The Drama Queen Who Leads Israel's Labor Federation

Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn is a great guy with good intentions and no ability to lead.

Yossi Zamir

Some years ago I visited Denmark, to study its labor market. My hosts in government and the unions waxed enthusiastic about their cooperative relations, among other things, telling me that the last strike had been in 1999.

I wondered how that worked. Have they no disputes? They do have, they admitted, but when disagreement raises its hairy head, they sit down and talk and try to resolve their problems.

What happens if they don’t agree? I asked. “We continue to talk and try to resolve the disputes.” Got it. But what if they still don’t agree? “Then we continue to talk,” my hosts told me. I stopped asking. I got it.

That circular discussion came back to mind when I learned this week how the first round-table meeting between Finance Ministry officials, representatives of the Histadrut labor federation and of employers went down.

Shira Greenberg, deputy head of budgets at the Finance Ministry, presented some slides showing the processes necessary to stimulate economic growth. At some point, she showed slides on labor relations and the needs raised by employers: for instance, regulation of overtime in the public sector and measurement by week rather than day (employers claim that they, and their workers – like working mothers – would prefer payment for overtime be based on the weekly work count, not daily; for both the advantage is flexibility.)

At this stage, Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn got up and stalked out of the room with his people.

The other participants weren’t exactly surprised – Nissenkorn has a name for stalking out of meetings when he doesn’t like something. The only surprise was that he did it at the very first meeting, which hadn’t been designed for decisions or even recommendations, just to hear each other out. Anyway, the meeting broke up and with it, so did any hope that a round table could be established for the greater good of the economy. Even optimists know there’s no partner for talks.

The purpose of round tables is to overcome the culture of force and mistrust. It is to talk, to create dialogue, perhaps not quite like in tolerant Denmark, but something that could be sustained for more than an hour before Nissenkorn stalks out.

One could go on casting arrows at Nissenkorn’s style, but the treasury people have gotten to know the drama queen in him and there’s no point in further elaborating the point. Listing his drawbacks won’t boost economic growth or improve productivity.

Nissenkorn is a man with integrity who came to labor relations out of honest interest: His problem is that his actual interest is confined to tiny tactical achievements that improve the lot of workers in this or that sector which happens along. He isn’t a real economic leader and his stressed-out stylelessness makes it difficult to solve the problems that the economy and labor market face. How many times can you stalk out of meetings and slam the door behind you?

Nissenkorn believes that the productivity problem can be solved by more investment in machinery and equipment, that it isn’t a problem of lazy or mediocre workers. That is deliberate blindness. Go anywhere, to any workplace, certainly in the public sector, and ask people if they feel their colleagues achieve good productivity. They’ll tell you the truth.

Productivity in Israel is lower than in the developed world. There is no argument about that. The argument is over the origin of the problem – rickety infrastructure, equipment and machinery or manpower that just isn’t dynamic, or skilled, enough. The answer is all of the above.

But the dialogue between the Finance Ministry and the Histadrut has come to simply blaming each other for everything. The Histadrut wants more money from the ministry. The ministry doesn’t want to give it.

The Histadrut wants the ministry to invest and stimulate innovation and machinery and production lines, but refuses to contemplate so much as the hair on the head of a single worker being cut. The ministry agrees that innovation and machinery and infrastructure are surely necessarily, but let’s also make the manpower in the public sector more efficient, more flexible.

One has to admit that the ministry’s fantasy isn’t totally surreal. They’re not proposing to abolish tenure but they do want the option to shed 2% to 3% of the workers each year, those who are deemed unfit or unproductive. That could do wonders for productivity, but the Histadrut won’t have it. It surely wouldn’t suit Nissenkorn either, ahead of elections for the Histadrut chairmanship. Not that he’d let the ministry have a victory like that after the elections, either.

There are ideas floating around to improve Israel’s productivity. Some are in the realm of labor relations, some involve investment in innovation and equipment, some involve training. Many feel something has to be done to boost productivity for the sake of economic growth, especially as Israeli exports can’t rise because of the state of the global economy.

It is very much in the Histadrut’s interest to improve productivity because that is the best and most economic way to increase wages in Israel. Improving productivity simply expands the pie. There is more pie to share. But the dialogue of the round table, not that it lasted more than an hour, isn’t about “what I can gain” but “what might I lose” – that’s not a dialogue of leadership, not a dialogue that fosters trust. With dialogue like that, who needs a round table? Let them go get some work done instead of wasting time on meetings that Nissenkorn will simply stalk out of anyway.