Histadrut threatens general strike

Labor federation rails against lack of pension safety net in Treasury economic stimulus plan.

Bar-On 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bar-On 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Histadrut Labor Federation threatened on Wednesday night to call a general strike to protest the lack of a pension safety net in the Treasury economic stimulus plan unveiled earlier in the day. Business leaders and Knesset members also blasted the NIS 21.7 billion economic stimulus plan aimed at moderating the effects of a global slowdown and creating 10,000 jobs. Pressure has been growing on the government in recent weeks to provide a safety net for pension funds, a measure that the Histadrut has set as a condition for its support of the plan. Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini warned that unless the plan was amended to include pension funds, which have suffered huge losses as a result of the global meltdown, the labor federation could launch painful economic sanctions. "This is not an economic emergency plan but a 'cover-your-ass' economic plan," Eini said. "The plan lacks two crucial components - a safety net for employees who are reaching retirement age and are seeing their savings disappear, and measures to avert layoffs." "I am going to meet with the Treasury to be proven wrong," he said. "However, if it turns out that the plan is to be approved and implemented in its current form, we will have no choice but go out and fight." Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On said the plan dealt only with practical economic measures. "The government has the responsibility to maintain financial stability," he said. "Over the long term, we are not excluding intervention in the financial market. We are considering additional steps, but at this moment we cannot provide further information." "This is an unprecedented and essential plan, which will increase total investments in the economy, expand credit sources, activate essential tools to strengthen the employment market and provide thousands of jobs for lawyers, teachers, secretaries, construction workers, welders and locksmiths in 2009," Bar-On told a press conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon. "The Israeli economy is already affected by the crisis in the global economy and growth will slow down significantly," Bar-On said. "But we can mitigate the extent of the damage if we act now. I call upon political partners to show responsibility and support the plan, while leaving politics aside. "In light of recent layoffs and a looming global recession we cannot wait much longer. The plan needs to be approved immediately; if we wait for the next government, it will be too late." Bar-On unveiled the plan to the public after it was presented to the socio-economic cabinet earlier in the day in the presence of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who gave their full support to the package. "We are increasing government investment in available projects in infrastructure; energy; transportation, including roads and railways; water; tourism and the labor market by NIS 21.7 b., which represents a 41 percent increase compared with investment in 2008. This increase will create at least 10,000 jobs," said Bar-On. The Finance Ministry's Budget Supervisor, Ram Belnikov, said that as a result of the cost of the plan and an expected fall in tax revenue, the budget deficit was likely to rise to 3% of GDP in 2009 from the planned 1% of GDP. "The budget deficit target for 2009 was 1% of GDP, or NIS 7b. Now the deficit span is likely to be between 1.5% and 3% of GDP, that is, between NIS 10b. and NIS 20b.," said Belnikov. Business representatives, the Histadrut Labor Federation and MKs on Wednesday harshly attacked the Treasury's plan, saying it wasn't enough and that bolder and more immediate steps were to stimulate the economy and protect the public's savings were required. "The [emergency] program has nothing new to offer. It merely recycles old ideas in a new package without budget expansion," said Avishay Braverman, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. "With this plan, we will not be able to weather the impact of the global economic crisis on Israel. We need to prepare an alternative plan which is based on an expansion of the government's budget spending ceiling before the elections and the establishment of a new government. "I am calling for an immediate emergency meeting with the Histadrut Labor Federation, employers' representatives, the Bank of Israel, the Treasury and the government to formulate an alternative package." The Likud also slammed the Treasury's plan, terming it a "small plan for a big crisis" and adding that although it offered a number of proposals in the right direction, it was too little and too late. "The small steps the Finance Ministry is offering do not provide an answer to the heart of the problem - it neither provides a safety net for pension savers nor does it offer real steps to avert an increase in unemployment," said the Likud in an official statement. Speaking at the socio-economic cabinet meeting prior to the press conference, Olmert said there was talk of a package deal which would also include pension funds. "We should consider such a deal, but only on the condition of the approval of the state budget for 2009 as proposed to the government," said Olmert. Shraga Brosh, the president of the Israel Manufacturers' Association, criticized the plan for being incomplete as it didn't deal with either the problem of pension funds or the crisis of confidence in the capital market. "The government should set up a study group with the aim of formulating - within a week - recommendations for solutions to the crisis of confidence of investors in the corporate bond market, which in turn will also aid pension savings of the public," said Brosh. Also speaking at the press conference, the Finance Ministry's Supervisor of Insurance, Savings and Capital Markets, Yadin Antebi, said that the numbers floating around in terms of losses of around 40% of pension and provident funds were imaginary. "From the beginning of the year until the end of October, provident funds lost around 16% and pension funds lost around 9.5%," said Antebi. In more detail, the Treasury's economic plan provides NIS 3.3b. in state-guaranteed credit, mostly to small- and medium-sized businesses, while continuing to lower corporate and individual taxes in the next two years and boosting spending by NIS 250 million on research and development. In an effort to strengthen the employment market, the plan has budgeted NIS 100m. for the implementation of a track to subsidize the hiring of new workers, NIS 170 m. for fast retraining programs and NIS 75m. for encouraging minority groups and haredim to join the labor market.