office, but no actual negotiations are taking place and in no concrete agreements have been achieved that would head off the strike."

In response to threats from the Histadrut, Hirchson said last night that the union "knows full well that there's no reason to hold a general strike. We are bound by the [National] Labor Court. The state is making every effort to see to it that local authority employees receive their wages speedily." Hirchson said that wages are going unpaid in 30 local authorities, after the problem was solved in the remainder.

Eini declined last night to specify which areas of the public sector would be on strike, sayi ng only that "efforts will be made to keep harm to the public to a minimum." The Histadrut is considering a "soft strike" that would include government ministries, municipalities (including garbage collection), the income tax, customs and VAT authorities, the ports and probably train service but not flights or health services. A final decision will be made only tonight, in accordance with the progress in today's negotiations with the treasury and the Interior Ministry. In any event, the private sector - including supermarket chains, stores, banks, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and Egged and Dan bus service - will not be affected.

"It is inconceivable that workers are not being paid and their pension fees are being stolen by local council heads, and no one bats an eyelid," Eini said yesterday. He said the case has been deliberated in the National Labor Court, under its president, Judge Stephen Adler, for eight months, during which time representatives of the finance minister have promised to transfer the monies to the local authorities and the religious councils.

"Despite these promises," Eini said, "and despite the Histadrut's one-day strike of three months ago, workers are still not being paid their wages on time," he said.

Eini said he had intended to begin the strike yesterday but decided to give Olmert until tomorrow morning to announce that the wage issue would be on the agenda of this Sunday's cabinet meeting "and not pass the issue on to the finance and interior ministers." Eini added that one way to deal with the problem would be to impose sanctions on the relevant mayors and council heads. The union leader said there was no connection between the strike over non-payment of wages and problems in the new round of negotiations between the Histadrut and the treasury over wage agreements for 700,000 public sector employees.

Hirchson said the long-term solution to the wages problem is to implement a recovery program in the 30 problematic authorities that would guarantee that the money disbursed by the government goes to the workers and not to other creditors.