Eini Takers?

Rumors have the Histadrut chief leaving for business, yet he's been shoring up his strength ahead of elections.

The year 2011 was an annus horribilis for Ofer Eini. The summer cost-of-living protests caught the Histadrut labor federation chairman unprepared, and he never did find a way to make himself relevant to the movement. Social workers bucked at the agreement the Histadrut struck with government over their employment conditions, and Eini abandoned their representation in a rage. He voiced no opinion at all as Israel's medical residents fought against the collective agreement their union had achieved for them, and his much-ballyhooed battle over the rights of temporary workers has mainly served to remind everybody that the umbrella union had ignored their desperate plight for decades.

Nor have rumors that he's leaving the Histadrut to make money in business done his image any favors. Neither has the appointment of his life-partner Ravit Dom as chief executive of the Amal chain of vocational schools, which belongs to the Histadrut. Then there's Eini's brother Benny Eini, who chairs Ogen, which is Ofer Eini's political party. These appointments have led to accusations of nepotism, and some also accuse the Histadrut chairman of cronyism.

Ofer Eini
David Bachar

At present Eini is threatening to declare "the mother of all strikes" if the Finance Ministry and private employers don't promise to scale back their use of subcontracted workers. Completely by coincidence, surely, this activism predates elections in the Histadrut, scheduled for May.

Who would dare take on a man positioned as champion of the weak and weedy? It is true that Eitan Cabel of the Labor Party has already said he will run in the race to chair the powerful umbrella union and there have been whispers that Amir Peretz, also of Labor, wants the job back. The Likud is reportedly trolling for a suitable candidate too. But after Labor chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich declared her categorical support for a second term for Eini and in the absence of a real competition within the organization, his status seems unassailable.

Yet his status isn't invincible, as in the past. Achieving real gains for subcontracted workers would bring him dividends he sorely needs in this campaign.

One-man regime

Eini joined the Histadrut labor federation in the early 2000s after a stint as union leader for Tax Authority workers. Amir Peretz, then chairman of the union and a close friend, boosted Eini in the ranks, first assuring his election as chairman of the civil servants' union, then chairman of the trade unions department - the second-most important job at the Histadrut.

Peretz left the Histadrut six years ago to go into politics full-time, but first ensured Eini's appointment as his heir.

Yet their alliance crumbled all too fast. Both tend to the suspicious side, which overcame their relationship. At the height of their hostilities, people from Peretz's camp tried to split the Histadrut in order to weaken Eini. They failed and the leader of the rebellion, Leon Morozovsky, was kicked out.

Eini's rivals mostly stay under the radar, but have been known to complain that he runs the place like a one-man show. "Middle management and the heads of trade unions, people representing tens of thousands of workers, walk on eggshells, doing everything they can not to stand out or oppose him," said one. "Their influence over policy at the Histadrut is zero."

There is no opposition within the organization, they add: He calls the shots and everybody says Yea.

His supporters claim there are enough internal forums at which the trade union leaders and various experts can have their say.

Eini is also criticized for his relationships with Israel's business barons - bankers, industrialists and others. These cozy relations have brought Histadrut figures to the boards of industrial concerns and constrained Eini's ability to fight for workers' rights, say his critics.

Something over a year ago, rumors began that Eini would be leaving the Histadrut for a cozy job with one of the tycoons. The whispers zeroed in on Nochi Dankner, whose vast business group IDB already employed Eini's son, Omri, as personal assistant to the CEO of IDB Tourism. Eini's brother Ezra also works for an IDB group company, Cellcom, and Eini's life-partner Dom has a seat on an IDB group company board. Former Knesset member Avi Yehezkel also began working at IDB in parallel with holding a management position at the Histadrut.

Eini's cronies, however, categorically deny any special relations between him and any tycoons. As for his relations with Nochi Dankner, say the associates, the Histadrut declared labor disputes at a number of Dankner-owned companies, including Makhteshim-Agan, Super-Sol, Israir and the distribution company of publishing group Maariv. Nor does Eini have special relations - as sometimes bruited about - with another business magnate, Zadik Bino, say his associates. Years ago Bino asked Eini to mediate a dispute between the management at the bank he owned, First International Bank of Israel (locally known as Beinleumi ) and the workers - that's all.

All in the family

It can be said though that Eini looks out for his family and friends. Dom's appointment last February as CEO of the Amal chain of vocational schools begs questions. Eini hired Dom for the job without holding a tender, and before disclosing their intimate relationship to the Histadrut's management. Reportedly they had been living together for a long time before the official announcement.

Workers at the Histadrut won't talk about it, but many feel the appointment was fishy. "Nobody was surprised, given their relationship, but it smells bad," claims a Histadrut source. "Dom does not have extensive management experience. All she managed was the Histadrut chairman's election campaign - big deal. But mainly, she's not a pedagogue," the source said.

The parallel Ort chain of vocational schools is headed by Dr. Israel Peleg, an educator of the highest rank: The Histadrut should also have its schools headed by a leading light in education, the source says.

Dom hasn't been on the job long enough to be judged. In defense of her appointment it also needs saying that her predecessor, Shimon Cohen, had also been an Eini appointment, and also that the Amal chain never had an educator as its leader. Also, under her are two deputy managers who are veteran educators, Prof. Zeev Shapira and Dr. Ronit Ashkenazi.

"HaMakor" (The Source ), the investigative television show that first reported on Dom's employment, also reported that Tzipi Yishai, wife of religious politician Eli Yishai, was hired by the Histadrut for the rather unclear job of "improving relations with the Haredi community". HaMakor also reported that Amal, though Dom says it's in financial trouble, increased its spending by NIS 2 million in the last year. Several school principals in the Amal system have complained about Dom's unprofessional conduct.

Then there's his brother Benny running Ogen, which is Eini's political list inside the Histadrut. Ogen is run from offices in Tel Aviv's Century Tower office block. Eini's supporters say Benny has run the party for five years after proper elections by the faction members.

Another thing worth mentioning is that the Histadrut bought an apartment for Eini's use in north Tel Aviv, and pays its bills. The management of the Histadrut approved that unanimously. Eini has lived there since divorcing his wife: He no longer lives in Be'er Sheva. The Histadrut commented that buying an apartment for his use works out cheaper than renting one, or renting him a hotel room.

The Pilat manpower placement and testing company has also become a Histadrut stronghold, following its employment of a number of former Histadrut officials. Pilat is now headed by a former high Histadrut official, Gadi Lotan. The human resources department is headed by Eini's brother, Ezra.

Another bizarre appointment by Eini was that of former policeman Jackie Brei as managing director of Am Oved, which is owned by Hevrat HaOvdim, the Histadrut's holding company. Critics asking why Brei, former deputy head of the investigations department at Israel Police, was chosen for the job are told that he has the qualifications. "It's no wonder," sniffed an insider: "Eini puts his people into every conceivable position."

To Eini's credit, he doesn't call strikes every other day. Unlike his predecessor Peretz, he feels strikes are a precious tool to be wielded rarely. There have been just four general strikes by the Histadrut labor federation under Eini, and none lasted more than a day and a half. Maybe it's because of his relationship with Manufacturers Association leader Shraga Brosh, or because of political dexterity.

Eini can also take credit for laws enacted in 2009, as part of Labor joining Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. These laws strengthen the status of workers, mainly unaffiliated ones, vis-a-vis employers. For instance, management can no longer simply ignore labor organizations that arise in the workplace. Withholding pay has become a criminal offense and workers on sick leave cannot be fired. He is also responsible for mandatory pension provision laws. In 2010 he and Brosh agreed the minimum wage should rise (it had been NIS 3,850 a month ). Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz kicked but the prime minister intervened and the wage rose to NIS 4,100. In October 2012 it will be rising to NIS 4,300 a month.

He also achieved wage increases for civil servants and achieved collective employment agreements in a host of branches, including diamonds, print, security, bakeries, agriculture and more. Eini also pushed through a law requiring companies to formally hire temps after nine months.

Eini and his people have been working to cure the Histadrut's financial ills. The organization had accrued a deficit of NIS 1.8 billion and had become associated with profligacy. Under Eini's stewardship that deficit has narrowed to NIS 600 million and the organization has balanced its budget.

There are other successes, too, including bringing in good people to management. And there have been failures, such as the labor union at Haifa Chemicals decamping for a different umbrella organization, Koah LaOvdim, which led the disgruntled workers to a successful conclusion of their campaign.

Eini intends to run again but he's unlikely to stay at the Histadrut for another four-year term. He isn't saying, though: His cards are held close to his chest. Some say Yachimovich is keeping a seat warm for him at Labor, as her vice chairman. Others say that his keen business sense and excellent negotiating skills beckon tycoons. And yet other sources say there's no way he'll leave the Histadrut, in case it falls back into the hands of his now bitter enemy, Amir Peretz.

As for strikes, Eini is starting to feel that without a big one, the Finance Ministry will continue to ignore his endeavors for subcontract workers.

Last week the president of the National Labor Court, Nili Arad, disappointed Eini for the third consecutive time. She'd let him hold a four-hour strike of the public sector and banks a month and a half ago, on behalf of the temps. Since then she has consistently refused to allow a general strike, instead sending representatives of the Histadrut and Finance Ministry to negotiate, so far fruitlessly. The National Labor Court will convene again on January 8.

Since Eini's had the gun (i.e. a strike ) in plain sight since the first act, as it were, inevitably come the third act, it will fire. A strike there will be. Garbage will pile up on the streets, clinics will close down and forget about renewing your passport.

The Histadrut had ignored subcontract workers until recently. The powerful unions wanted the Histadrut batting on their behalf, not on behalf of transient workers who were beyond collective employment agreements. Eini is not devoid of responsibility for the plight of the temps. Now it remains to be seen if he can collect credit for taking them under the Histadrut's wing and, possibly, improving their lot.