Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday ordered intensive negotiations with the Histadrut Labor Federation in hopes of forestalling a general public sector strike scheduled to begin on Wednesday. Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini and Prime Minister's Office Director-General Ra'anan Dinur were set to continue talks Tuesday in an attempt to find a solution to the as-yet-unpaid salaries of local council employees and prevent the general strike that the Histadrut threatened would hit Israel's "vulnerable spots." In addition, Army Radio reported that the government had decided to set up a system that would work to expedite the payment of the local council workers' salaries. Eini declared Monday that a widespread strike in the public sector would begin on Wednesday morning if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not intervene personally to solve the problem of months of non-payment of salaries and pension contributions to employees by local authorities. "If the prime minister does not get involved, we will have no choice but to take widespread strike action on Wednesday," said Eini. "The prime minister's involvement could help delay the strike. To completely avert it, the prime minister would need to hold an emergency meeting to approve the immediate transfers of funds to 40 local authorities and 16 religious councils, which have not been able to pay their workers for months."
Analysis: Why are we back to square one?
If the talks fail to bear fruit, the Histadrut will announce in a press conference Tuesday evening what public services will be affected by the strike and to what extent.
Army Radio reported, however, that the Histadrut had no intention of involving the banks in the strike.
Meanwhile, junior high and high schools will open as usual on Tuesday following the teachers' strike that began last week, it was announced on Monday.
Representatives of the Secondary School Teachers Organization will meet with Finance Ministry representatives in an attempt to resolve the issue of drawn-out negotiations over salaries.
On Sunday, Eini sent a letter to Olmert calling for an emergency meeting of the government to enable the immediate transfer of salaries and pension contributions to tens of thousands of municipal workers.
Late on Monday, Olmert met with representatives of the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry and urged them to find ways to avert the public sector strike, but no decision over a possible solution to the problem was presented.
The Federation of the Israeli Chambers of Commerce (FICC) estimated that a general public-sector strike would cost the economy NIS 500 million a day, not including banking, health and electricity services.
"The Histadrut has no reason to go on strike. We are doing everything we can to solve the problem, and we have already managed to reduce the number of local authorities that are not paying salaries from 40 to 30," said Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson. "The problem is that the direct transfer of funds to the local authorities will most likely not end up in the pockets of unpaid municipal workers and thus we need to solve the problem through the implementation of recovery programs to end this saga of non-payments once and for all."
Speaking at the Knesset Interior Committee, Interior Ministry Director-General Ram Belinkov said that the majority of local authorities withholding workers' salaries owed so much money to suppliers and others that any transfer of funds would not go to unpaid workers.
The FICC and the Israel Manufacturers Association called on the government to impose personal sanctions on leaders of local governments that withhold pay.
"The blame should be placed at the door of the local authorities that do not pay workers their rightful salaries," said the FICC.
The Knesset Welfare and Social Affairs Committee was in the midst of a discussion over the local authorities when the Histadrut announced the strike.
Committee Chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) called on Olmert to do "whatever it takes" to stop the strike.
"While a strike is always an appropriate and valid method of making civic voices heard, the prime minister should do everything in his power to stop this strike from happening," said Paz-Pines.
Paz-Pines added that Olmert should listen to the story of Salma Hallen, a social worker from Taibe, who has not received her salary in 25 months. Hallen said the oldest of her four children had been forced to leave high school early to work part time and help support the family.
During the meeting, MK Muhammad Barakei (Hadash) got into a heated fight with the representatives from the Finance Ministry and Interior Ministry, telling them that they discriminated against certain townships and refused to take responsibility for their failure to pay local workers on time.
Over the past couple of months the Histadrut demanded that council heads who held back wages be held personally and criminally responsible, in a bid to guarantee that such cases were not repeated.
The FICC called on the Histadrut to refrain from calling the strike because of the harm caused to the public and the economy, while the Israel Manufacturers Association slammed Olmert for failing to solve the problem at the local authorities level, saying that the country was becoming a "banana republic."
Three months ago a general strike in protest of the delay in salary payments paralyzed the Israeli economy, shutting down government offices, public transportation, airports, schools and other services, but was halted by the National Labor Court after just one day, after the Finance Minister committed to resolve the issue.