Where the Shekel Stops / Why Isn't Ofer Eini Being Forced to Walk the Plank?

Steinitz at least tried to do something about fixing the broken firefighting system. It was the union leader who blocked reform in the name of the right to strike.

The state comptroller, according to a recent leak to the press, will be recommending that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz be fired because of the Mount Carmel fire. The comptroller views the Finance Ministry, which dallied about transferring money to reform and rebuild the firefighting forces, as sharing responsibility for the conflagration that killed dozens of people.

One can identify with the comptroller's frustration, which led to that extreme recommendation. Since the 1960s, roughly every four years the state comptroller has written a damning report about the terrible state of Israel's firefighting forces. The sheer multiplicity of the reports, parroting the same findings time and again, never achieved a thing. Tossed into drawers or put on shelves, their chief function was to attract dust.

Ofer Eini - Ofer Vaknin - 09022012
Ofer Vaknin

The comptroller aside, there were three public inquiries into the structure and horrible state of the firefighting forces: in 1976, 1995 and 1998. They too failed to spur change and again, served chiefly to collect dust.

The most important of the three public inquiries was the Ginosar Committee in 1998. Its report is a fat tome, proposing profound structural changes. It recommended nationalizing all firefighting associations owned by local authorities and uniting them into a single nationwide firefighting force, under a single commander, and defining it as a national emergency service.

Among other things, that would have meant that like police officers, soldiers, and jail wardens, firefighters would be banned from striking.

The government adopted the Ginosar recommendations fashionably late - in fact 10 years later, in 2008. Why did it tarry? Because the government never meant to implement the recommendations, which required it to confront the local authorities (which would be losing control over their firefighting systems ) and the Histadrut labor federation (the firefighters would lose the right to strike ). Finally the government had no choice but to adopt the recommendations because of pressure from the one body the government cannot ignore: the army.

During the Second Lebanon War, the Home Front Command (which is responsible for civilians during wartime ) was horrified to discover that billions of shekels it was receiving to protect the home front could prove pointless because of the dysfunction of the firefighting forces. The Home Front Command thumped on the table and spelled out that the state of the firefighting forces could lead to disaster of national proportions.

Even that had no effect. The government formally adopted the Ginosar recommendations and even formulated a bill to reform the firefighting system. The bill never was enacted into law. For that, the Histadrut can take credit. It blocked the bill because it was not prepared to have firefighters lose their right to strike. Nor would the umbrella union accept the compromise that they would lose their right to strike when it came to emergency services, but would keep the right in respect to non-emergency services (such as inspecting new buildings and granting approval for occupancy ).

Not Steinitz's fault

And that is where the discussions over the Ginosar recommendations bogged down: with the Histadrut. The Finance Ministry did allocate some of the money needed for the reform, so the firefighting services could buy sorely needed equipment, but most of the money was contingent on the reform that never happened. And then a fire broke out at a point on drought-stricken Mount Carmel. Israel was reduced to asking neighboring nations to send firefighting planes to douse the flames.

As you read the government is finally working on another draft legislative proposal to reform the service: The firemen would keep their right to strike in non-emergencies.

The state comptroller decided that delays in transferring budgets and executing the reform warrant firing the finance minister. But the finance minister actually did try to carry out the reform. It was Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut, who blocked it. One has to wonder why the finance minister is shouldering the blame, while Eini has gotten off scot-free.

The answer probably lies in the perception of most Israelis, including the state comptroller, regarding the division of responsibility. Everybody knows the finance minister is responsible for the budget. Everybody also knows that Eini is responsible for labor relations, and for preventing change to labor relations; but he bears no responsibility for the ramifications of his decisions.

The fact that Israel's firefighting forces still don't function, including because of the dispute over the right to strike, is not Eini's responsibility in the comptroller's eyes, even when it is clear as day that Eini is partly to blame for this situation.

The odd distinction between authority and responsibility in managing labor relations has also arisen in the case of subcontract workers. When he first took power, Eini admitted that the Histadrut's mulish refusal to give the government managerial flexibility resulted in personal contracts and subcontracting in the public sector. He has since forgotten the Histadrut's responsibility in these diseases of labor relations.

There is no question that supervising the working conditions of subcontracted workers is the responsibility of the state. There is also no question that the low prices set in tenders, and their resultant low pay, is also the responsibility of the state. But just as clearly, the state's preference for cheap temps rather than tenured workers is because of the inflexibility of collective employment agreements in Israel, which is thanks to the Histadrut.

When he took the job, Eini brought a new spirit of flexibility and dialogue, rather than belligerence. Hopes ran high that he would lead to a historic deal with the state, reforming collective employment arrangements in which worker rights would be maximally protected, while employers would retain the flexibility to manage their workers when it came to pay, incentives, promotion and job security.

A reform like that could have solved the temps' problem once and for all, and solved the Israeli government's chronic inefficiency. Eini would have received all the credit for it, too. But Eini disappointed. He prefers today to call strikes for which he - as much as the state - bears the blame.

The Histadrut commented in response that it acted without blemish to protect the firefighters. The right to strike could not be voided as the Finance Ministry demanded. "Firemen gave their lives to fight the fire and now they are being blamed for causing it," the Histadrut stated. "The state comptroller refused to lend a hand to that contemptible attempt, which is good."