Histadrut Announces General Strike to Begin Wednesday at 6 A.M.

Strike over public sector wage dispute to encompass all gov't ministries, local authorities, ports, trains, and border crossings.

Histadrut labor federation Chairman Ofer Eini announced on Tuesday evening that the general strike would begin Wednesday morning, but would reach Ben Gurion international airport 24 hours later.

The strike encompasses all government ministries, local authorities (including garbage collection), government companies, ports, trains, the postal authority, the National Insurance Institute, the Israel Lands Administration, university administrations and outpatient clinics at public hospitals. Israel's border crossings with Egypt and Jordan will also close.

Bus companies and the Israel Electric Corporation would continue operating, and registered post would be handled by the postal authority.

Eini convened union leaders Tuesday morning to determine the scope and date of the major strike, which he termed "inevitable" after he and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On Sunday failed to resolve a dispute over public-sector wages.

But from the substance of informal talks between senior officials of the Airports Authority and airline executives in Israel, it appears that efforts to assure that arrivals and departures continue, will see to it that only a few flights are adversely affected by the strike.

The National Labor Court will hear a petition on Tuesday night submitted by various financial organizations requesting an injunction be issued against the strike.

The organizations say that while they do not begrudge public sector workers their basic right to strike, "the right to strike is a relative right."

In the petition, they say the strike will cause "incomprehensive damage to the public, which is not party to the conflict." The petitioners maintain that the strike will cost the economy NIS 800 million daily.

The National Labor Court has, in the past, issued an injunction against a general strike in the public sector.

In Bar-On and Eini's meeting, which was held Monday in Jerusalem, Bar-On offered a two-stage increase to public-sector wages, amounting to a one percent addition by 2009. The treasury had previously been willing to offer only a 0.2 percent increase.

Eini refused and termed the offer "insulting," adding it was "like offering to buy each worker two falafels." Histadrut officials said Eini decided against launching the strike today out of consideration for the religious public, who are observing the Jewish day of mourning of Tisha B'Av.

Finance Minister Bar-On said that complying with the Histadrut's demands for an increase of over 10 percent would exceed the budget, thereby impeding growth and unemployment. "Agreeing would compromise the government's ability to reach its objectives and combat poverty. It would keep it from helping the less affluent social strata."

Manufacturers Association chairman Shraga Brosh said he was following the negotiations closely, adding that he thought the strike could be avoided in the next 24 hours. "I am going to do everything in my power to prevent the strike. I will talk with both parties with the intention of averting this strike, which would cause tremendous damage to the Israeli economy. The business sector and the economy cannot afford so much as an hour of strike. A single day of strike would mean a loss of NIS 800 million."

The bone of contention is the Histadrut's demand that approximately 700,000 public-sector workers be given raises of ten to 13 percent. The Histadrut maintains that the last collective agreement on public-sector wages, which was signed in 2001, must be updated.

The treasury's wage director, Eli Cohen, countered the Histadrut's demands by saying that the public sector's wages had actually increased by an average 8 percent since 2001, owing to veteran workers' seniority wages and an increase in minimum wage for junior staff. At first, Cohen had refused any form of raise, until agreeing to offer a 0.2-percent raise. He later upped his offer to 0.4 percent, plus local corrections to certain workers groups.

According to Cohen, a one percent raise to public-sector wages could cost the state some NIS 800 million a year; thus the Histadrut's proposed raise could cost NIS 10-12 billion a year - a sum the government cannot afford, Cohen says.

"These demands greatly affect the national budget. We are currently negotiating adding billions of shekels for education, defense and social projects. Adding to wages would come at the expense of these issues," Cohen explained.