February 25, 2016

The Histadrut (Almost) Strikes Back

Kim Robins ‘17


Early in the morning on December 22, 2015, Israel narrowly averted what would have been a massive nationwide strike by public sector workers.
The Histadrut, Israel’s largest and most powerful labor union, had been planning the strike since last November. Only desperate last-­minute negotiations with Israel's Finance Ministry kept the country’s schools, airports, buses and other public services running.
The Histadrut originally demanded an 11 percent pay raise for all public sector workers, backdated to begin in January 2013. The Finance Ministry did not agree to this, since it would have perpetuated workers’ income inequality, cost the government billions of shekels and forced Israel to make cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.
According to the new agreement between the Histadrut and the Ministry, 15,000 public sector workers will be added to the government’s payroll and 30,000 more will see improvements in their working conditions. The two parties also agreed to raise public sector wages, but at different rates for low­-income and high-­income workers.
Despite the potentially dire consequences of the strike, most Israelis were not alarmed.
“I didn’t even know about the strike at first,” said Yael Gilad, a high school senior from Merchavim, Israel who visited GOA on the Neshama Yetera program last month.
“People in Israel talk about going on strike all of the time, but we knew that nothing would happen.”
Members of the Knesset, however, are frustrated by this constant economic threat.
“For the fourth time in just one year the Histadrut is threatening to use the power they have to shut down the economy,” said Likud Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel. “The situation in which Israel’s economy and citizens are hostage to the Histadrut’s strike threats is absurd.”
The almost­-strike reflects growing socioeconomic discontent in Israel, which is due in part to the heavy focus on security and defense issues in the current Knesset. Many Israelis struggle to make ends meet, as ­the cost of living in Israel, especially rent and income taxes, is very high and several protest movements over the last few years have demanded lower prices and more income equality. Israel’s underwhelming economic growth during the first half of this year only makes the problem worse.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon called the agreement with the Histadrut “historic” and very fortunate. By averting the strike, Israel prevented billions of shekels’ worth of financial loss and kept courts, hospitals, and other essential services running at full capacity. The threat of a strike, however, serves as a grim reminder that Israel’s economic problems are very present and not being solved effectively.

If the Finance Ministry is to appease unions and strikers in the long term, it will have to follow through on this new agreement and actively work to raise wages and lower the cost of living for all Israelis.

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