Israel's National Union Vows Public-sector Strike Tuesday if No Deal Made on Broadcast Workers

Open-ended labor action would encompass all government offices, host of other institutions

Histadrut Labor Federation chief Avi Nissenkorn, March 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

Unless a last-minute agreement is struck with the treasury, Israeli public sector workers will begin an open-ended strike on Tuesday that will encompass all government offices, public transportation, the defense industries, hospitals, universities and Bezeq, among others.

The strike is ostensibly over the fate of a small number of workers who will be losing their jobs shortly when the Israel Broadcasting Authority is shut down and replaced by the new public broadcasting corporation Kan.

The Histadrut labor federation, in a statement on Sunday, said the strike was called to fight “the abuse of IBA and broadcasting corporation employees while inciting one group of workers against the other.” It asserted that the restructuring of the public broadcast sector had been “made contrary to the norms required in labor relations in general and in the public sector in particular.”

But observers say another - and perhaps the main factor - behind the strike, is Histadrut elections in another month, where the labor federation’s chairman, Avi Nissenkorn, is pitted against Shelly Yacimovich, a Zionist Union lawmaker.

Yacimovich said as much on Sunday. “The threat of a strike isn’t authentic or convincing and springs entirely from the Histadrut chairman’s fears about the May 23 elections,” she declared. “We know how it will turn out: A minute before the strike begins or shortly thereafter, they will suddenly reach an accord that had already been agreed on in advance.”

Nissenkorn responded: “The Histadrut chairman will manage the struggle as he knows best in the best way possible for the workers while Yacimovich will continue to tweet and put out press releases, as she knows best.”

The strike comes three weeks before the IBA closes and Kan launches operations. However, even the timing and exact details of the changeover are still in flux.

The cabinet approved a last-minute change to the law that will delay Kan’s launch to May 15, from the April 30 date now in the law. Ministers also approved a plan to shear off its news division into a separate news division that will only go on the air later. The changes must go the Knesset for final approval.

About 160 IBA employees and 100 Kan staff will be moved automatically into the new news corporation. About 57% of Kan’s workforce came from IBA. In addition, all IBA employees, including those who moved to Kan, will get a severance package that on average is worth 700,000 shekels ($190,000).

Although he is calling a strike in support of broadcast workers, Nissenkorn actually signed on to the original 2014 reform plan to shut IBA and create the new corporation. In the past, Nissenkorn said he declined to wage a battle against the reform plan because Operation Protective Edge was underway and he didn’t want to strike at such a sensitive time.

However, Nissenkorn took an active role in negotiations over labor rights under the restructuring and signed documents as recently as March 2016 between the journalists union and the government in connection with Kan. On the other hand, he conspired with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau – a bitter foe of Kan – in efforts to delay its launch date.

Meanwhile, NIssenkorn is going into next month’s elections with a chip on his shoulder: He was appointed the labor federation’s chairman three years ago without elections. As the designated successor to Ofer Eini, who left before his term was over, Nissenkorn never stood in a general election but was chosen by a narrower forum of union leaders.

Since then, he has taken a militant stance in disputes with the government. “Nissenkorn understands the way to operate with the treasury – to threaten, otherwise nothing will happen,” said one source close to the Histadrut. “It’s true it’s not the best way to manage labor relations, but it’s proved itself time and again, The treasury reacts when the knife is at its throat.”

Nissenkorn has declared no less than six labor disputes – a declaration that unions are required to make at least 14 days before they formally go on strike - on average one every six months since taking office, although none have ever led to an actual strike.

He called his first just seven months after becoming chairman, over the minimum wage, and the others until now have been over major issues. This time it is over a very small issue, and one most of the public doesn’t understand.