Wave of labor unrest threatens to spread

Bank of Israel, ports, and education system among those already affected; threat of general strike looming.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Israelis faced a barrage of strikes Monday, with walkouts affecting the education system, the central banking system and the ports and the threat of a general strike by the Histadrut Labor Federation on March 21 still looming. On Monday, Bank of Israel workers went out on an all-day strike in the latest development in the four-year long labor dispute with the Finance Ministry. All central bank operations were halted, including the transfer of cash to bank branches and ATM machines. Employees stopped processing foreign currency deposits and were not providing data on bank assets. It was feared that a cash shortage could be expected within a few days, and some officials worried that the stock exchange might carry out its threat to stop trading. But in a last-ditch attempt, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer managed to bring all sides back to the negotiation table to forge a new wage deal within 48 hours, following intervention by Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Finance Ministry froze for 48 hours the letters sent out to bank managers and employees by Finance Ministry Wage Director Eli Cohen informing them that the current wage benefits coming under scrutiny would be canceled, and they would be expected to return money retroactively that had been paid out "illegally." In the meantime, the Bank of Israel workers union had not yet decided regarding the continuation of the strike action, but is expected to make an announcement after a meeting on Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, teachers in all Tel Aviv area district high schools and some of its junior highs went on strike Monday, while the Secondary School Teachers Association announced that it intended to extend the strike on Tuesday to schools in Jerusalem. Ashdod Port workers went on strike Sunday night in reaction to the Treasury's insistence on making changes to a new agreement between port workers and the Ashdod Port Authority, which was in the final stages. Amid the called strike actions across the country, the ongoing saga over the missed salary payments to thousands of local authority employees has made little progress since the Histadrut Labor Federation last week threatened to go out on a general strike over the matter on March 21. This week Olmert expressed his confidence that the issue would be properly resolved in a few days and added that the issue would be submitted to the cabinet on Sunday. "This week's meeting between Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini and Hirchson did not bear any fruit, and as long as local authority workers are not paid, we will begin a general strike action on March 21," the Histadrut Labor Federation spokesperson said.