Israel's Union Federation Begin Talks With Minister to Avert General Strike

The Histadrut labor federation and the treasury hope to head off general strike threatened to be declared tomorrow; if negotiators are unable to reach deal, the National Labor Court could be called in to make the strike call.

Negotiations aimed at finding a solution to the contract labor issue began last night in Tel Aviv between Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini and Finance Ministry representatives, and are expected to continue today.

The union and the treasury hope to head off the general strike Eini has threatened to declare tomorrow. If the negotiators are unable to reach a deal, the National Labor Court could be called in to make the strike call.

Ofer Eini - Moti Milrod - November 2011
Moti Milrod

Eini and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met Friday over the Histadrut's demand to drastically reduce the number of Israeli workers who are employed through labor contractors. Most receive inferior terms of employment that sometimes violate labor laws. Also attending Friday's meeting - which failed to bridge the considerable gap between the positions of the treasury and the Histadrut - were Avi Nissenkorn, chairman of the Histadrut trade union division, and treasury budget director Gal Hershkowitz.

On Friday, the liaison office of the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations, which represents private employers, asked the National Labor Court to issue an injunction against the strike. The agency said the proposed strike would cost the Israeli economy an estimated NIS 330 million a day.

The Histadrut, which says the strike is legal and justified by the harm that widespread contract employment causes workers and organized labor, is to submit its response today to the liaison office's petition.

The Histadrut said it will announce this morning the workplaces that plan to join the strike, if called. These are expected to include Ben-Gurion International Airport, the sea ports and railways, as well as public services at all government ministries and agencies such as the National Insurance Institute, employment bureau offices, Israel Lands Administration, local authorities, religious councils, the courts, government companies and university administration offices. Na'amat day care centers will be closed, while government hospitals will be on reduced weekend and holiday footing and Clalit Health Services clinics will be closed - all this in the event the sides fail to reach a deal and a general strike is actually called.

The Finance Ministry has rejected the union's demand to make significant reductions to the roles of public sector contract workers. Treasury officials say that cleaners, for example, cannot be employed directly by the government offices in which they work because their duties are outside the core activities of these agencies. They also argue that using labor contractors is essential to guaranteeing the administrative flexibility so critical to both the public and private sectors.

The Finance Ministry has, however, offered to improve the wages and terms of employment of these workers. It is also willing to allocate resources to heighten the enforcement of state labor laws in the contract work sector.

The National Student Union, chaired by Itzik Shmuli, will hold a solidarity strike tomorrow to demonstrate support for the Histadrut's cause, as part of which university students will boycott classes.

Student union leaders from all member colleges and universities are to meet tonight to decide on the scope and character of their protest measures.

Daphni Leef, who initiated this summer's nationwide social protest movement, also expressed support for the strike planned by the Histadrut.

"Social justice cannot be achieved unless all contract workers are brought into a direct employment arrangement," Leef said, adding that the use of labor contractors is one of the worst and most painful problems plaguing Israel because it affects workers who are stripped of their rights and their dignity.