News Updates Monday, September 15, 2003 Elul 18, 5763 Israel Time: 03:25 (GMT+3)

Bottom Line / Time to act, or not

By Haim Bior

Four months after the great nationwide strike sponsored by the Histadrut labor federation and the major workers' unions to protest the government's decision to cut wages in the public sector by 4 percent, the ritual has come back: The Histadrut's secretariat decided yesterday "to prepare the declaration of a work dispute in the economy."

The Histadrut's secretariat,headed by MK Amir Peretz,postponed the declaration itself until after today's meeting of the cabinet which is scheduled to debate the proposed budget for 2004. Even if the declaration is held over for a further day or two, the public sector is already on the path to an all-out strike to protest against the 2004 budget.

According to the industrial disputes law (which Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to have changed by 2004), after a 15-day cooling-off period, workers in government offices, local authorities, Ben-Gurion Airport and throughout the public sector will be entitled to launch a strike. However, the High Holiday season is upon us, which is likely to postpone the strike.

The gripes of the Histadrut now are similar to those of four months ago - structural changes that, according to the unions, are intended to worsen wages and destabilize workers' job security. Example: Port workers and the Ports Authority headquarters in Tel Aviv fear that the plan to incorporate the ports, making them compete against each other as (state-owned) units, independent of the Ports Authority, will end in the loss of hundreds of jobs. Another example: Merging the Income Tax Office with the Customs and VAT department also arouses fears that jobs are on the line.

Other moves - ostensibly not concerned with introducing efficiencies, but rather for ideological reasons - such as merging the labor courts into the central court system, or extending the cooling-off period after declaring disputes and before launching strikes from 15 to 60 days, all contribute to this feeling of job insecurity.

Peretz, meanwhile, has become weakened; the labor federation is up to its neck in debt; the number of workers represented by the Histadrut continues to drop; in May, the federation for the first time agreed to a 4-percent wage cut throughout the public sector; and while a fight over reducing pension rights may be pending legal hearings, in the meantime, the treasury's Eyal Ben-Chelouche is controlling the funds as he wishes.

Netanyahu believes Peretz's current image as a wounded lion actually makes him more militant, and more dangerous. Despite his position of weakness, Peretz continues to draw on widespread support among the workers' committees of the Israel Electric Corporation, the ports, the airport and the Interior Ministry.

Netanyahu's victory in the previous round over wage cuts is likely to work against him this time, leading to fierce and painful strike action. Since there are actually more than 15 days between this declaration of an industrial dispute and the subsequent strike action, Netanyahu has the opportunity to sit down and talk with the Histadrut, and reach an agreement that would prevent unilateral action. A calm economy, free of strike actions, would save the public billions of shekels and a great deal of inconvenience.

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