Uncivil Servants

A country-wide walkout paralyzes all services to the public - in every sphere and at every level.

strike sign 88 (photo credit: )
strike sign 88
(photo credit: )
No member of Israeli officialdom was available yesterday to tend to jobless Israelis reporting to government employment bureaus, welfare claimants seeking benefits, travelers applying for passports, people showing up for prescheduled driving tests, apartment purchasers wishing to look up deeds, businessmen trying to release goods from customs or citizens making inquiries about income tax regulations. Even the weather forecast was put on hold because public-sector meteorologists joined fellow civil servants in a country-wide walkout that paralyzed all services to the public - in every sphere and at every level. No government office was open and even telephone responses were suspended. And the end of this strike is not yet in sight. Why? Because the Treasury dared publish a tender for various services that Bank Yahav exclusively grants to civil servants. That tender means Bank Yahav is about to lose its unique franchise to handle the accounts of over 85,000 state employees. The idea is to parcel out this franchise, in the spirit of free and open competition, among any competing commercial banks. On the face of it, this should be a welcome measure in the drive to privatize the economy and rid it of stifling monopolies. But as in any attempt to privatize, those who benefit from the status quo dig in their heels to try to prevent change. We have seen this in the Ports Authority, whose employees had no compunction to shut down Israel's international commerce, grind the economy to a halt and even cause fellow workers to be laid off when their plants couldn't export or receive raw materials. Electric Corporation employees - among the county's highest-earners - have likewise threatened to pull the plug on all power supplies if plans are implemented to split the monopoly into smaller components and limit egregious perks, like free electricity. The Civil Service Union regards Bank Yahav as its counterpart to free electricity. Yahav offers cheap loans and doesn't charge public employees fees, as the commercial banks (exorbitantly) charge the rest of us. Civil servants may be right in their reluctance to pay outrageous fees. But the answer here is to restrain the large banks for the entire populace's sake and not to afford special sanctuaries for select sectors. Bank Yahav - co-owned by the state, the union and Bank Hapoalim - is such an anachronistic sanctuary, of the sort which proliferated in Israel's early socialist days. Civil servants had Yahav, teachers Bank Massad, military personnel Bank Otzar Hahayal, etc. This is patently as wrong as free electricity. In an open society, all benefits and all incomes should be taxable, unconcealed, open to scrutiny and not be paid under the table. As things stand, the state is subsidizing the low-interest, no-fee banking enjoyed by union members. We all indirectly foot the bill for these exclusionary arrangements. The Civil Servants Union argues now that Bank Yahav's discriminatory privileges are integral to the terms of employment. Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini went on to attack the Treasury for demanding that "employees be taxed for the use of company cars. Now they've come up with more edicts. If they want a fight, they'll get it. Anyone who messes with us will get hit back." Eini is accurate in noting that perks have long been part of the deal. But it's time they shouldn't be. The economy mustn't be split into latifundia with particular sweet bargain agreements. There can't be multiple side-by-side systems, each with separate criteria and frameworks. It's time we were all treated fairly, with no beneficiaries from camouflaged incomes which are exempt from tax, yet underpinned by taxpayers who themselves must cough up whatever revenue is inflicted upon anything they earn. Besides being unfair, these inequitable perks clog the economy's arteries by stymieing the unimpeded competition that is its lifeblood. If Yahav can't survive the loss of its franchise, then it's uncompetitive and shouldn't be artificially sustained. It would be preferable if Eini demanded higher pay, which would be taxable, than callously cause damage to the very citizenry on which he would like to go on relying keep Bank Yahav alive. The union's disgraceful message is that it will stop at nothing just so that its members won't have to conduct their affairs as all other Israelis must.