Histadrut Without Politics, but Plenty of Bile

"Histadrut without politics" - that's the slogan plastered all over buses by the campaign to elect Ofer Eini to a second term as chairman of the labor federation, on May 15.

Eini never wanted these elections to take place. In  the last year he'd gathered all the leaders of all the factions under his wing. With each, he reached agreements about their power in the organization and he figured he'd sewn up wall to wall support for himself, and that he could start a whole new term as chairman without a poll. Even Haim Katz of the Likud, who had openly mocked Eini's skill set, gave the green light to his faction in the Histadrut - Oz - to join an Eini coalition.

But then along came some relative unknown from Ashdod, one Leon Benlulu, and decided to run against Eini.

Benlulu, 47, belongs to the Likud Central Committee. He defines himself as a close associate of Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud leader gave his blessing to Benlulu to run against Eini, even though when he'd been finance minister, he had often spoken Eini's praise.

Once there was a race, two other parties tossed hats into the ring. One is Hadash, an Arab socialist party. That faction is headed by Histadrut management member and acting chairman of the Guilds Association, Jihad Akel. The other is Balad, headed by Hassan Taha, who works for the Capernaum (Kfar Kana) local council.

Thus Eini's slogan, Histadrut without politics, has been rendered nonsensical.

It is true that Eini does everything he can to blur his political identification with Labor, and his list contains people from a rainbow of parties ? Labor, Shas, Meretz, the Gil Pensioners Party, and Oz. But almost all the Histadrut leadership, from Naamat to the guild leaders, are political animals who hail from Labor.

Syrian integrity

Benlulu has been a political animal himself, having served as deputy mayor of Ashdod, and beforehand leader of the municipal workers union. He knows he's the underdog in the election, but also knows that surprises do happen. Look at Haim Ramon in 1994, he says, who popped up from nowhere and swung the election after a mere one-month campaign.

"Ofer Eini was never elected to the positions he's held at the Histadrut," Benlulu points out. "He's always been appointed."

Benlulu worries that the election will be, as he calls it, Syrian-style. Meaning, that the voting booths won't be placed in public buildings like city hall and schools, as they had been in the past, but at workplaces, where it's much harder to detect and root out fraud. He has complained to the union tribunal and awaits its decision.

He also doesn't appreciate the fact that an association of civil servants that Eini heads recently sold Histadrut ,members an NIS  80 book for NIS 10, to which a letter from Eini had been appended. "That doesn't attest to integrity," he says.

But Eini has achievements he can boast during his stint as chairman, including guaranteeing wages for workers absent because of the Second Lebanon War. Benlulu argues that the government decided that and Eini had nothing to do with it.

What about the battle for local council workers whose salaries had been withheld? What about the new pension agreement Eini signed with private employers?

"The public supported the strike for the city workers, but the solution that arose was that the Histadrut loaned money to the workers who'd had not been paid. It's political spin," Benlulu argues, adding that the union could have done the same thing two years ago. "I wonder whether after the election, these unfortunates will continue to receive loans from the Histadrut. Regarding the pension agreement, it was achieved thanks to Eini's connections with the president of the Manufacturers Association, Shraga Brosh. They scratch each other's backs, so it is not clear how well the agreement does by the workers."

He blasts Eini for not yet starting negotiations over a new public-sector wage agreement, while for six years no new agreement has been signed. The state's 700,000 civil servants have had no raises, he says, and they're in a foul mood. Every time a job opens up, it gets outsourced, Benlulu claims.

Eini is meanwhile ignoring Benlulu's challenge, and disdains to comment on the putative rival's attacks.