The Bottom Line / A Long, Hot Summer

The cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and nearby Israeli towns started last Thursday, but the peace in Israeli labor relations ended a day later. The sudden, surprise strike by Tel Aviv Stock Exchange (TASE) workers on Friday morning is just the start of a wave of labor disputes and strikes that the Histadrut labor federation, led by Ofer Eini, is planning for the next few weeks.

The strike by the 150 TASE workers seems to be connected to the present political instability, but the immediate trigger was the conflict that broke out last week between Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Histadrut chairman Eini over Bar-On's proposal to tax, for the first time in decades, workers' savings in advanced training funds (kranot hishtalmut).

The Histradut and unions object vehemently to the new plan. Eini himself half-confessed to this last week when he said that there was already an atmosphere of crisis, then the finance minister decided to demonstrate a lack of interest in labor relations and cooperation with the Histadrut. Eini said it was "no wonder that disputes break out."

The stock market strike, therefore, is nothing but a preface to the real thing: the planned strike in the local authorities due to the Union of Local Authorities' refusal to pay the five percent wage hike agreed between Eini and Bar-On two months ago. Then there is the general strike - in particular in the public sector - that Eini is planning in two weeks over the training funds issue.

And what did Eini choose to shut down now, as a dress rehearsal for the big battle he is planning against Bar-On? Not a strike of the barely-surviving minimum wage earning workers in factories in outlying regions. After all, what did the Histadrut do for the poor, fired Polgat workers in Kiryat Gat? No, Eini also did not choose to have the underpaid and exploited subcontracted manpower workers, who many barely earn minimum wage. He did not ask the security guards to strike, even though they lead the nation in suits filed against their employers for violating their rights.

Choosing your battle

Instead, Eini chose the employees of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Their average wage is between NIS 22,000 and NIS 25,000 a month, which is considered even higher than that paid in banks or even the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC).

Stock market employees also enjoy an annual bonus of five monthly salaries and a large number of impressive fringe benefits such as a newspaper subscription, holiday gifts worth much more than usual and reimbursement for their children's summer camps, as well as protection by their union from being fired from their jobs.

And how hard do they have to work to enjoy such salaries? No more - and often less - than their compatriots in any government office or municipality.

TASE employees enjoy an almost monopolistic position: after all there is only one stock market in Israel. Neither Jerusalem nor Haifa have stock markets, and therefore TASE workers enjoy a powerful position when they come to negotiate with management over their salary conditions. In fact, these employees probably have just about the strongest bargaining position of any workers in the country, except possibly for IEC employees, who also work for a monopoly.

A valuable asset

The stock market employees - and their union - are a valuable asset for the Histadrut. Firstly, because the stock market is a very important corner of the entire economy. Also, because the TASE employees' union is allied with the banks' unions. A large proportion of the Histadrut's strength is due to the banks' and stock market's unions.

That is the reason that the present struggle between the TASE management and the union is not only over salaries but also based on the union's demand - or probably more importantly, the Histadrut's insistence - that the stock exchange employs as many workers as possible under its collective bargaining agreement, and not as temporary manpower workers. This would turn all the exchange's employees into members of the Histadrut, and increase its power.

Eini, who in his political wisdom chose to keep the number of strikes he declared to a minimum in the two-and-a-half years he has been Histadrut chairman, knows that the stock market employees are not only natural partners in his present battle with Bar-On, but also key players in retaining the Histadrut's - and his - power.

Investors are requested to wait patiently in the meantime.