Misguided strike

Eini should focus attention on reforms that would turn outsources workers into full-fledged public employees, not call a general strike.

With much fanfare and media coverage, Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini declared during a press conference Tuesday that all unionized workers would launch a general strike after Succot.
Ostensibly, the strike – which would paralyze the economy at a time when leading economists are warning of an international recession that is likely to have an adverse impact on Israel’s economy – is designed to put pressure on the government to improve the working conditions of public sector workers employed via outsourcing arrangements.
These workers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, often lack basic social benefits and cannot acquire seniority (they are often fired and rehired yearly). And the low salaries they receive do not result in lower state expenditures, since middlemen pocket hefty commissions.
However, in addition to championing the cause of these workers, a cause arguably under the purview of the Histadrut as a labor union, Eini has also apparently joined forces with leaders of this summer’s socioeconomic protests and dragged unionized workers into a decidedly political battle against the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations, which were ratified by the cabinet this week.
The Histadrut and the tent-city protesters make strange bedfellows: Much of the high cost of living criticized by the protesters is a direct result of the high salaries paid to public sector workers at state-run monopolies such as the Israel Electric Corporation, the Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat ports and the Israel Airports Authority that are represented by Eini. According to an annual public sector wage report released by the Treasury Monday, the average monthly salary in the Israel Electric Corporation in 2010 was NIS 21,354, at Haifa Port it was NIS 24,805, at Ashdod Port it was 24,557, at Israel Railways it was NIS 37,639 and in government offices it was NIS 13,630, compared to a national average of NIS 8,900.
And Eini is considered a close associate of senior business leaders thoroughly vilified by the protest movement.
Even if we ignore Eini’s flagrant abuse of union power for the sake of influencing the government’s macroeconomic policy, the Histadrut chairman’s stated objective of reducing the number of workers employed via contractors sound disingenuous.
Precisely the sorts of restrictive collective work agreements successfully negotiated by the Histadrut in the past are one of the root causes for the growth in the use of outsourced workers. Labor and management flexibility in the public sector is low, which means that after an employee is hired it is extremely difficult to make him or her redundant.
Also, public sector workers receive salary raises based solely on seniority, regardless of the quality of their work.
In fact, there are no criteria in place for evaluating public sector workers’ productivity or work ethic. Transferring workers from one public sector position where they are no longed needed to another where they are is difficult, as is the introduction of new technologies that require workers to undergo additional training.
Under the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that the public sector employs an inordinately high number of outsourced workers to compensate for the inherent lack of flexibility in the public sector. If it weren’t so inefficient and expensive to employ public sector workers directly, there would be no need for so many outsourced workers.
In its recommendations, the Trajtenberg Committee called on the government “to work toward a new work arrangement in the public sector that introduces more flexibility and enables the recruitment of higher quality manpower. Recognition of excellence on the basis of systematic evaluations coupled with an effective process of layoffs would help achieve this goal.”
However, Eini and the public sector workers he represents reject Trajtenberg’s eminently wise advice. Understandably, they do not want to give up their favorable working conditions and high salaries.
But if Eini were truly sincere about eradicating the phenomenon of outsourced workers, or at least reducing their numbers, he would be pushing for reforms within the public sector that would make it easier to transform many outsourced workers into full-fledged employees, instead of calling for a general strike.