Bank Leumi Workers to Shut Down Most Branches Today

There will be major interruptions to operations at Bank Leumi branches nationwide today as workers step up their opposition to the bank's imminent privatization. Most branches will be closed to the public, while those in the greater Tel Aviv-Gush Dan region will remain open until 10 A.M. to enable the bank's 10,000 employees to attend a protest at Tel Aviv's Exhibition Grounds.

The cost of the protest, which is being convened by the trade union representing the workers, has been estimated at hundreds of thousands of shekels. Its stated purpose is to inform the employees about the expected escalation of sanctions next week in the run-up to the November 14 tender deadline.

"I want to make it clear to every potential buyer that if it purchases Bank Leumi without first ascertaining that the state signed a collective agreement guaranteeing the full rights of the bank employees, then [the buyer] is risking its money and could regret its investment very much," union head Louis Roth said yesterday.

"We recommend to the Leumi management not to expect privatization of the bank without an agreement that satisfies all of the union's demands," Roth continued. "To the workers, I declare that the union will fight fiercely until we get what we deserve."

The head of the bank employees' unit at the Histadrut labor federation, Zion Shema, said yesterday that despite the escalation of the work dispute at Leumi, efforts will be made during the coming days to renew talks with government representatives in order to arrive at an agreement that will prevent major changes at the bank and permit the privatization process to continue.

The union has submitted several demands on behalf of Leumi employees. It is asking for workers to have an option to purchase 6 percent of the bank's shares at preferred terms. The treasury's accountant general, Yaron Zelekha, opposes the option plan, in contrast with his predecessor, Nir Gilad. The union is demanding that each worker be given NIS 40,000-50,000, as was promised to Bank Discount's employees. Finally, the union is demanding that the current collective bargaining agreement be extended by five to seven years after the bank's sale.

In addition to the planned sanctions, Leumi employees have asked the Knesset Finance Committee to protect their interests during the privatization.

Discount union threatens strike too

Negotiations between the union and the management at Israel Discount Bank have reached a dead end, resulting in threats of renewed strikes and sanctions.

On Thursday the attorneys for the employees and for IDB, Benny Cohen and Nahum Feinberg, respectively, are slated to report to the Tel Aviv District Labor Court on the status of the negotiations.

The sides are expected to inform the court that no progress has been made in the two weeks since the bank requested a temporary restraining order against the union and Judge Netta Roth ordered the sides to continue their talks and report to her.

The union plans to strike on Friday, closing all or most of Discount's branches. A final decision will be made later this week.

If a strike is called, management will ask the court to issue a restraining order to prevent it.

"The representatives of Discount's employees promised in writing to refrain from sanctions until September 30 or the finalization of the bank's sale, whichever is later. Therefore any strike action at the bank is illegal," an attorney for the bank said last night.

Employees are demanding a 10-percent salary increase for 2004-2005, in addition to a bonus equivalent to one month's salary. They reject the management's counteroffer of a lower increase in pay.