Union Infighting Lets Workers Down at Israel's Biggest Bus Company

Egged's union chief has been accused of forgery, theft and paranoia, while newer workers are being paid nearly a fifth less than colleagues.

Emil Salman

Surveillance, profanity, violence, mismanagement, wasteful spending, nepotism, police investigations and a decision to remove the heads of the union representing 4,500 employees at the Egged bus company. All this is happening at Israel’s largest firm in the sector.

The storm is brewing on the eve of streamlining that’s expected to include a raft of layoffs and voluntary retirement. It’s also happening just before negotiations on a new collective-bargaining agreement designed to improve the employees’ lot, especially the drivers’.

Egged, a cooperative owned by its members, has always had internal disputes — but they’ve usually focused on fights between the members — some 1,650 shareholders — and the secretariat, the main body that manages the co-op.

After many quiet years when Haim Tamam was union chairman (many accused him of collaborating against the workers), the balance of forces was reversed. Meir Assour, 54, was elected union chief. Assour, a bus driver from the south, promised to change things. But within months infighting among the chiefs almost paralyzed the union.

Moshe Assayag, 44, a bus driver from Jerusalem, serves as union secretary. He was one of Assour’s biggest supporters for chairman but is now leading the fight against him.

“Assour won the election without anyone running against him, because everyone believed in his abilities,” Assayag says. “We did everything so he would succeed, but slowly he developed suspicions about the people around him and behaved like a dictator.”

Assayag says Assour called union board meetings that merely dealt with the ouster of other board members.

“He also appointed a crony chairman of the union’s southern region, instead of appreciating the help I gave him when he was elected,” Assayag says. “Assour acted to neutralize me. From then on we understood that the man lives with paranoia, and he started to lose the huge support he enjoyed at the beginning.”

Gil Cohen Magen

But these aren’t Assayag’s harshest criticisms of Assour.

“He forged minutes [of meetings] and wasted money. He broke into my personal cabinet in the office and took out 11 checkbooks, which disappeared, and he’s not union treasurer so he’s not authorized to sign checks. Before Rosh Hashanah Assour bought holiday gift vouchers for 262,000 shekels [$68,000], while bypassing the finance committee, and gave them out only to salaried employees from the southern region,” Assayag says.

“I ran to Bank Hapoalim and told them the checks for the holiday vouchers were prepared without the treasurer’s approval, so they’re illegal; then he presented minutes that were made without a meeting. The Histadrut [labor federation] realized that something serious had happened here and ordered Egged to return the checks. I started recording every conversation I had with him, and one time he hit me in response. Later he tried to oust the chairman of the audit committee, a move that didn’t succeed.”

Rebuttal at the top

Assour says Assayag has everything backwards.

“The checks that were taken from Assayag’s room weren’t even meant to be there at all. I’m worried that Assayag tried to hide the checks, and also hide the minutes of the national board. The claims about buying holiday vouchers for Egged employees in the southern region are inconsistent with the approval of the Histadrut auditor. Assayag’s claims that I tried to remove the chairman of the audit committee are ridiculous, because I’m not authorized to remove board members,” Assour says.

“I hit Assayag? All I did was try to divert his camera from me for a moment, and there was no violence, but he rushed to complain to the police. There’s an attempt to portray me as a dictator merely because I refused to appoint the brother of one of the board members an organizational consultant, and also because I refused to let Assayag receive gas expenses for his trips from home to the Egged building.”

Assayag demanded 600 shekels a month for gas expenses, even though he doesn’t use his car to get to work but comes in an organized ride, Assour says.

“He also didn’t like that I started to examine the union’s pension contracts, which in the past were made with conflicts of interest and at meetings in fancy restaurants,” Assour says.

Assour also offers plenty of criticism of the union’s previous leaders. He says that at least once the election committee took a trip to a casino in Varna, Bulgaria, at the union’s expense.

“An opinion from the accountant we appointed, Simha Lev, leaves no doubt about the seriously wasteful management. Why do union elections have to cost 400,000 shekels, compared with the 40,000 to 50,000 shekels at the election I was elected in?” Assour asks.

“It’s more important to improve the situation of 2,000 ‘second-generation’ workers whose monthly salaries are 32 shekels an hour, compared with 39 shekels for the ‘first-generation’ workers. In January we were about to strike on behalf of these workers, but the chairman of the Histadrut, Avi Nissenkorn, begged us not to strike, and we agreed.”

So-called second-generation workers were hired more recently and receive lower wages and fringe benefits than first-generation workers, who have kept their conditions from the days before recent collective-bargaining agreements.

“Both the Egged secretariat and the Histadrut are rubbing their hands in glee watching the union’s infighting because the heads of Egged and the Histadrut have joint interests, and they have an interest in a quiet and noncombative union like us,” Assour says. “We won’t let the distortion of second-generation workers pass in silence, and that’s the real reason for dissolving the union’s board.”

The head of the Histadrut’s transportation sector, Avi Edri, dismissed these claims out of hand after he announced the dissolution of the board and the holding of new elections on October 27.

“This [board] isn't functioning,” Edri says. “Fifty percent of its members are fighting with the other 50%. In this situation the union is paralyzed and it’s impossible to hold negotiations with the secretariat. I want a strong union to present a united front, but instead I see violence. There is no disagreement here on a professional matter or wages. These are totally personal battles.”

Better than layoffs

Edri doesn’t accept the complaints of the second-generation workers, whom he says were previously employed on personal contracts, not under a collective-bargaining agreement.

“We had two painful choices: Either for 1,000 of them to be fired or for them to become second-generation employees under a collective-bargaining agreement,” Edri says. “That’s the reason that historically there are so many second-generation employees at Egged who receive lower salaries. I think this was a better alternative than layoffs.”

The dissolution of a union’s board by the Histadrut is a rare occurrence. In 2011, the chairman of the El Al union was ousted by the Histadrut because he refused to toe the Histadrut’s line in negotiations with the company.

A year later, Israel Railways union chief Gila Edrei was ousted because of the way she ignored the Tel Aviv Labor Court, says the Histadrut. But actually her ouster came only after she took steps for her union to leave the Histadrut and move to a smaller rival labor organization, Koach La Ovdim.

But the Histadrut has been in no hurry to dismiss the strongman at Ashdod Port, Alon Hassan, who faces an indictment on charges including fraud, breach of trust and money laundering. Hassan left the union’s board voluntarily.

In general, the Histadrut doesn’t rush to remove union officials, and certainly not an entire board, even though the federation’s regulations let it do so, even if the union’s board was elected by the members.

A person close to the events at Egged says that even though the board under Assour was elected by the workers in an honest vote, the Histadrut clearly prefers a different board such as the one headed by Tamam, who today is in charge of Egged’s dealings with the Transportation Ministry.

Egged isn’t a normal employer, the source says. It’s a cooperative whose secretariat is made up largely of people in the central committees of the large political parties.

“The problem isn’t the current union board, but the Histadrut itself, which acts as a very centralized organization. The unions have almost no status on their own, and the workers don’t determine their fate, but rather the senior officials [at Histadrut headquarters] on Arlosoroff Street in Tel Aviv,” the source says.

“The exceptions are the strong unions of the large corporations, but they are very few. Dissolving the union board over personal disputes is particularly outrageous because the elected union officials are being removed by Nissenkorn, who himself wasn’t elected as head of the Histadrut.”

At Egged, people are wondering what will happen if the same union officials are reelected this month.

“What will Nissenkorn and Edri do?” the source says. “If there’s an internal conflict in the union it’s not a reason to dissolve it. The Knesset is conflicted too, but no one thinks about closing it.”

Just before the board’s removal was announced, the union declared it was considering leaving the Histadrut and switching to Koach La Ovdim, as the employees of Egged’s Ta’vura subsidiary did recently. But the announcement of new union elections put an end to that threat. In three weeks it will be clear who won.