The law of the wee hours

The public-sector wage agreement that was signed at the end of last week was, in fact, a done deal and initialed seven months ago.

The law of the wee hours has once again proved its strength. It states that a public-sector wage agreement must be signed in the wee hours of the morning, after both sides have exhausted the opposition. Only when the sides leave the negotiating table utterly fatigued, close to the arrival of the next day, will the public understand they have achieved the utmost, stretched possibility as far as it could go, that everything almost exploded - until the yearned-for agreement was ultimately signed. And then each side announces it has won a great victory, and that it's a wonderful agreement. Each side has its own version of this.

The public-sector wage agreement that was signed at the end of last week was, in fact, a done deal and initialed seven months ago. No great differences of opinion have since emerged, no bitter arguments nor threats to close down the international airport. It seems it would have been possible to sign it some time ago, at a normal hour of the day. Nah.

The signing ceremony was set for last Wednesday afternoon at a reasonable hour. As the time to sign approached, the work teams began putting on speed, checking the final versions of the texts, both from the legal and economic points of view. At the beginning of the week, the Histadrut had requested a slight delay: instead of 5 P.M., they asked that the ceremony be held at 7:30. Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini wanted to convene all the committees in his office that day to put them in the picture, and that takes time. At 5 P.M., Eini requested yet another slight delay, until 8:30 P.M., because the committee meetings, as usual here, took longer than expected. The meeting with the treasury started only at 9 in Eini's office, at the Histadrut building on Arlosoroff Street in Tel Aviv.

Ten senior officials squeezed into the office, led by Eini and Eli Cohen, who is in charge of wages at the Finance Ministry. In the corridor sat 30 lesser mortals - activists with the trade unions and treasury officials. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant. Everyone knew the agreement was going to be signed, just not when.

The day before there had been those who were interested in heating things up. They told journalists that a serious struggle was in store; the economic-social council Eini is promoting is vehemently opposed by Finance Roni Bar-On. But that argument had had no effect whatsoever on the calm negotiations conducted in Eini's office.

There were a few last details: Time was needed, phone calls had to be made to examine budgetary costs, to consult with Bar-On (who had fixed the boundaries). And then suddenly, at 1 A.M., everything became stuck. A looming crisis threatened to blow everything up: A marginal paragraph connected with the Clalit health maintenance organization stated that the collective wage agreement that was to be signed would also be a solution to the three-year-old work conflict in the HMO. The head of the HMO's workers committee would not agree to let go of his demands just like that. If the paragraph stays, take us out of the entire agreement, he told Eini.

Eini understood that if they backed out, other committees would want to join the revolt. His authority would be undermined. The crisis worsened. Everyone grasped there would be no agreement.

For 40 minutes, the sides were trying to find Eli Dapas, the CEO of the HMO. They found him on vacation abroad. Dapas listened to the problem and after a short discussion agreed to accept the committee's point of view. The problematic paragraph was removed, the crisis was resolved.

It was then 2 A.M. Only then did the legal advisers go mightily to work. Another two hours passed. At 4, the book with the agreement was ceremoniously brought into the room for Eini and Cohen to sign. The good-spirited ceremony was conducted in Iraqi Arabic, which both Eini and Cohen understand. Things change. In the days of Yeruham Meshel, they used to speak Yiddish; in the time of Israel Kessar, they spoke "Yemenite." And now it's "Iraqi."

Eini did not give the traditional morning radio interview, because he wasn't feeling well. He went home and straight to bed.

The subject did not make the top headlines. There was no drama. Schoolchildren did not have to listen to the radio to know whether there was school that day, and there was no threat to shut down the airport. So the media provided low-key coverage. But the law of the wee hours won again. Even if there was no drama, even if the agreement had been initialed in July 2007, even if there was no real argument, the negotiations went on and on and did not end - until the wee hours of the morning.