The Bottom Line / The Fake Crisis at the Banks

The cabinet has postponed the introduction of legislation in the Knesset implementing the Bachar recommendations for at least a week.

The cabinet has postponed the introduction of legislation in the Knesset implementing the Bachar recommendations for at least a week. The "Bachar" bill to reforming the capital market and banks was to have had its first of three readings yesterday, but the cabinet caved to the threat of a strike at the banks and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

The cabinet blinked, but the postponement may not be enough to prevent a strike. The only thing ensuring that business continues as usual at the banks is the National Labor Court, headed by President Steve Adler: He has issued a temporary injunction forbidding a strike.

The trigger for the proposed strike was the key recommendation in the reforms proposed by treasury director general Joseph Bachar and his team: Severing the banks from direct meddling in the capital market by forcing them to sell their provident and mutual fund management companies.

The unions claim the reform would cause anywhere from 15 percent to 50 percent of the 40,000 bank workers in Israel to lose their jobs. Before any legislation is passed, the workers demand that their job security be made sacrosanct.

Stuff and nonsense, sniffs the treasury: Instead of managing provident and mutual funds, the banks would be doing other things, such as selling insurance.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Most of the workers engaged in investment activity at the banks today won't be affected; they will get new things to do, and in any case they are protected by extremely powerful unions.

It is true that hundreds of workers with relatively low productivity may find themselves on the street, but they'll probably be offered early retirement with generous terms.

Meanwhile, the Labor Court was dragged into the heart of the dispute after the Association of Israeli Banks sued, seeking to have the strike prohibited. Adler did issue the temporary injunction, as they asked, but it ordered the association and the unions to enter into negotiations addressing the true ramifications of the reform.

Yet so far, both parties are defying the court order. They are not in contact at all. To justify this, they have whipped up an artificial crisis deriving from a procedural dispute: The union representatives demand that the talks be conducted for all the banks together, while the association want separate negotiations for each bank.

This "crisis," which has derailed any negotiations, is very convenient for the unions and the Bank Association, neither of which wants to implement the Bachar reforms. It is patently obvious that they planned this crisis together, wink wink nudge nudge. The result will be more hearings at the Labor Court, and Finance Ministry representatives will be dragged into the litigation.

At the ports, powerful unions led by Ofer Eini, a man with leadership qualities, managed to build a compromise that enabled reforms to proceed, in some form at least. A man like Eini is needed here too, to create a workable compromise that would allow the capital reforms to take form.