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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

400,000 workers walk out in 'general strike'

Speaking of 'wicked gold diggers,' 400,000 members of the Histadrut General Labor Federation walked off the job at 9:00 this morning after a three-hour delay imposed by the National Labor Court. The union is still awaiting (and the government is hoping to prevent) National Labor Court approval for the strike. This time the strike is ostensibly over the grossly unpaid wages of some 500 or 3700 (depending which side you believe) local council and religious council workers - some unpaid for as long as two years. For the average Israeli and tourist, the most likely impacts are large piles of garbage (which seems to be an annual occurrence before Passover - in our neighborhood, the kids usually set them on fire after a day or two to make more room) and the airport being closed to outgoing traffic (incoming traffic can land if your flight was in the air when the strike was declared but you will need to leave your luggage in the airport). The only exception to the incoming traffic is the English national soccer team (which will be allowed to arrive for a game Saturday night - but their fans won't be allowed to land). They sometimes also allow planes (usually El Al - no other airline would come in here with no end in sight) with dead bodies to land and government ministers are usually allowed to take off.

How did we get to this situation? And who in their right mind would stay in a job where their salary goes unpaid for two years? Here's a brief outline of the facts:

1. The first Sharon government (with the cooperation of the National Religious Party - to its eternal shame) abolished the Ministry of Religious Affairs leaving the religious council workers without a patron in government.

2. The local councils - who are now supposed to pay both their own employees and the religious council employees - are among the most corrupt bodies in the country. In fairness, they have no right to set their own taxes, but that cuts both ways because it leaves no accountability for spending but it also means that the national government is expected to cover their deficits. It also means that - especially in the Arab sector where most of the non-paying local councils are located - they have no incentive to try to collect property taxes to finance their budgets.

3. The Histadrut is wrapping itself in self-righteousness over this strike, because it's one of the rare strikes where they are actually sticking up for poorly paid employees. On the other hand, yesterday a report came out on the salaries in the top echelons of the government. Some of the amounts paid are quite frankly appalling for a country where the average wage is probably about one third that of the US:
Senior staff and directors of Israel's health-service providers comprised seven out of the top 10 most highly paid public servants in 2005, according to statistics released Tuesday by the Finance Ministry's director of wages. Meanwhile, the Bank of Israel's top wage earner finished in 38th place, a big change for the central bank, which owned the first 14 spots in 2004.

Meuhedet employees took the first, second, third and fifth spots, with the highest paid employee earning NIS 95,633 a month, before taxes. Maccabi and Clalit as well as Oil Refinery Ltd. executives filled out the remainder of the top 10.

The report for 2005 is comprised of two sections, with the first including the salaries of the top 1,000 wage earners from the public sector, based on research conducted on more than 270,000 workers. The second part of the study, to be released in about 10 days, details reasons for salary discrepancies among public servants as well as clarifications of court rulings in which salary structures for State-workers were determined.


The top wage-earner at the Bank of Israel, according to the report, was its comptroller with a salary of NIS 55,736.

Other state-employees finishing in the top-50 on 2005's list included Ashdod (NIS 60,632) and Haifa (NIS 59,755) port executives, the CEO of ELTA Electronics (NIS 59,172), and the director of Mifal Hapayis (NIS 56,019).
The exchange rate now is around NIS 4.20 to the dollar. For the record, this cannot be attributed to the 'free market,' because these are government and not private sector employees. The news report I heard last night said that 1% of the 'overpayments' on the top salaries would be enough to clear out two years worth of local council unpaid wages. Hmmm.

Of course, the Histadrut has prevented many of these companies from being privatized, and the ports (which are also closed today) are among their most favored workers.

4. No strike votes are taken in this country. The head of the Histadrut has unfettered discretion to decide who goes on strike and when.

5. Many of the workers who are on strike (such as the airport and port workers) have nothing to do with the local councils. They also cannot break the strike and will be paid for their days off for the strike regardless of its outcome.

Items 4 and 5 ought to tell you why we have general strikes so frequently here.

6. No one quits their job because everyone knows they will squeeze the money (and 'compensation' for its delayed payment) out of the government eventually. Besides, no job is as cushy as a do-nothing government job.

When I worked in the government, I worked in one of the few agencies that NEVER went on strike. (We also worked HARD!). Every year we would get notices asking us to join the Histadrut, and every year, one of the supervisors would hang a plastic bag on the bulletin board into which we would all toss our notices. But we were a rarity.


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