Analysis: This time is actually different

It's hard to remember a more widely-supported general strike than this one. Conservative politicians, pundits and businessmen, who normally would be tearing into the Histadrut for doing the economy untold damage with their irresponsible strike, lined up on Wednesday morning to offer their support on the radio talk shows. If anything, they expressed surprise that it had taken so long for Histadrut Secretary-General Ofer Eini to use the ultimate weapon, just over a year after succeeding Amir Peretz in the post. Everyone agreed that a situation in which thousands of local council and religious services employees haven't been paid for many months, some for more than a year, just can't go on. Striking the entire public sector was accepted as an act of solidarity rather than seen as a bullying tactic. Almost every major Histadrut strike in the past was politically motivated, usually benefiting the Labor Party and damaging the Likud. In recent years the Histadrut worked in the interests of Peretz's Am Ehad party, now merged into Labor. But Eini, despite being appointed by Peretz, seems to working on a different agenda. Despite attempts to bridge the rift between the two, Eini is making it very clear that he intends to steer the trade union away from Labor and other political affiliations. It remains to be seen whether Eini can overcome the still powerful Peretz faction within the Histadrut leadership and if he will resist the temptation to interpret his job as an opportunity to act as a power-broker. Meanwhile, he seems to be acting in the interests of the workers. So who are the bad guys in this story? The target of a general strike is always the government, in this case the finance and interior ministers, who just have to say the word for the necessary funds to be on its way to the workers. But why should the state foot the bill when the direct employers - the council heads and mayors - are the ones responsible for running up astronomic deficits? The Treasury officials are adamant; the local councils can't go on expecting the government to cover up for their fraudulent practices. If they want more money, they must first put their houses in order, trim down bloated organizations and stop wasting money on vainglorious projects. The mayors fire back that they have already cut costs and that additional measures would be draconian and would severely impact services to residents. While the Treasury and council heads trade accusations, thousands of families are going hungry. Mismanagement and corruption in local government is a decades-old problem, one that no government has made a serious attempt to solve. The legislation is there, the Interior Minister can replace a lousy council head and his colleagues with an appointed council of professionals. Interior Minister Roni Bar-On did it last week to the head of Yesud Hama'ala's council, but there are still dozens of paralyzed councils around the country in dire need of rehabilitation. The problem is that many council heads are powerful political figures, in charge of mobilizing the local party machine before elections. Some are members of Kadima or of other parties that are crucial to the coalition. It's no coincidence that most appointed councils are in the Arab and Beduin sectors, where the council heads had no national political backing. Nor is the local leadership always the problem. In many councils, deficits are caused by an inability to raise sufficient tax revenue because the residents are poor. Historic boundaries determine which councils will enjoy healthy income from affluent areas and industry while their neighbors continue to suffer from incurable deficits. The 2003 Council Merging Plan introduced by then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and then-interior minister Avraham Poraz was supposed to solve many of these problems by merging 82 councils and redrawing boundaries, but pressure from well-connected mayors on prime minister Ariel Sharon gutted the plan and only 10 mergers took place. In some cases residents of wealthy towns took to the streets to protest against a plan that would saddle them with the debts of their neighbors. The most prominent example was Mevaseret Zion, a wealthy suburb of Jerusalem that is home to influential politicians, senior officers, professionals and journalists who successfully resisted all attempts to merge them with the deficit-ridden capital. Those with above average incomes are less affected by most strikes. But they are the ones who suffer most when the airport is shut down, as are industrialists when the ports are closed. The long-standing plight of poor council workers from disadvantaged areas hasn't moved the Treasury, but perhaps the troubles of the middle and upper classes will finally force the cabinet to get serious about local government.