Jerusalem Histadrut chairman is a man on a mission

On Wednesday, the day the Histadrut started a massive general strike throughout the country, Daniel Ben-Sheetrit had a look of unwavering resolve in his eyes, as if he had something to prove. Ben-Sheetrit, chairman of the Histadrut in Jerusalem (know as Danny to his friends and colleagues) is a formidable individual. With his deep, booming voice, imposing physical stature and a cigarette perpetually dangling from the corner of his mouth, it's a wonder that any governmental authority would dare refuse to meet his demands. Secretaries and assistants are constantly buzzing in and out of his office, taking notes and fulfilling requests. The phone, strategically placed next to his ashtray, is constantly ringing off the hook. It's hard to believe that he doesn't burn his fingers on the lit cigarette balanced near the telephone. The Histadrut held a strike yesterday over the Finance Ministry's failure to pay massive sums of money which the labor federation claims it owes to thousands of municipal workers. The Treasury had agreed to pay the debts back in full on September 20, however, now at almost December, almost no progress has been made. So the labor federation waited a few months and then held the strike, closing all government offices, airports and seaports, railways, local authorities and garbage collection workers. The Jerusalem chairman doesn't hold Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini responsible for the situation. "He is doing a very good job for the workers... the responsibility is on the government now," Ben-Sheetrit angrily told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. He emphasized the responsibility of the government several times. "About 100,000 workers haven't received salaries in months; some six months, some eight months, some a year-and-a-half. The head of the Finance Ministry was supposed to pay the debt back by September 20, but he didn't keep his promise. We had no choice but to strike." The strike was also in response to workers not receiving their social benefits. According to Ben-Sheetrit, some workers have not received sabbatical funds in 100 months. While the workers usually receive what they are entitled to in the larger cities, the issue primarily affects smaller (often Arab) municipalities. Ben-Sheetrit isn't optimistic about the strike ending in the immediate future. He stated simply and pragmatically that if the debts are paid back, the strike will end. But he doesn't envision that happening in the foreseeable future. "I think Ofir Eini is in a very difficult position now because of the answers from the minister of finance," he said on Wednesday, referring to the failed talks between Eini and Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson which took place on Tuesday night. "We can't trust him [Hirchson] because he didn't follow through with the September 20 deal. Of course the strike will hurt the economy. Nobody likes striking." It is estimated that the strike will have a price tag of approximately NIS 500 million a day. This is of little concern to Ben-Sheetrit. On Wednesday morning, the chairman met with other union heads at city hall, and then traveled to Hadassah-University Hospital on Mount Scopus. While there, he discussed the possibility of the hospital becoming involved in the strike if the government doesn't concede to the Histadrut demands in the very near future. Ben-Sheetrit became heavily involved with the Histadrut 15 years ago. Prior to joining the leadership of the labor federation, he was a member of the union working at Hadassah Hospital's emergency room. He soon grew tired of that, however, and ran for the position of deputy chairman of the Histadrut in Jerusalem and was elected. After 10 years in that position, he was elected again as the chairman of the Histadrut in Jerusalem, the position he holds today. "As chairman of the Jerusalem branch of the Histadrut," Ben-Sheetrit said, "I am in charge of 122 places. There about 200,000 workers at these places. This includes all of the government offices, municipal offices, private establishments, markets, etc." Ben-Sheetrit is juggling several major issues simultaneously. Last week, the Finance Ministry announced that it would be transferring the bank services utilized by over 85,000 state employees from Bank Yahav (which is partially union owned) to private, commercial banks. The Histadrut held a strike over this issue last week. "We have started negotiations," Ben-Sheetrit said. "If after three months we don't have a solution, we'll strike again. But now we're just talking." Ben-Sheetrit explains the role which the Histadrut plays in Israel's economy very methodically; they attempt to reach agreements about workers' conditions and rights and initiate negotiations with the workers' superiors. If this doesn't work, they take the issue to court and eventually go on strike.