Changing the Guard, With Help From the Old One

The Public Works Department (Ma'atz) published two obituary notices in the newspapers following the death of Yitzhak Hershkowitz, the department's engineer who committed suicide Saturday one day after the broadcast of an investigative report on Channel 2. One of the notices was signed by "the management and workers" of the old Ma'atz, while the second one was published by "Maatz - The National Company for Roads in Israel" and signed by the company's board of directors, chaired by Amiram Levine, and its director-general, Alex Viznicher. It was no coincidence that two separate notices were published. Today, public works is a two-headed organization in conflict: each part operates independently and completely ignores the other.

One head is Ma'atz, the public works unit in the Transportation Ministry; the unit is scheduled to be dismantled in accordance with a government decision. The forces at work there are the long-time employees fighting for their future. The second head is the new Maatz, a state-owned company established last year in accordance with the same government decision. It is slated to replace the ministry unit and employ fewer workers, depending instead on subcontractors. The motivating force in the new company is Viznicher, who is operating according to government instructions.

The "Ma'atz File" broadcast on Channel 2's Friday night news magazine and its tragic denouement only served to exacerbate the conflict between the two sides. Since last weekend, alongside the mutual recriminations about defective management, the stealing of projects, and the undermining of negotiations, an additional accusation was voiced: that the workers had actively collaborated with the editors of the television program.

"We did not initiate the Channel 2 investigation, and we did not approach them. Channel 2 approached us," says Rachel Monsongo, the chair of the workers' council in the main office of the old Ma'atz. "By the way the approach was phrased, we understood that the program would focus on the new Maatz and director-general Viznicher, and therefore, we agreed to cooperate. No one mentioned Yitzhak Hershkowitz, who was a well-known and respected worker.

"Our complaints are not against Hershkowitz but against Viznicher, who is bullying us, without listening or showing any consideration. Viznicher began to transfer projects from the old Ma'atz to the new Maatz in recent months, despite the fact that negotiations with workers have not been concluded and violate agreements," Monsongo adds.

Viznicher responds: "In the eyes of the workers, I am seen as an enemy of the state, because I was appointed to manage the process of closing Ma'atz. I am acting in line with government directives, according to which all projects should be transfered to the new Maatz by the beginning of January 2005 - without any connection to negotiations with the workers. The negotiations are being conducted the way they are because of the workers. In fact, the ball is in their court, but they are not doing a thing."

Ma'atz operated in its old format for decades. It received annual budgets, coordinated a large system of employees and external contractors, and totally controled the paving and maintenance of intercity roads. In September 2003, the situation changed after the government decided to dismantle Ma'atz as a ministry unit and establish an independent government company in its place. This decision stipulated that the new company, established on April 1, 2004, would operate by means of outsourcing. This meant, among other things, that hundreds of Ma'atz workers would lose their jobs. At the time, 713 workers were employed by the old Ma'atz.

Viznicher, who was appointed several months earlier - he first served as director-general of the old Ma'atz - vowed that the new company would be completely different from the old unit: It would operate as a business in every way, and would be efficient. To demonstrate the sincerity of his intentions, Viznicher fired many veteran Ma'atz officials, including deputy directors, or transfered them from their positions. He also canceled the work routine that had become customary at Ma'atz for years.

The workers felt frustrated and angry. "The move that Viznicher is coordinating with the treasury will lead to the layoff of hundreds of long-time employees who are no longer young and will have a hard time finding other work," they said. "They will soon find themselves without a source of livelihood for themselves or their family." During the months following the government decision, 120 veteran employees opted for voluntary retirement, and negotiations began regarding the future of the other workers.

A decision over the future of the remaining workers was postponed time after time. Finally, it was agreed that an estimated 180 workers would be employed by the new Maatz, others would be absorbed by various ministries, and the rest would retire with improved pension benefits. Nonetheless, final agreements have yet to be reached and signed.

Meanwhile, Viznicher began to establish the new company on January 1, 2004. He moved from Jerusalem to the Or Yehuda industrial zone, "borrowed" (in accordance with an agreement with the workers) 20 employees from the old Ma'atz, and began to work out labor and financing agreements with the treasury. The employees who remained at the old Ma'atz continued to work, and several months ago the decision was made to appoint the director of the Jerusalem region, Ze'ev Farkush, as acting director of the unit. The unit's office staff has remained in Jerusalem, and the conflict between the two sides has intensified.

"Viznicher got the job despite the fact that there were better and more appropriate candidates from within Ma'atz," Monsongo says. "Since assuming this position, he has no accomplishments to show for except interviewing workers. In addition, beyond the 20 employees of the old Ma'atz that we agreed to lend to him, Viznicher is also using other employees of the old Ma'atz without promising them a thing. As for the senior officials who were fired, he has brought them all back as advisers, because he can't operate without the experienced workers."

Viznicher says that the only senior worker not employed as an adviser is Yossi Kopp, and his appointment is only for a limited time. Yossi Levy, the legal adviser of the new Maatz regarding the transfer of activities from the old to the new unit, adds that all of the required legal infrastructure for the new company's activities have been in place since January. He says Maatz under Viznicher's management has signed financing and operating agreements in record time. However, he adds, since the agreements with the workers were not signed, the new company did not begin to operate at full capacity at the outset of the year in accordance with the government decision, even though it could have done so.

"Through the end of October 2004, the company was supposed to transfer to itself all of the projects, regardless of the agreement with the workers," Levy says. "And this was according to the agreement with the government. In any case, according to the government decision, all of the old Ma'atz's activities are supposed to be transfered to the responsibility of the new Maatz, and we hope that this will happen."