Israel's Power Belongs to the People, Not Employees at State Monopolies

In the fight over Israel Electric Corporation reforms, a balance must be struck between the needs of the public and the rights of the workers

Israeli Electric Corps workers protesting in 2014
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After two decades of failed attempts to advance a reform of the electricity sector, the Finance Ministry, the Histadrut labor federation and Israel Electric Corporation recently reached an agreement in principle that is likely to improve the company’s efficiency. It includes laying off some 2,800 workers, reducing the company’s debt and outsourcing part of its power generation and distribution operations. The agreement will cost the state several billion shekels, in part due to the larger pensions it gives to the remaining workers and to those who leave, together with a “reform bonus” of between 10,000 and 30,000 shekels ($2,900 to $8,600) per worker.

This type of package isn’t the norm in the private sector, but in the public sector it has long been clear that getting workers who control the “switch” to accept a reform program comes at a very high price. Yet despite the government’s excessive generosity at taxpayer’s expense, Histadrut is not satisfied with the billions of shekels that will be heaped on the workers.

In addition, it has demanded that the state withdraw a petition to the High Court of Justice that seeks to limit the right to strike of workers in essential services in cases where the state wants to advance reforms but the workers use strikes as a weapon to thwart them. The petition is against a ruling by the Jerusalem Labor Court that effectively gave IEC employees the right to strike with virtually no restrictions.

The government isn’t opposing the right to strike in general; it merely seeks to forbid strikes that in effect undermine the state’s sovereignty by tying the government’s hands when it seeks to implement measures for the public’s benefit. But the Histadrut sees the IEC and agencies like the ports and the Israel Airports Authority as its stronghold. The switches controlling these critical industries are the trade union umbrella organization’s doomsday weapon in every labor dispute, and without them it would be weakened.

Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn is thus trying to extort the state by demanding that it withdraw the petition and not restrict the right to strike in any situation. This is an unreasonable demand that ties the state’s hands when it seeks to improve the services it provides and reduce the cost of living.

The right to organize and to strike are fundamental economic rights that are essential to achieve a balance between workers and wealthy owners. But the vital services the state provides in industries such as electricity, the ports, water and more aren’t owned by tycoons; they belong to the public. The balance that must be struck is between the needs of those who use electricity, the ports and the airports, on one hand, and on the other, the Histadrut and employees of these government monopolies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly insists on reducing the power of workers at these monopolies to prevent reforms. Caving in to the Histadrut’s demands would signal that the battle to lower the cost of living and improve public services will be waged only against weak players. The strong ones, who control the switches, will once again get a free pass.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.