Histadrut, Interior Ministry reach deal; Olmert: There was no reason for strike.
By MATTHEW KRIEGER, SHELLY PAZ
The Histadrut's general strike came to an end Wednesday afternoon just about half a day after it began when representatives from the Histadrut, Prime Minister's Office, Finance Ministry and Interior Ministry reached an agreement following negotiations that lasted for almost 24 hours.
"I hereby announce that the strike is over and all workers can return to their jobs," said Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini after a deal was struck at around 5:30 p.m. "The employees will be paid either today (Wednesday) or tomorrow (Thursday)."
The agreement was drawn up by Ra'anan Dinur, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, and is based upon the Histadrut receiving written proof from 19 municipalities that the government has already transferred money to them to properly pay their workers, with more guarantees expected to arrive at the Histadrut's offices over the next few days.
There were 10 municipalities which did not receive government money to pay their workers due to corrupt leadership, and the 626 workers from those municipalities will be paid from a Histadrut loan worth millions of shekels.
Before the official recovery agreement is signed, the Histadrut will transfer the funds to the 10 municipalities. Leaders of six of the troubled municipalities have been summoned to a hearing with Interior Minister Roni Bar-On in which they will be questioned as to why their workers were not properly compensated.
Israel Radio also reported that talks were under way to pay the salaries owed to the religious councils.
"The government did everything in its power so that this painful situation would be solved and not recur. As we promised, the workers will receive their wages, and the economy will continue to grow," said Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson.
David Artzi, chairman of the Israel Export Institute, claimed that despite the fact that the strike ended today, it will still cost the economy some $200 million in immediate losses, of which approximately $50m. is due to the enforcement of late fees from importers around the world and the loss of foodstuffs and flowers that have rotted while waiting to be exported.
The damage is even more dramatic, according to Artzi, as it comes on the heels of a strong recovery following a dropoff during last summer's war in Lebanon. "It's like people want to commit suicide," he said in reference to the Histadrut. "Because of their irresponsibility, Israel's 6,000 exporters are suffering - I am very upset."
He added that in addition to losing valuable produce and agricultural products, the strike will strengthen Israel's competitors and may end up in the loss of worldwide business for Israel.
The president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce (FICC), Uriel Lynn, sharply criticized the Histadrut for going on strike and noted that he was opposed to the government returning money to the local municipalities, as many of them are ineffective and corrupt.
All government offices (except the Defense Ministry), Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel Railways, Seaports, the municipalities, Israel Electric Corporation, the Bank of Israel, courts and the Postal Service were closed because of the strike.
Confusion generated by the strike began early, due in large part to the National Labor Court's decision to push the starting time back from 6 to 9 a.m. Many travelers had not been updated about the change in schedule and crowded Ben-Gurion Airport in the hope of catching flights before the strike took effect.
"We feel very badly about the situation," said Eli Ben-Gera, director of the Histadrut Exceptions Committee, responsible for examining each special case of arriving or departing flights at the airport. All flights in and out of the airport were canceled, with exceptions granted only to those flights already in the air prior to the onset of the strike, as well as a number of flights carrying English soccer fans arriving here in advance of Saturday night's match between Israel and England.
Confusion also reigned at Israel Railways stations across the country when people tried to board trains early in the morning, only to learn that the strike had been postponed until 9 a.m. "When throngs of people came to the stations in the morning before the strike began, it took us an hour-and-a-half to operate the trains," said Haim Shaib, director of railways and seaports for the Histadrut.
Shaib said that despite the inconveniences, Israelis understood why the Histadrut decided to strike. "Even third world countries don't withhold public workers' salaries, and the Israeli public is aware of the distress the unpaid employees are experiencing and they know we have to do it with a heavy heart," he said.
He added that some ships at the ports had managed to leave Israel before the strike began.
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