Analysis

How a Five-minute Walk Led to a Two-day Strike

It was another case of powerful unions overplaying their hand. Thankfully, this time they backed down

The new Israeli Tax Authority office in Jerusalem, two kilometers as the crow flies from the old offices, in 2017.
Emil Salman

Vadim Ebenstein still isn’t well known to the Israeli public, but we should take note of his name: It’s likely that Ebenstein will soon be remembered, along with Gila Edri, chairwoman of the Israel Railways workers committee, as someone who does irreparable damage to organized labor.

Ebenstein, chairman of the Israel Tax Authority workers committee, is the man responsible last week for calling a strike of 4,000 workers for two days. In the process, he brought tax collection to a halt and hurt the economy. If this time he succeeded in saving himself and organized labor from irreparable damage, it’s only because he chose to quietly put an end to his big mistake.

The main reason for the strike was Ebenstein’s demand that 4,000 employees of the Israel Tax Authority enjoy a seven-hour workday but be paid for 8.5 hours – in other words, an 18% pay raise. As it is, civil servants get paid for 8.5 hours a day, but their workday is only eight hours and 10 minutes.

Because of the strike, the government is offering workers to cut their workday an additional 30 minutes for the next year. This means they would work seven hours and 40 minutes a day, and still get paid for 8.5 hours. The unions had initially demanded that this benefit last forever, but the labor courts backed the government in rejecting it.

The strike and the outrageous demands are all over two kilometers – the distance as the crow flies between the Tax Authority’s old offices on Kanfei Nesharim Street in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul quarter and the new ones in the government compound near the Knesset. Some 4,000 Tax Authority workers were due to move into the new building, which features a private office for each employee and adjacent underground parking.

But there was a problem. The number of parking places in the new building was determined by a new policy to discourage civil servants from using their cars to get to work in favor of public transportation. Even so, today there are enough spaces for everyone. But some were concerned that once the new building was fully occupied, there might not be.

The government offered civil servants free rides that would take them from anywhere in Jerusalem to the new offices, and leased additional spaces at a parking garage 250 meters and a five minutes’ walk away.

Over those five minutes, which a tiny number of Tax Authority workers would have to spend walking, the nationwide two-day strike was called, with threats of expanding the action to a general strike.

The idea of calling a strike over the move to the new offices was invented by Ebenstein. Credit belongs to the workers committee at the Environmental Protection Ministry, which made a nearly identical move earlier this summer, and registered its opposition in a lawsuit with the Jerusalem District Labor Court.

You need to read the ruling issued in June to believe it: Over 13 pages, the judges weigh the right to negotiations and advance warning (the decision to move to the new premises was taken five years earlier) and if the employers – that is, the government – had met its obligations in these matters.

Remember, we’re talking about a two-kilometer move inside the same city, to a new and improved space. In addition, within a few years a new line of the Jerusalem light rail will pass near the new offices, making it unnecessary to commute in a private car. Even so, the government offered to provide free rides.

In the end the judges ruled that the state did meet its obligation and agreed that the move didn’t constitute a major upheaval for workers. The ruling undermined any claims that the rights of Tax Authority employees had been violated.

Unlike the employees of the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Tax Authority workers can cause real financial damage by striking and refusing to collect taxes. They had the backing of the Histadrut labor federation, which is in effect controlled by the biggest and most powerful of its constituent unions. All of this happened a week before Election Day in Israel.

The confluence of all these factors brings to mind the wildcat strikes staged by Israel Railways workers last May.

Those outrageous strikes angered the public and opened a window of opportunity for politicians like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to revive calls for mandatory arbitration for critical public sector employees. For purposes of the law, the Tax Authority is no less critical than the railroads because of its control over state revenues.

It’s hard to say who stands to lose more from mandatory arbitration: the powerful unions that have a stranglehold on key parts of the economy, or the government, which would lose control over labor conditions. What we can say with confidence is that mandatory arbitration makes the arbitrator a kind of court of law that hands down decisions. Without the give-and-take that comes with negotiations, the outcomes are likely to be more extreme.

Thankfully, someone seems to have whispered into Ebenstein’s ear this week that it was time to climb down from his dangerous demands. Maybe it was the Histadrut that decided a nationwide strike was an overreaction to a five-minute walk from a parking garage. In any case, Ebenstein declined to comment.