Strike to paralyze public sector today

Air travellers given 24-hour reprieve

The economy will come to a near complete halt Wednesday morning following the declaration by Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini of a general strike in the public sector. In a gesture he said was intended to leave the door open for negotiations over the next 24 hours, however, Eini said a work action at Ben-Gurion Airport would be postponed until Thursday morning. "On Tuesday, we let the Finance Ministry know that we were ready for an agreement in order to come to a compromise over public sector wage increases without a strike, but we did not receive any phone call from Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and, therefore, we have no other choice but to declare a general strike in the public sector, which will start at 6 a.m. on Wednesday," Eini said at Tuesday night's press conference in Tel Aviv. "The strike at Ben-Gurion Airport will be postponed to Thursday morning, to give travelers an additional 24 hours and to send a message to the government that we have another 24 hours to enter into serious negotiations," he said. The Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat ports, Israel Railways, postal services, local authorities and all government offices apart from the Defense Ministry will be on strike, including the Israel Lands Administration, National Insurance Institute, Israel National Employment Services, Interior Ministry and the courts. Government hospitals including Hadassah in Jerusalem and Ichilov in Tel Aviv will be open with disruptions, while Magen David Adom will operate an emergency service in addition to the electric company and firefighting services, while the Dan and Egged bus cooperatives and banks will operate as usual. Universities, museums and higher education institutions will all be closed. The Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, the Employers' Association and the Israel Hotel Association threatened on Tuesday night to petition the National Labor Court for emergency orders to stop the industrial action and keep Ben-Gurion Airport open. At press time, the National Labor Court was hearing the petitions. The strike is expected to cost the economy up to NIS 1 billion a day. "The business sector cannot bear even a single hour of a strike," said Shraga Brosh, president of the Manufacturers Association of Israel. Eini said that in recent months the Histadrut had been been trying again and again to hold intensive talks with the Finance Minister to resolve the public sector wage dispute, without any serious results. "The finance minister agreed to raise monthly wages by NIS 30 on average, so each worker can buy two portions of felafel. This is not a serious offer," said Eini. On Tuesday, Brosh met separately with Eini, Bar-On and the Finance Ministry's Wage Director Eli Cohen to pass on the Histadrut's call for a compromise in a last-ditch effort to bring the two sides back to the negotiation table and avert the strike. "Cohen said to Brosh that he did not care if a strike was declared," said Eini. Earlier on Tuesday, Cohen said that at the end of the day, it was clear that a solution to the wage dispute would be found and that therefore the strike was completely unnecessary and would only cause immense damage to the economy. The Histadrut had been requesting a public sector wage raise of 10 percent that would cost NIS 10 billion to NIS 12b. a year, which the government, Cohen said, could not afford. Accepting the labor federation's demands would require the Finance Ministry to make massive compensatory budget cuts in areas such as health, education, welfare and defense, he said. Bar-On said the wage increase demanded by the Histadrut would break the state budget's framework, which in turn would threaten economic stability and slow growth and employment. Amid pressure from the Israel Airports Authority, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz allowed the Authority to operate extra landings and departures at Ben-Gurion Airport on Tuesday night to bring forward scheduled flights. The strike at the airport is now expected to start on Thursday morning. The accelerated flights were intended to reduce some of the pressure and chaos expected on Wednesday and Thursday by allowing the Israeli airlines - El Al, Israir and Arkia - to bring forward a small number of flights to between 2 and 5 in the morning. However, foreign airlines will not be able to change their flight schedules, which are connected to international flight timetables. El Al announced Tuesday evening that it had moved up the departure time of four flights scheduled to leave Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning. The flights - to New York, Paris, Frankfurt and Athens - originally had been scheduled to take off between 8 and 10:40 a.m. and now will depart between 7:25 and 7:50 a.m. The airline asked passengers to check its Web site for details about specific flights, adding that it had requested an earlier departure time for a second flight to New York, currently scheduled for a 10:40 a.m. take-off. Nathan Burstein contributed to this report.