Treasury, Histadrut Meeting in Final Effort to Avoid Public-sector Strike

Strike to begin at 6 A.M. on Wednesday, include grounding of outgoing flights, closure of borders and of all gov't offices..

Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson met Tuesday evening with Interior Minister Ronny Bar-On and chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, Ofer Eini, in a last-ditch effort to prevent a major public-sector strike planned for Wednesday.

The meeting continued late into the night on Tuesday.

The strike is set to include the cancellation of outgoing flights at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the paralysis of the ports and all train lines, and the closing of land borders. Government offices, employment bureaus, courts, National Insurance Institute branches, the Israel Lands Administration and the vehicle licensing office will not receive the public nor answer phones. The Israel Electric Corporation operators will not work, no fuel will be delivered to gas stations, and local authorities will not be operational.

Official documents like passports will not be issued, and functioning assessment committees at the National Insurance Institute will not meet. No mail will be delivered.

If the strike does not end within two days, a shortage of gas may ensue, since the strike includes the fuel depot at Pi-Gelilot.

The local authority strike means that garbage will not be collected and parking tickets will not be issued.

The chief of the Histadrut trade unions department, Tsahi Tabakman, said on Tuesday the strike would not at this point include the health system (health maintenance organizations, hospitals, well-baby clinics or Magen David Adom), special education, the defense industries, the Egged and Dan bus lines, the Broadcasting Authority, day-care centers, residential schools and the Israel National Roads Company. All banks will operate as usual, except the Bank of Israel, which will be closed.

The reason for the strike is the partial or total withholding of salaries of about 12,000 workers in dozens of local authorities, and the non-transfer of money deducted for pension plans and educational training funds for 40,000 workers in local authorities.

"All we want is for the local authorities to pay all the salaries coming to the workers and transfer the money to the workers funds as should be done in a proper country," Eini said Tuesday. "It should be obvious, but this situation has gone on for two years and more. On July 12 the Histadrut declared a labor dispute to persuade the government to start acting on the matter. We had a great deal of patience, but nothing happened. I demand, as a condition to avoid the strike, the creation of a plan for full payment of the salaries to the workers and for sanctions against mayors and the heads of local councils who do not pay salaries and social benefits. We don't want to strike, and the moment our demands are met, the dispute will end.

In a veiled reference to the Accountant General, Yaron Zelekha, Eini said, "it has been more than a month since the Finance Ministry has abstained from transfering funds to the local authorities so they can pay their salaries and benefits to workers, but one official is preventing the transfer of the money."

In response, Zelekha said, "my job is to protect the public coffers and ensure that money will be spent from it according to the law and rules of proper administration. However I understand the local authority workers."

Sources in the treasury said Tuesday the problem of non-payment of salaries and benefits was so serious because the banks were not prepared to extend credit to some of the local authorities with large deficits for fear they would not be able to repay the money.

Hirchson called upon the Histadrut to halt its plans to strike saying "let's examine together the true dimensions of this problem, and together we will find a solution."

"The citizens of Israel deserve quiet, stability and certainty," he added, referring to the threatened disruptions to airports, seaports, gasoline supply, public services and more.

Criticism against EiniLeaders of the business sector in Israel criticized Eini's decision to shut down many branches of the public sector on Wednesday.

"We have declared a labor dispute [in the matter of the debts] on July 12, and since then the ministries of Interior and Finance have had plenty of opportunities to resolve the problem, but payments have not yet been made," Eini said Monday.

The president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, Uriel Lin said Monday "the planned strike is an example of misuse of the power to strike and the right to strike. We must break the ongoing tradition of local councils accumulating a large deficit and demanding the government pay their bills at the expense of the taxpayers. It is an unconscionable offense to all the citizens of Israel, and to Israel's business sector in particular."

Manufacturers Association President Shraga Brosh called upon the finance minister and the interior minister "to meet without delay to resolve this painful issue."

He also said that the holding back of workers' wages and the failure to transfer funds to workers' pension funds are intolerable crimes.

On Tuesday morning, Eini said that airport workers would strike but bank workers would not, because the privatization of banks excludes them from the public sector. He refused to comment on whether hospitals would be included in the strike.

Eini insisted that the Histadrut will get workers the wages they are owed. "We don't want to strike but we do want our workers to get the wages they deserve, and on time," he said.

"Unfortunately the government doesn't care about postponing payment of wages, and it responds only when we threaten to strike," Eini continued, "we don't want to strike every few months and that's why we need a long term solution. We will not be the hostages in the political conflicts within the Interior Ministry."