Pragmatism, not strike action

The rapid resort to the strike threat, ostensibly to achieve some of these goals, actually undermines everybody’s interests.

hisdadrut 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hisdadrut 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Chances are good that the general strike slated for Tuesday will be avoided. No one knows better than Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, recently back from the US with gloomy economic forecasts, that preventing a major shock to Israel’s fragile economy could mean the difference between economic expansion and recession. And Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini has proved to be more amenable to maintaining proper working relations with the government and the business sector than some of his insistently populist predecessors.
Nevertheless, the gap between the sides in negotiations is formidable. About 750,000 unionized public sector workers are still threatening to strike unless they receive a retroactive wage hike of 3.5 percent per year for 2009 and 2010 and the same rise for 2011 – a total of 10.5%. The Treasury, meanwhile, is sticking to its original offer of a 0.5% hike per year, or 1.5% in all.
We are opposed to the maddening ease with which a small group of union apparatchiks resort to crippling the entire economy – schools, air and sea ports, garbage collection and government offices – without having to hold a strike ballot, secret or not. Besides, in the last decade public sector wages have risen 4% in real terms compared to 3% in the private sector on average. And even if public sector workers earn less on average (NIS 7,623 compared to NIS 8,140), they enjoy better job security and perks.
Still, crises tend to foster opportunity. And this crisis is no different.
THE TREASURY has the chance to renegotiate a collective wage agreement with public-sector employees that would help reduce income inequality. The Central Bureau of Statistics reported last month that in 2008 the top 20 percent of wage earners made 7.5 more than the bottom 20 percent, compared to an EU average of just 4.9.
The public sector is to blame for part of this discrepancy. It is no coincidence that powerful unions such as longshoremen, Israel Electric Company workers and airport employees, who control monopolies and can single-handedly deal a severe blow to the economy, tend to earn on average significantly more than other public-sector workers. This explains why a social worker with a college degree earns NIS 7,000 a month, while an air-traffic controller at Ben-Gurion Airport earns more than NIS 60,000.
We applaud Finance Ministry Director-General Haim Shani’s recommendation that the lowest paid public sector workers, who earn between NIS 5,000 and NIS 7,000 a month, should receive the bulk of the wage hike, while those earning more than NIS 25,000 would receive no raise.
“As the economy’s largest employer, we want to serve as a role model for the private sector to strive to reduce income inequalities,” said Shani.
So far, Eini, who must answer to the stronger workers’ unions, has been reticent about the Finance Ministry's proposal. But as the head of the Histadrut, he should be no less committed to income equality as a means of enhancing worker solidarity than the Treasury.
ONE PARTICULAR distortion that must be addressed is the low salaries paid to our teachers. Fifty-four percent of teachers earn a gross income of less than the national average of NIS 7,949 a month, compared to just 6.6% of Defense Ministry employees. Education should be no less a priority than security.
And there is no reason why an Israeli elementary school teacher with 15 years of experience earned just $19,868 a year in 2008 while the OECD average was $39,426.
Part of the solution is to get teachers to work longer hours for more pay. The New Horizons plan, which is bitterly opposed by teachers’ unions, provides for precisely that. Teachers employed in New Horizons grossed an average of NIS 10,165 a month last year, compared with NIS 8,509 for teachers not in the plan. Special wage hikes should also be given to outstanding teachers and other public sector workers as an incentive to strive for excellence.
The state and the Histadrut share many goals, whether it be income equality or the improvement of teachers’ salaries. There should be sufficient good will and common sense available to find a middle ground to meet all sides’ needs.
The rapid resort to the strike threat, ostensibly to achieve some of these goals, actually undermines everybody’s interests.