The Strike / Together We'll Make a Laughing Stock of the Government

A stubborn rivalry prevailed for years between employers and the Histadrut Labor Federation. A built-in conflict of interests exists between these two groups: The employers want to pay as little as possible and the workers want to be paid as much as possible.

This situation changed with the election of Shraga Brosh as head of the Manufacturers Association and Ofer Eini as Histadrut chairman. They created an alliance that said: You help me and I'll help you - and together we'll making a laughingstock of the government. After all, we both know that this is a weak government with a nonfunctioning coalition, so this is our chance to get the most out of it.

We, the manufacturers, will get smooth labor relations in our factories and support for all our demands for additional government grants and subsidies. You, the Histadrut chairman, will get absolute support from us in your struggle against reforms (of the ports, the Electric Corporation and other bodies). And we will also support you in your wage disputes with the government.

Therefore, Eini sent Brosh to mediate with the Finance Ministry, and at a press conference, Eini called him "my friend Shraga Brosh." And Brosh proposed to treasury officials that the government agree to a five percent wage increase in the public sector to ward off the strike.

Brosh did not take into consideration that the moment the public sector got its five percent increase, budgets would have to be cut, including for industrialists. Nor did he consider that a public-sector wage hike would lead to similar demands in industry.

Does all this mean that Finance Minister Roni Bar-On will agree to the five percent increase? Consider the example of the last wage dispute, in January 2001. The Histadrut under Amir Peretz demanded a 40 percent wage hike, which would have meant an impossible NIS 30 billion addition to the budget.

During talks, Peretz's demand went down to 16 percent; the treasury offered only 1 percent. Following nine difficult days of sanctions and disruptions, the Histadrut demanded a six percent addition; the government countered with an offer of three percent. At the end of January, the parties agreed to a wage increase of 3.6 percent.

Peretz called the agreement "a great victory." Then finance minister Avraham Shochat said: "I'm satisfied." That is the beauty of Histadrut-treasury disputes: Everybody comes out a winner. Therefore, Bar-On cannot afford to pay more than the 3.6 percent that Shochat paid. Anything above that would be considered his personal failure.

It should be pointed out that Eini did not embark on a general strike. The doomsday weapon was not used: For now, the airport will remain open.

This, then, is strike-lite. As if Eini were telling the treasury: Give me a good reason to extricate myself gracefully. You have a whole day to make me a good offer, so I won't really have to shut down the economy - tomorrow.