Israel Post Dispute Paves Way for Labor Chief to Flex His Muscles

The labor federation drive to save postal jobs is really aimed at pressuring the finance minister on broader issues.

Alon Ron

Avi Nissenkorn, the freshman chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, demonstrated responsibility during Operation Protective Edge. He opted not to call labor disputes amid the fighting, devoted time to ensuring businesses received government compensation and called Ashdod Port workers back to the job when they tried to flee at the sound of the first siren.

But the war is over and, as the public has learned amid a spate of labor slowdowns this month, it’s back to business as usual for Nissenkorn.

The Histadrut leader faces a difficult year. Talks about a public sector wage agreement were put off during the fighting over the summer. But, with budget makers at the treasury grappling with a big fiscal hole, it’s not clear where the government will be getting the money to pay for wage increases. As it is, civil servants are due to get a collective 1.5 billion shekel ($410 million) come January under the current previous agreement.

But the labor dispute at Israel Post has suddenly created a way for Nissenkorn to flex his muscles.

Demand for postal services has plunged 40% in recent years, but the government-owned company continues to operate as if nothing has changed, maintaining daily mail deliveries while branches are overwhelmed with packages.

Israel Post is overstaffed and underperforms. Its losses have been growing to 100 million shekels a year and more. But the Histadrut has fought resolutely all attempts at cutting back the workforce or reassigning employees. Israel Post is close to collapse but counts 7,000 people on its payroll.

The government wants to let go 1,200 of them under very generous terms – close to the 1 million shekels of severance pay employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority are getting and a pension from the day of dismissal.

In exchange, however, the Histadrut will have to agree to cutting delivery to two days a week, shutting unneeded post offices and expanding hours at branches that are now overwhelmed with mail. The government also wants it to agree to expanding the Postal Bank and raising capital in the financial markets to make Israel Post less reliant on the taxpayers and more competitive.

Nissenkorn realizes that the layoffs are inevitable; his struggle is over the ones that remain, namely will they receive seniority after five years and all the rights that come with that, or remain in what in Histadrut parlance is called “temporary workers.” The labor federation wants as many staff with seniority as possible, and the treasury wants as few, which will give management more flexibility.

In contrast to the Netherlands, where close to 80% of postal workers have seniority but continue to work efficiently, in Israel seniority inevitably leads to absenteeism and underperformance. Workers with seniority are effectively immune from dismissal. The treasury calls them “nails without heads,” because they are impossible to remove.

To start his campaign, Nissenkorn ordered postal workers to impose a slowdown earlier this month, suspending services such as mobile post to outlying communities. When he realized that was just hurting the periphery, he hit the government directly by refusing to collect fines and fees. Last week he ordered warning strikes at such sensitive places at Ben-Gurion Airport and the Tax Authority.

Neither baggage handlers nor tax inspectors care much about the fate of their colleagues at Israel Post. Airport workers recently won a fat wage contract and don’t need to strike.

But Nissenkorn, who only took over from Ofer Eini a few months ago at the helm of the Histadrut, needs to line up the big workers’ committee to demonstrate his strength. And they need to obey to ensure their own futures.

Fortunately for the Histadrut leader he faces a finance minister, Yair Lapid, who has no appetite for a fight with organized labor.

Thus the two are talking eye to eye without treasury officials who might object to the concessions their boss is ready to make. Lapid has already said he opposed expensive reforms – mainly those that have been opposed by the Histadrut.

Ofer Vaknin