Netanyahu Working to Stave Off General Strike Over High Living Costs

Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz set to present the government's plan to compensate the public for the recent price hikes resulting from higher taxes.

Hoping to stave off a general strike in about two weeks' time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Wednesday morning with Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, chairman of the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations Shraga Brosh, and chairman of the Israel Union of Local Authorities Shlomo Buhbut.

No progress was reportedly achieved during the meeting.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are to present Thursday the government's plan to compensate the public for the recent price hikes resulting from higher taxes.

Buhbut said that in Wednesday's meeting the prime minister was "pleasant and the atmosphere was cordial, but he did not offer anything concrete."

However, Brosh said he expected Netanyahu to "come to us with real solutions in an effort to end the crisis."

The prime minister has instructed the treasury to remain within the budget in formulating the benefits package, estimated to cost between NIS 3 billion and NIS 4 billion.

Eini said the three organizations demanded that the government raise minimum wage, lower water prices, cancel the tax on fuel, stop the price increases on bread and establish a joint committee to study how the prices of apartments and rent can be reduced.

The Histadrut is now planning a series of protests, including a mass rally at Rabin Square at a thus far unspecified date. The labor federation is set to declare a labor dispute Thursday, which will involve the public sector and some of the private sector. This means that by law, in two weeks, a strike can begin.

Closer to the strike date, the Histadrut will decide whether to involve the banks and the stock exchange. Two banks, Leumi and Discount, have already expressed willingness to join.

Hundreds of youth movement members will head to main junctions around the country tomorrow to hand out leaflets against the price hikes and advocating a rise in minimum wages.

The benefits Netanyahu and Steinitz are to propose Thursday include a subsidy on public transportation, increasing the numbers of people eligible for negative income tax, cancelling the excise tax on fuel, raising minimum wage in April and reducing water prices. The treasury wants the package to be funded by an across-the-board cut on all ministries - except defense - of between two and three percent.

Steinitz was hospitalized Tuesday night at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, after falling ill at home shortly after returning from another nighttime meeting with Netanyahu and his advisers. The finance minister chalked his illness up to the flu Wednesday, and the fact that he had not had anything to eat or drink all day Tuesday.

The approximately 10,000 social workers in the public sector declared a labor dispute Wednesday over wages, work conditions and benefits. The dispute was announced following a breakdown in negotiations between the social workers union, the treasury's director of wages and the employers.

Simcha Kimchi, coordinator of children and youth at risk in the southern district, and who has more than 25 years of experience as a social worker and a master's degree, earns NIS 7,500 a month.

"[Social workers] sit across from their clients, whose [financial] situation isn't that much different," she said, referring to the low wages earned in her field.

Kimchi said social workers have to deal with all the problems associated with poor remuneration, along with low public esteem for their profession. "This is an impossible situation. We are the collapsing middle class that people talk about," she said.
The Histadrut said the treasury has been dragging its feet with the social workers, delaying responses to their just demands.

The treasury responded by saying that, in addition to the already agreed on public-sector wage hike of 6.25 percent, it had offered the social workers another eight percent, as well as covering expenses for child care for children under five and increased pension payments. The treasury called the social workers' demands excessive.

Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon said Wednesday that he was following developments in the social workers' dispute. Praising the social workers, whom he called "welfare warriors," Kahlon said he would seek a meeting with the Finance Ministry's director of wages to study ways to bridge the gaps.

The fight against the price hikes is also going into high gear in local councils. In Rosh Ha'ayin, where city taxes have gone up 17 percent in the last three years, the opposition members on the city council have turned to lawyers specializing in property taxes.
The Petah Tikva municipality wants to raise local taxes by 5 percent, and Ra'anana by 9 percent.

"The city is in an uproar over this, and people should understand that the middle class, which is usually quiet, will stand up and protest," said a Ra'anana resident, who gave his name only as Ze'ev.

A rally is planned in Ra'anana tomorrow to encourage more residents to join the protest.
Beginning on Sunday, the Ramat Hasharon city council is going to be meeting in a protest tent, instead of city hall. In a letter to residents, Mayor Itzik Rauchberger called on them to sign a petition against increases in the prices of water, fuel and bread.

Buhbut Wednesday defended the hikes in municipal taxes. "The government is trying to raise taxes through us. The heads of local governments have no choice; they can either slash education and health services or raise taxes," he told Haaretz.

The chairman of the Israel Union of Local Authorities also said that if the government would agree to lower water prices, the union leadership would consider halving price hikes on local taxes.

Social activist Vicki Knafo, who eight years ago spearheaded a campaign for more benefits for single mothers, the unemployed and the poor, will be joining the protest planned for Sunday in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.

"Who should join if not me," she told Haaretz. "Getting people into the streets is a [first] step. No more crying - let's do something."

Sunday's demonstration in front of the Prime Minister's Office will be attended by members of the Kibbutz Movement, residents of outlying areas, the disabled, and taxi and truck drivers. Protesters will be rallying under the slogan: "Bibi [Netanyahu] is dividing Israel between the poor and the rich."