The Bottom Line / Where Have All the Young Strikes Gone?

Workers at the First International Bank of Israel (TASE: FIBI) have been striking on and off for about a year. At Israel Discount Bank and housing company Amidar, disgruntlement is acute; and there is not a moment's peace at the Ashdod port, either.

Yet the big picture is quite astonishing. Figures do not lie, and in 2005 the number of strikes plunged. So says the head of labor relations at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, attorney Shlomo Yitzhaki.

According to a report that his division compiled, in 2003 Israel lost 2.7 million (!) working days due to strikes or disruptions. In 2004 that figure dropped to 1.25 million. Come 2005, says Yitzhaki, it shrank to just 250,000.

The report on strikes in 2006 will be published only in a year, but so far this has been an even calmer year in terms of labor relations.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, Israel was one of the most strike-ridden nations in the world. But that is changing. It is losing its pole position to countries where unions have massive clout, such as France and Italy.

Weaker unions

Human relations experts would say the main reason strikes are becoming less common is that collective employment contracts are losing their teeth. Each retiring worker employed under such a contract is replaced by roughly three people employed under personal contracts.

The result is that less and less workers are represented by unions or the Histadrut labor federation itself. In fact a majority of workers, in both the private and public sectors, are no longed unionized. Their ability to strike or to disrupt is limited, if it even exists.

The last major strike was declared at the end of 2003, when government workers disrupted work for a whole three months. But there is also a personality involved in the decrease in strikes, and in fact, that may be the main factor in play.

A hero changes his halo

The year 2005 was the last in which Amir Peretz chaired the Histadrut. That year, Peretz - who is certainly blessed with acute political instincts - announced he would be running for Knesset. Not just running for a seat: He planned to win the Labor Party primaries and run for the premiership.

Hopes of being Prime Minister Peretz dictated many a decision: He knew he would have to lose that image of warrior hero of the working masses, which he had so assiduously created during his first years at the uber-union. In short, Peretz knew he had to put down the powerful unions that had been his elite forces in turning threats to strike into reality. And that is what he did.

The pension reform, which eroded 30 percent of pension rights and extracted the pension funds from the Histadrut's control, passed without a peep. Since 2001, public-sector workers have been working without employment contracts, yet the Histadrut didn't twitch. (Without a valid employment contract, the old one remains in force.) No new employment contracts were signed in 2004 or 2005, yet no strikes were called.

On the contrary: Peretz allowed public-sector wages for 2003 through 2005 to be cut. Then there was the reform of the ports, which also passed peacefully: Not one day of work was lost.

Now the Histadrut is chaired by a new man, Ofer Eini, who has already declared that he believes in negotiation with employers: Strikes are a last resort. Every time they meet, Eini and Manufacturers Association chairman Shraga Brosh embrace, and any dispute between them is immediately handed to a committee for be dealt with.

Eini views strikes as an anachronism, an outdated, hated device that can cause the union more harm than good. Eini wants to keep the Histadrut on the map, as it were, and for that he needs the cooperation of employers who deduct union membership fees from their workers. For that, he needs to keep the fires of industrial protest burning low, very low.

Another thing: The two pension agreements Eini signed in the last six months, and the cost of the living wage hike he achieved for public-sector workers, proved to him that one can mark achievements through negotiation. Strikes are the last thing he needs now.