Taking Stock / A Case of the Vanishing Bankers

Where is Shlomo Nehama? Anybody seen Eitan Raff? Galia Maor? Zvika Ziv? How about Giora Offer or Arie Mientkavich? Where are all the big banks' chiefs as the storm rages?

Saturday night, at the very last second, the courts prevented an all-out strike of Israel's banking establishment. With Passover approaching, the entire nation was lined up to withdraw cash from the ATMs, which the bank workers had vowed not to replenish. And where were the bank leaders? On ski vacations? At some secret banking conference in Washington?

No, they were right here, at their offices on Rothschild and Yehuda Halevy streets in Tel Aviv. They were simply hiding behind Louis Roth and Riki Bachar, the chairmen of the Leumi and Israel Discount Bank labor committees.

Until last week ended, one might have thought their helplessness to stop the strike being promoted by the labor committees was unplanned. True, it was highly convenient that their workers were assuming the mantle in the battle against the treasury's reform plans. It was more convenient to sit by and watch the frightened public hysterically ply the ATMs than to actually do something.

Not innocents; abettors

But on Thursday it turned out that they were actively fanning the fires. The Association of Israeli Banks filed a petition at the National Labor Court, asking that the state be named as a party to the dispute with the workers. Why? Because the state held the solution to resolving the dispute.

The idea of the Finance Ministry opening negotiations with the workers, bypassing the banks' managements, may look alright at a cursory glance. The treasury typically talks with labor committees representing workers who would be affected by reforms. It just wrapped up talks with the labor committee representing the port workers, for instance.

But there's a little difference between the ports and the banks, and it's downright strange that the banks' managements suddenly forgot about it. Israel's banks are all privately held. They are not government companies or authorities. Even Bank Leumi, in which the state still has the controlling interest, is managed independently. The state has no hand in its management.

Each and every year, the public is astonished to learn what the bankers actually earn. Salaries of up to NIS 15 million a year, bonuses and stock options have become the norm. While the public reels, the bankers shrug: It's a free market, the banks are private and that's the cost in the market of excellent management.

They don't work too hard, either

And that pay is for part-time positions, evidently. The bankers feel exempt from the duty to negotiate with their workers when the latter threaten to shut down the entire banking system. Suddenly Mama State has to do the job for them, they figure.

The blanket solidarity between the banks' workers and managements regarding the treasury's proposed reforms of the banking system is no surprise. The workers and managements feed from the same trough.

The reform Joseph Bachar and his team compiled does not aim to hamstring the provident and mutual funds. On the contrary: It wants to introduce competition into the sector, by separating the provident and mutual funds from the banks.

Instead of negotiating with the workers of the provident and mutual funds regarding the possible ramifications of the reform regarding their jobs, the banks and the union leaders are trying to use the Labor Court as a weapon against the state's reform.

This is not the first time the banks have tried to drag other parties into their argument with the state. Half a year back, they tried to frighten their customers through a massive media campaign that suggested the reform would mess up their pension schemes.

The sorry thing is that the tribunal fell for the banks' gambit. Instead of telling the workers and banks to negotiate regarding the future of a few dozen people running the provident and mutual funds at the banks, the tribunal let them turn the court into a venue to discuss one of the most important reforms in Israel.