General strike begins after last-minute talks break down

Histadrut chairman: Strike 'open ended,' will continue until government ministries solve crisis of unpaid public sector employees.

ofer eini 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ofer eini 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The public sector general strike began Wednesday morning after last minute talks between the Histadrut and the Finance and Interior Ministries broke down. The National Labor Court had postponed the strike until 9 a.m. to allow more time to solve the crisis of unpaid local and religious council workers. An hour after the strike commenced, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini met with Ra'anan Dinur, director general of the Prime Minister's Office, to discuss ways in which to end to strike. The National Labor Court had still not ruled on the strike's legality. Click here to see a full list of who is striking. Eini said that he had worked hard to reach a solution so that all public sector workers would receive their salaries, adding that the Histadrut had even agreed to distribute loans to workers in the more problematic local authorities on condition that employees in all other municipalities got paid. "We were close to an agreement but the government ministries changed their minds," Eini told reporters outside the court. "Starting at 9.a.m. a public sector general strike will commence, on the same scale that we planned yesterday," he said. Eini said that the strike would be open ended and that it would continue as long as the government ministries fail to come up with a solution to the crisis of the unpaid public sector employees. The court decision to delay the strike came after the government ministries asked the court to intervene Tuesday night following a failure to reach an agreement with the labor federation regarding the unpaid wages. Histadrut spokesman Eyal Malma told The Jerusalem Post late Tuesday night before the hearing that the open-ended strike would proceed as planned. "The prime minister promised to find a full solution," Histadrut Labor Federation head Ofer Eini said Tuesday. "We gave him time to assure that no employee, not today and not in the future, will fail to receive his salary on time. We have waited for three weeks, but, unfortunately, even now no solution has been reached. "Meanwhile, 3,758 workers in 36 local councils and 16 religious councils haven't received their salaries. It is time to erase this disgrace," he said. The labor leader said a worker had called him and requested the strike, "So we can regain our dignity and look our children in the eye and celebrate the holiday with something to put on the table." Eini apologized to the public and said, "We have no intention to harm the public, and we will do anything we can to minimize the inconvenience." Approximately 400,000 workers will take part in the strike. The announcement came despite an earlier promise by Interior Ministry Roni Bar-On that by 5 p.m. on Tuesday, salaries would be paid to a majority of the unpaid municipality employees. "We will transfer [money] to those authorities eligible to receive their wages, except for six or seven local authorities whom we informed from the outset that there would be no solution," Bar-On had announced. On Tuesday evening, Bar-On said a general strike was unjustified. He also claimed the figures quoted by Eini regarding the unpaid salaries were incorrect. "Only 625 workers have not received their wages, in contrast to the Histadrut's claim that the figure is more than 3,000," he told a press conference. Bar-On also said that over the past four months, the government had transferred NIS 170 million to pay local authority workers' salaries. Interior Ministry Director-General Ram Belnikov told the Knesset Interior Committee on Tuesday morning that local authorities were "greatly distorting" and "fictionalizing" their complaints. "We have paid all of those that we could. In the 10 cases, the only 10 cases of local authorities that remain unpaid, we have serious legal issues that need to be resolved," Belnikov said. Roughly 600 workers will be left without pay by Wednesday, he said. Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines acknowledged that the status of the 10 councils was clearly "very complicated," but that those communities had long standing difficulties with the Finance Ministry and their situations were not "new enough to warrant these types of problems." Belnikov said the municipalities had consistently failed to collect municipal taxes and other basic utility rates from their residents. "There are shady, very confusing dealings going on with these cities that we are trying to sort through," he said. Representatives of the communities in question said that in most cases, they had inherited serious debts from their predecessors, and that they had tried to cooperate with the Finance Ministry to clear up misunderstandings about the funds owed to the local authorities. The committee was set to vote over how to proceed when Paz-Pines received a note asking him not to conduct a vote on the issue. He declined to say who had written the note. Meanwhile, Israel Airports Authority Director-General Gabi Ofir asked Eini on Tuesday to exclude Ben-Gurion Airport from the strike since "Pessah is approaching, and a strike might hurt Israeli tourism, agriculture, the passengers and Israel's image." As a palliative measure, Ofir authorized the rescheduling of some flights from Wednesday to Tuesday night.