Mercantile Discount Staff Shut Branches

Mercantile Discount Bank's 63 branches were closed yesterday as 1,200 staffers gathered at a general meeting in Tel Aviv to discuss their industrial dispute.

The new head of the bank's workers' committee, Itzik Haroush, said yesterday that the strike was to protest the Finance Ministry's decision to sell off the bank with its parent company Israel Discount Bank. "We are against the sale of both banks at one go, because it, in effect, constitutes a merger of the two. We are demanding that the banks be sold separately."

Haroush said the staff's objection to the perceived merger is the fear that such a move would lead to the closure of branches, and ultimately the loss hundreds of jobs. "We are campaigning to maintain Mercantile's independence. In less than two weeks, the winning bid for Discount is expected to be announced, and we will act in the public and legal sphere to force the treasury to halt the tender process in its current makeup."

Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman MK Amir Peretz, who also attended yesterday's Mercantile workers' assembly, expressed his support for the distinction between the two banks, and called for the conditions promised to Discount workers, including a merger bonus, to be extended to Mercantile staff too.

Meanwhile, Discount workers are expecting a bonus of 6-8 months' salary once the bank is privatized. The figure was the result of progress made in late-night talks between Peretz and Finance Ministry Benjamin Netanyahu that lasted into yesterday's early hours. The cost of the bonus, which is considered an achievement for the bank workers, will reach NIS 250 million.

In addition, the government has offered Discount workers 10 percent of the bank's stock at a 25 percent discount. This perk will cost a further NIS 80 million.

The treasury, also represented by Accountant General Yaron Zelekha, agreed that the bank workers' collective wage agreements remain in place for five years after the sale despite the position of M.I. Holdings, the state body that deals with privatization issues, which was ready to accept a three-year guarantee.

The staff's demand that the new owners be banned from selling the bank's assets, in particular its New York subsidiary, for five years, was not resolved, and will be passed on to further negotiations.

Settlement of many disputed matters was expected to lead to industrial quiet at the bank, at least in the short term, while the government proceeds with selling its stake.