Ofer Eini's Parting Words

'Don’t Count on the Government to Protect Israel's Weak'

Outgoing Histadrut labor federation chairman says unionizing low-paid workers is key to narrowing social gaps.

Ofer Eini, who announced on Wednesday he will be stepping down as Histadrut labor federation chairman in February, is proud of what he has done for workers at the bottom of the ladder - those who had no pension or worked on personal contracts.

But after eight years on the job, he is ready to move on and leave the next battles for his successor. The Marker's Sami Peretz, Rotem Starkman and Haim Bior interviewed him a day after his dramatic announcement.

What was behind your decision to resign?

Eini: "I've done all I could. After all, there's always something to do, always some form of crisis."

Just a year and a half ago you ran in the Histadrut election and won. You didn't say then that you wouldn't finish your term. Don't you think it's a bit like cheating your voters?

"No. If I'd actually stayed on until the next election I would be cheating the voters because I wouldn't be givinmy all."

Have you received any offers yet, any phone calls?

"Not yet."

Are you alright financially?

"I have a house with a NIS 2 million mortgage."

Is this one of the reasons you're quitting? To make money?

"I don't lack for anything and don't owe anyone anything except the mortgage. I'm not even in overdraft."

'Government won't deliver economic salvation'

The labor market is frozen and there's no progress. The strong are too strong and the weak are at the bottom. You are good at mediating disputes and joining forces against the government but you're leaving behind a problematic labor market.

"I agree. In my opinion the labor market has changed radically. During my time here the Histradrut began taking care of the weakest workers. We even declared a major strike to fight for the status of contract laborers. Not long ago we concluded an agreement on the issue of contract workers and took care of mandatory pensions for a million workers. That's no small achievement.

“Meanwhile there's a frantic rush to organize. Workers in hundreds of workplaces are organizing under the Histadrut framework and setting up locals to represent them against management. This is where we succeeded the most. For example, at Migdal we signed up 1,500 people in one day. Who dreamed 10 years ago that employees at an insurance company and at credit card companies would join the Histadrut?"

How are you in high-tech?

"We'll get to high tech, too. Many people understand that the government won't deliver economic salvation. The moment a process of organizing gets under way, it takes off. Your agenda at TheMarker hasn't taken hold. You say the strong need to be weakened to make everyone equal, and I say the weak have understood that they can be strong. If they band together they become strong. They are less fearful of their employers and know there's someone protecting them."

Your approach is to maintain the power of the large unions – the ones controlling "the main switch" – as your Rottweilers and go with them to fight for the weak?

"You incite against the large unions, claiming they earn too much at the expense of the weak, and that is true – sometimes. But many of the weak were able to figure out that strength depends on being together, and this is what is happening now. We're providing them all the tools to reach a point where they have representation. From that moment, the rules of the game in their company are changed. There's a balance. The owner has rights and that's okay, but the workers also need to enjoys the fruits of the business."

'Aspiring to agreement'

So you're leaving all future reforms to others?

"As I've said, there are always important issues on the agenda. I don't believe in doing things in one fell swoop. Take any matter facing workers – at the Electric Corp., for example. All the sides – government, management and the workers – know reforms are needed.

So why isn't it happening?

"The Histadrut has tried pushing for reform for years, but one of the biggest problems is that in the government there's no one single body in charge. Everyone, every ministry, every authority, is responsible for something else. There's no leader. It's a distorted structure."

There's the prime minister.

"He has other business to attend to. If he'd sit in meetings it would be a different matter. It's impossible to conduct negotiations this way because there's no official in charge. In this term the government understood this and set up a committee headed by [Netanyahu's economic adviser) Uri Yogev. So what does the committee do? By title, the person presumably meant to take charge of the negotiations is the [Finance Ministry's] wages director. So they placed a former wages director, Eli Cohen, on the committee. So the committee is functioning but, due to personal whims at the treasury, the wages director came and fired off a shot – a move unsupported by the finance minister, the energy minister, or Uri Yogev. Everyone I spoke to said it's a timing mistake and not to their liking."

Because everyone's afraid?

Of whom?

Of the power of the Electric Corporation workers.

"It that's true then we're a powerful federation. Everyone's singing the same tune. But nobody can do anything because they each have their own playing field so the head of the team isn't able to conduct the negotiations as he pleases. With us this couldn't happen. We have a negotiating team head and he leads, after consulting, obviously."

We feel you're completely correct in describing the situation, but that you're really pleased that there is overlap in the government because it's good for you. You know that this way nothing will move and you'll be portrayed as someone willing to talk, but meanwhile doesn't need to compromise on anything because everything's stuck to begin with.

"You're mistaken, big time. My aspiration is to reach agreement. For example … we managed to reach an agreement with the finance and defense ministries, a closed agreement that settles the privatization of Israel Military Industries, including compensation and severance pay for workers and everything."

How do you explain Alon Hassan's reinstatement as head of the Ashdod port workers' committee?

"You at TheMarker expect every organization to operate according to its charter, so why don't you let the Histadrut work according to its own? When the case of Alon Hassan's businesses came up we checked what the charter has to say. Listen up: We had no provision in the charter dealing with an instance of a union local member also holding private businesses. We understood that the charter needs amending and I added a clause stating that a member of a local can't have private businesses connected with the company – neither directly nor indirectly. It's now in the charter following this episode."

Hassan is back

Fine, but Hassan is back.

"Hassan suspended himself, and three months later informed the chairman of the trade union division that he dissolved the businesses in which he was involved and that had ties to his workplace. A local within the Histadrut was appointed that mainly functioned as a legal committee, and it determined unequivocally that there's nothing preventing him from returning to work."

It's as if a thief robbed for years, and after being caught he goes to the company and says he's stopped thieving and it should take him back. There's nothing wrong with this in your opinion?

"Don't mention the word 'thief.' I'm saying this for your benefit – I want to protect you. You have an agenda - that's wonderful."

You support Isaac Herzog in the election for chairman of the Labor party?

"I don't get involved."

Who do you think will win?

"It's a close battle. The winner will be whoever manages to transport his supporters to the polling station."

That's usually done by the Histadrut.

"That's a story that comes from the press."

Moti Milrod