Who’s really running the country?

Over the past few weeks, the relationship between the staunch workers unions and the government, which pays the workers’ salaries, has become heated.

Ashdod port 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ashdod port 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The chairman of the workers committee at Ashdod Port, Alon Hassan, returned to work this week. He made sure that the dozens of photographers were able to capture the moment as he parked his luxury car near the port offices.
Over the past few weeks, the relationship between the staunch workers unions and the government, which pays the workers’ salaries, has become heated.
Newspaper headlines boldly ask: Who is working for whom? Do civil servants work for the state or is it the other way around? Over the past few years, state companies employees’ salaries have risen by tens of percent.
Israel’s deficit and taxes have grown, electricity, water and gasoline prices haven’t stopped rising and state companies have incurred huge losses. Nonetheless, state companies’ salaries keep rising.
State companies’ total loss in 2012 amounted to NIS 100 million.
In 2011, they lost NIS 700m., mostly due to losses incurred by the Israel Electric Company and Israel Railways. Haifa and Ashdod ports showed a slight improvement in performance, but mostly due to investments and not revenue.
In comparison with other ports around the world, Israel’s ports are extremely inefficient.
The average rate of port workers’ effectiveness around the world is between 70% and 80%, whereas in Israel it is only 50%. The majority of public companies’ revenue comes from defense firms such as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries.
And what have Israeli citizens received in exchange? A light rail in Tel Aviv has been in the process of being built for decades. Twenty years ago, pressure from Dan and Egged bus workers unions prevented its progress, and government incompetence is hampering its completion. Port workers unions are threatening to prevent the building of private ports, which would lower costs and ease citizens’ tax burden.
Why? Because they can. Israel Railways is losing millions of shekels. Trains constantly arrive late, there are dozens of professional and operational malfunctions and the workers union supports nepotism. And after all this, they constantly threaten to carry out endless strikes.
And their salaries rise with no direct connection to productivity and efficiency. Salaries of Israel Electric Company employees, which were already among the highest in the country, rose 18% last year and Haifa Port employees’ salaries rose 12%.
Annual revenue from state companies amounts to billions of shekels. These funds could be used to ease citizens’ heavy tax burden.
But they never make it there; they are channeled straight into the pockets of the country’s large and mighty unions. Despite receiving extremely high salaries, Haifa and Ashdod employees operate the ports at only 50% of their operational capability.
Israel Railways uses these funds to complete half-built tunnels, replace iron train tracks and repair dozens of expensive train cars that were involved in accidents since their drivers were unskilled.
These funds would have been better spent building the light rail red line in greater Tel Aviv.
Highway interchanges take years to be built due to conflicts between the construction companies and the government and to lack of funding. The IEC alone lost NIS 700m. due to faulty management and professional negligence, which caused tons of diesel fuel to spill into and contaminate the Mediterranean Sea.
The IEC was fined NIS 2.5m. as a result, but of course all it had to do was raise consumer electricity rates to pay for it.
The problem is that these companies continue to generate losses and the government fails to take control of the situation, leaving the citizens to clean up the mess and pay for these losses out of their own pockets time and again.
Our country’s resources belong to all of us, but they are being managed by small, powerful groups that over the years have been successfully preserving their power and their influence over policy-makers, resulting in stagnation, waste and inefficiency.
Moreover, these same union heads take advantage of their power over large government institutions to extract promises from candidates ahead of elections. And their ringleader is the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation – the organization that costs the country billions of shekels. Supposedly it represents Israeli workers, but in practice the Histadrut only supports its directors and strengthens them in their battle against the government.
There’s nothing wrong with having a balance of power between civil servants and the government for which they work. But does such a balance of power truly exist? No, it doesn’t. Our government is not a powerful and authoritative governmental system with clear powers; it is weak and incapable of functioning independently without the support of these committees and Histadrut chairmen.
I’m not sure if Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett can back up his militaristic declarations.
And neither can Finance Minister Yair Lapid. At the end of the day, both of them just sit in the government, dependent on the whims of the unions, the capitalists and the Histadrut. Bennett and Lapid cannot successfully promote governmental programs without their support.
So who’s the real boss? Who determines Israel’s economic and political agendas? Who holds the real power? Will this new government that is supposed to operate under the principles of new politics finally bring about change? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we will continue to pay the price.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).Translated by Hannah Hochner.