Highly Charged

On such a hot day, one would expect the chairman of the Israel Electric Corporation's workers committee to at least have better air conditioning in his office. The AC rattles, but the air in the room remains hot and dense. Are you hot? they ask at IEC, why turn off the stove, just turn on the air conditioner. Yes, yes, Miko Zarfati has heard this joke a thousand times. You see, he says, it's all a matter of image - people hate us, they tell jokes, but they don't understand a thing.

While on reserve duty, after Zarfati disclosed that he worked for IEC, the guys in the unit immediately began hazing him about the free electricity. It's time to refute that legend, he says. Only the first NIS 700 is free - the rest I pay, just like everyone else. Don't you work for a newspaper, he asks. Nu, don't you get the paper for free?

This kind of talk ticks him off, and he is holding an atomic bomb - namely, his hand on the switch. IEC employees call him all the time, asking that he set off the Doomsday weapon. But he grits his teeth and holds back.

On Sunday he signed an agreement - in the name of IEC's 12,000 employees - for "the cessation of salary excesses." Some excesses, he snorts contemptuously. In 1985 they forgot to get the signature of the director of wages, you understand? They just forgot! And suddenly this turns into "excesses" that have to be corrected. So fine, they're corrected, he says.

Zarfati, 54, is a former athlete (he was captain of the Israeli national handball team) who still has a spring in his step - though he's given up on maintaining a small tummy. Thirty years ago, handball brought him to IEC. The chairman of the workers committee at the time, Yoram Oberkovich, was also involved in athletics and suggested to Zarfati that he join the company. In return, a photograph of Oberkovich, who has since passed away, now hangs on Zarfati's wall.

Zarfati, who started his career as an accountant, has been the head of the workers committee for six years. His popularity, he says, rivals that of the leadership during the elections in Communist Albania. There is no multimeter sticking out of his pocket, and it's doubtful he's ever climbed a high-tension electricity pole. His desk resembles a dense neighborhood of high paper towers. He has neither a secretary nor a computer, and his gestures are consistent with what's expected from a labor leader - including the fist pounding on the desk ("I have no intention of apologizing or defending myself; as far as I'm concerned, everyone should earn as much as we do").

Occasionally he leans toward his interlocutor, promising to reveal something of a truly astounding nature ("An intention to dissolve the company was announced"). Sometimes he slides into Histadrut labor federation jargon, which decries "privatization," warns against "the destruction of the middle class" and condemns "capitalism."

According to Zarfati, the IEC is a ship sailing in a stormy ocean of hatred - hatred which is nourished by misunderstanding, envy and "treasury officials" who lie in ambush like greedy pirates. He has long since given up on public empathy. The public won't see him crying like Pini Grob from Ata, the textile factory everyone hated. When did people remember to love Ata? That's right, when it shut down.

On the day before the agreement to stop wage excesses was signed, The Marker published an article about a World Bank report which had stated that the wage costs of the IEC employees are higher than any similar electricity company in the world. Well, you tell me, who leaked the report? Zarfati says. That's right! The treasury officials who wanted to torpedo the agreement.

He is definitely ready to talk about the "high wages," he says, because he has nothing to be ashamed of. Our discussion of what "high wages" means is cautious and highly elusive. Zarfati adamantly refuses to say how much he earns. Instead he asks me to guess. I throw out a number. My guess turns out to be too low. He responds by asking me to state my salary; I exaggerate big-time. The number I give still turns out to be ludicrously low.

An average salary of NIS 18,000 per month, at a company in which 35 percent of the workforce is made up of engineers, computer people and academics is perfectly reasonable, Miko Zarfati says. That's almost three times the average wage in the country. Not everyone is upset by this. "There are employees of the IEC who make NIS 55,000 a month," MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) writes on her Web site, "and that is still not an excessive wage."