Israel public sector strike ends


An Israeli public sector strike that has disrupted public transportation and closed banks, the stock market and government offices ended on Sunday with a new wage package for low-earning contract workers.

The Finance Ministry announced the deal with the Histadrut labour federation, which declared the strike that began on Wednesday was over.

The Histadrut had demanded the government hire 250,000 contract workers, such as cleaners and security guards, whose conditions are inferior to those directly on government payrolls.

Under the deal, those workers will not be hired by the state. Instead, they will get pay rises, be eligible for merit bonuses and their pension plans will be improved, according to the ministry statement. (Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Ari Rabinovitch

Israel public sector strike headed for third day


Israel’s banks, ports and stock market were closed in the second day of a general strike on Thursday that threatened to drag on for another 24 hours after negotiations between unions and government hit new obstacles.

The strike called by the Histadrut labor federation, an umbrella organization for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, also halted trains and closed Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv for more than an hour.

The Treasury estimated economic damages from the strike as totaling as much as $500 million a day.

Histadrut wants the government to hire about 250,000 contract workers, such as cleaners and security guards, saying their employment conditions are inferior to workers directly on the public payroll.

The Finance Ministry said it cannot take on that many new workers but has offered to improve conditions by raising salaries by at least 20 percent and giving them more holiday.

Talks, which many hoped would settle the dispute, hit problems on Thursday afternoon when the union said Treasury negotiators asked it not to strike again for another four years.

“There is not a chance I would agree to that,” Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini told Israel’s Channel 10 television.

Eini said the strike may stretch into Friday, when most government offices are normally shut. Israel’s air and seaports would operate normally, Israel Radio said.

Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Heavens

Israeli workers launch massive strike


Israeli workers launched an open-ended general strike.

The strike launched Wednesday by the Histadrut, Israel’s main labor union, closed down the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, stopped trains across the country and caused major delays at Ben Gurion Airport. The crippling strike also affected hospitals, government offices and banks.

Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini and Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met until late Tuesday in order to avoid the strike. Talks between the union and the government failed to reach agreement on including contract workers in labor agreements.

“A strike will not solve the problem of contract workers,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “It is possible to improve the conditions of contract workers without striking the economy and disrupting citizens’ lives. There is no magic solution to the employment problems that have been created here over decades; it is possible to resolve the issue through dialogue.”

Ben Gurion Airport was closed from 6 a.m. until noon under the Israel Labor Court’s conditions for allowing the strike to go forward. Most airlines rearranged their schedules to accommodate the closing times.

Israel union goes on strike, court limits scope


Israel’s main labor union declared a general strike on Monday, shutting down major sectors of the country’s economy, but a labor court intervened issuing an injunction that limited the strike to just four hours, officials said.

The Histadrut Labour Federation, the umbrella organization for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, was looking to strike for as long as it took until an agreement was reached with the government over the status of workers employed through employment agencies.

The union had threatened to shut down Israel’s airports, ports, banks and the stock market indefinitely, but the group’s leaders said they would abide by a court decision to limit the strike to Monday morning. It would end at 10 a.m. (0800 GMT), local media reported.

Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv was supposed to be closed from 8 a.m. the Histadrut had said, leaving just a two hour window for disruptions. Other shutdowns began at 6 a.m. and will end at 10 a.m, following the ruling.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday had called on the Histadrut to cancel the planned strike, which would also include trains, buses, universities, government ministries and municipalities.

Last ditch efforts have failed to find an agreement over the status of contract workers supplied by employment agencies.

The Histadrut wants the government to hire some 250,000 contract workers, who have inferior working conditions than those directly on government payrolls. The Finance Ministry has agreed their employment terms need to improve.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch

Israeli workers strike cut short by court


Israel’s main labor union ended a brief strike that shut down major sectors of the economy on Monday, following a labor court injunction that limited the action to just four hours.

The Histadrut Labour Federation, the umbrella body for hundreds of thousands of public sector workers, was looking to strike for as long as it took to reach an agreement with the government over the status of contract workers.

The union had threatened to shut down Israel’s airports, ports, banks and the stock market indefinitely, but accepted the court decision and limited the strike to Monday morning.

Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv was closed for two hours and about a dozen flights were delayed or canceled. An airports authority spokesman said operations were swiftly returning to normal.

The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange started trading about an hour late and will stay open an extra half hour.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called on the Histadrut to cancel the strike, which also affected trains, buses, universities, government ministries and municipalities.

The disagreement focused on the status of contract workers.

The Histadrut wants the government to provide full benefits to 250,000 contract workers—such as cleaners and security guards—who have worse terms than staff directly on government payrolls.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has said he was willing to accept “models from developed welfare states like Sweden, Finland and Holland” where he said such workers are employed through contractors, but they have better conditions.

The labor court instructed the parties to hold intensive talks to find a solution and report on progress by Thursday.

“We hope that the government and employers will use the days allotted by the court to hold real and serious negotiations to reach agreements,” Histadrut leader Ofer Eini said in a statement.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Israel’s teacher strike highlights cracks in the system


As much as he’s been wanting to complete his master’s degree in history, David Graniewitz would rather be standing in front of a classroom, teaching history or English to junior high and high school students.

Instead Graniewitz, who has taught in Israeli secondary schools for almost 20 years, has spent the past couple of weeks glued to his kitchen table, focusing — or trying to focus — on his own studies.

“I like being with a class,” Graniewitz, a 46-year-old father of four, said in his homey apartment in the southern neighborhood of Talpiot, surrounded by mounds of folded laundry. “I’m finding being home difficult. It’s boring.”

Graniewitz is one of the more than 40,000 teachers taking part in a strike launched by the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) on Oct. 10 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Organizers say the strike, which is affecting some 400 junior high schools and 1,200 high schools in the Jewish sector according to the Ministry of Education, could end tomorrow or last for months. The Arab sector joined the strike two weeks ago.

Some secondary school teachers, who belong to the Israel Teachers Union, are not on strike because their union forged a deal with the ministries of Finance and Education several months ago. The result is a hodgepodge of teaching hours and a great deal of confusion.

As of press time on Tuesday, SSTO and Israel’s education minister had resumed talks, with Union of Local Authorities serving as a mediator. While sources on both sides say the gaps remain large, the parties agreed to negotiate intensively to try to end the strike, Ha’aretz reported.

The Israeli public, which has been less than sympathetic to the demands of highly paid striking dockworkers and electric company employees, does not dispute that the country’s teachers are vastly underpaid and subjected to poor working conditions.

“Teachers in this country are getting shafted,” said Jody Zaviv, a Jerusalem property manager whose 14- and 16-year-old sons have been home due to the strike. “I’ve heard their average take-home pay is 4,000 to 6,000 shekels [roughly $1,000 to $1,500 a month] and you can’t raise a family on that. I hold it against the government for refusing to pay a decent wage.”

Teachers, in fact, may earn even less than the figures quoted by Zaviv, according to Keren Shaked, an SSTO spokeswoman.

“A new teacher earns about 3,300 shekels [$825 per month], minimum wage before taxes,” and this is after three years of university. Teachers working 20 years average less than 6,000 shekels [$1,489].”

Independent studies confirm that Israeli teachers earn very little compared to educators in other countries. A survey of 2005 wages conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 30 countries placed Israeli teachers in 29th place, above Hungary but below Slovenia, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Mexico.

Further, data released by Central Bureau of Statistics in July 2007 revealed that Israeli teacher salaries averaged only $1,464 pretax per month, while the average overall Israeli salary was $1,968. Monthly salaries in the electric company averaged $4,537; $2,658 in the industrial sector; $2,259 in the transport field; $1,603 in the health field, and $911 in the catering and hospitality sector.

“Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would become a teacher,” said Shaked, a teacher. “The teachers colleges are crying out for students.”

With few exceptions, Shaked said, Israeli schools “look a lot like prisons. If there’s air conditioning it’s because the parents raised the money. During the past few years, the rate of violence and drugs and dropping out has skyrocketed. Slash money from the education budget and this is what happens.”

Shaked said budget cuts imposed during the tenure of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have meant that teachers who once taught history or the Bible several hours a week to a classroom of students are only allotted two to three hours weekly.

“Teachers may be teaching the same subject in five or seven or even 10 different classrooms” in order to fill their quota and make ends meet, Shaked said. “More students mean more papers to prepare and grade, more students and parents to meet.”

To take home $1,863 per month this past school year, Graniewitz, an immigrant from England, taught matriculation-level courses in three separate secondary schools.

“The city cut back the hours it was willing to pay, which meant that a syllabus that used to take six hours to impart has to be condensed into three hours. You can’t do this and also hold discussions and do group work. Today everything is geared at passing the bagrut [matriculation exams]. There’s no time to impart values. I know it sounds pretentious, but we’re here to educate.”

Graniewitz said the teaching environment has deteriorated in recent years.

“I’ve been teaching in a school in a poor neighborhood, and you would think parents would appreciate teachers for helping their children get out of their rut. That isn’t happening. The amount of antagonism and aggression is shocking. Every day is a struggle. You don’t know if someone is going to throw a firecracker through the door or if your car is going to be vandalized.”

Standing under the protest tent set up by striking teachers within shouting distance of the prime minister’s office, Yael Pulvermacher, a 38-year-old special-ed teacher, said the $1,043 she comes home with every month “isn’t even enough to pay for the music school my sixth-grader wants to attend. I left a high-tech job to go into teaching, but unless something dramatic happens I won’t be teaching next year.”

Despite the many challenges facing Israeli teachers, Graniewitz said he is aching to get back to teaching.

“It’s my fix,” he said, smiling broadly. “Even with the bad parts, I’d still like teaching kids in Israel more than I would in, say, America. Most of our problems are universal problems,” he said.

Berries, Pizza and a Smile


I walked into Trader Joe’s last Sunday and spent $54 on a gallon of milk. Truth be told, it was the strawberries, frozen pizza, extra dog treats, new kind of low-fat cheese and that tempting bottle of Prosecco wine that drove up the bill — none of which I’d intended to buy, and all of which I’ll use … someday. In other words, on this trip, like so many others, I turned a big chunk of disposable income over to Trader Joe’s — and not to Ralphs, Vons or Albertsons.

From October 2003 to February 2004, workers at those three supermarket chains went out on strike to ensure affordable health care, as well as to protect their pensions and job security. It was the longest strike in the history of the supermarket industry, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Web site, and the first major strike of the 21st century. At the end of 141 days, estimates say that the Big Three chains lost more than $2 billion. And in addition to lost wages during the strike, the workers lost a great deal more, having agreed to a two-tier system that allowed stores to bring in new hires at significantly lower wages and benefits.

As we read about the increasingly heated fight brewing now between 65,000 workers and management at those same chains, where union members last month authorized another strike, we’re once again told that it’s all about keeping costs low to prepare for the influx of the big-box stores like Wal-Mart. But the greater threat to the Big Three might be the better service we get at smaller neighborhood haunts, many of them locally owned. My family’s buying habits changed dramatically — and enduringly — as a result of the last strike.

Before 2004, I was a regular Ralphs shopper. We spent as much as $600 to $700 per month there for food and other household supplies. Now, if we spend one-tenth of that per month at the Big Three combined, it’s unusual. That’s because I became comfortable dividing my shopping among places that serve the customer by providing goods efficiently and still at a good price.

This often means several stops during the week — at Trader Joe’s, where we can get most of our staples, and Western Kosher on Fairfax Avenue (great hummus!), Smart & Final (cleaning supplies), the Sunday Hollywood Farmer’s Market (fruit and vegetables) and Mayfair (my favorite salad dressing).

It’s not hard to get over the convenience of the big stores when you get much better service in the smaller venues. I find, too, that it’s often a matter of stopping for a quick drop-in while making my other rounds, without going out of my way.

The issue for me came down to dealing as much as possible with businesses that care. At Mayfair there was no strike because a vow was made from the start to respect the new contract, whatever it might bring. At Trader Joe’s, workers like their jobs because it’s a fun place to work and the company offers benefits and good salaries.

The Big Three are continuing to look for ways to cut costs on their workers’ backs. Not satisfied with the two-tier system they established with the last contract, the owners want to create a third tier, which would even further pinch new hires.

At my favorite Trader Joe’s the other day, the woman ringing me up noticed that I’d picked up some items from the display at the store entrance.

“I guess it’s working,” she said, with evident pride in her voice.

She’d come in at 6 a.m. to set up a strawberry and wine display, and it was clearing out quickly. The day before, she said, the same space had been occupied by basil plants. She was happy with the job and that it made a difference. It was good marketing, but also attractive and seasonal. I fell under her spell.

But there was more to it than that — her sense of the fun of it. I asked her how long she’d been working for the company, and when she told me 13 years, I asked for her take on what was happening with the Big Three; she looked chagrined.

“No comparison,” she said, shaking her head and not wanting to elaborate.

I’m carefully watching the progress in the supermarket negotiations, but I’ve already moved on. The last strike broke my loyalty to the chains and my heart. Many of the employees I’d gotten to know at Ralphs, which I’d patronized for years, left my neighborhood store during their months on the picket lines. Perhaps they couldn’t afford to wait it out, perhaps they found other employment. When the strike was over, I tried to talk with a few clerks in the checkout lines, but they were reticent — working hard to keep the long lines flowing. No eye contact, no time to make a connection. I understand their pain, and I do care, so I’m not boycotting entirely. I still root for the union workers, but the fact is, the ones I know are mostly gone. Those who stayed have always seemed unsettled, insecure — and I hope their lot improves.

In stores where employees are happy, people can be people, and everyone wins. Workers take a moment to ask or answer a question, to engage the customer. That extra second to stop and smile comes easier, and if it’s not too prolonged, even those waiting in lines don’t seem to mind.

The Talmud teaches that we should respect those who work for us, even at our own expense. It makes good business sense. Because that extra smile of satisfaction often leads to the extra dollar spent — on that bottle of wine that wasn’t needed in the first place.

The funny thing is, shopping around has proved not only pleasant, but also just as economical. Because I totaled it up the other day, just to see how much that gallon of milk really cost me. And when I looked at my month’s bills, two years later, even with the extras, even though my money has gone elsewhere, my family’s monthly bill hadn’t really changed.

Rob Eshman is on assignment.

Political Journal


 

This month’s Political Journal is a tale of two labor disputes. One is dragging on and on; the other has come to a peaceful conclusion just when it seemed there might be a strike ahead.

Hotels Battle Continues

A protracted 11-month debacle continues between UNITE HERE, Local 11, representing workers at eight (formerly nine) upscale Los Angeles hotels and the L.A. Hotel Employer’s Council, representing hotel management.

The crux of the battle is the workers’ demand for a short-term contract that would expire in 2006, which is also when contracts would expire at hotels in cities across the nation. The unions would then be able to cooperate, strengthen their common positions and have more clout in dealing with the international hotel conglomerates (like Starwood) that own some of the hotels.

The L.A.-area hotels (Hyatt Regency, Hyatt West Hollywood, Westin Century, Sheraton Universal, Wilshire Grand, Millennium Biltmore, Regent Beverly Wilshire and Westin Bonaventure) have insisted on a longer contract that would extend past 2006, saying that national union concerns are not relevant locally.

At this point, there are no scheduled negotiations.

On the upside for workers, the hotels have stopped charging a $10-a-week health care co-payment, which was instituted last July, after management declared an impasse.

“We didn’t ask the union for anything in return, but we hoped that it would help bring them back to the table,” said management spokesman Fred Muir.

Not surprisingly, the union doesn’t think management canceled the fee out of inherent goodness. It points to a pending complaint by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in January, which is expected to allege that management broke NLRB rules when it declared an impasse and imposed the co-pay.

“They have not refunded any of the [health care] money they collected,” said union spokesman David Koff. “Should the NLRB ultimately prevail in its complaint, the hotels could be liable to repay this money with interest.”

Taking the issue to trial and through the appeals process could take years. The hotels contend Local 11 is using a delaying strategy to get 2006 as the date for its next contract by default.

“Every time we meet, they don’t want to meet again for a month or six weeks,” Muir said. “They basically want to keep this thing going until 2006.”

Koff responded that five independently owned hotels around the city (including the Hotel Bel-Air and the Radisson Wilshire Plaza), which usually follow the hotel council’s lead on these issues, have already signed contracts with the union that expire in 2006.

“If the Bel Air and these other properties can live with the deal Local 11 has proposed to them, there is little question that these other hotels could live with it as well,” he said.

In the meantime, portions of the L.A. Jewish community have become deeply involved in the dispute, consistently siding with the workers.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Workmen’s Circle have organized the Adar Hotel Workers Campaign, collecting $40 supermarket gift certificates for the workers during the month of Adar (Feb. 10- April 9).

“They’re not being charged [the co-pay] anymore, but regardless, they’re facing extreme economic hardship, and they’re still owed the $40 per month from before,” said PJA’s Jaime Rappaport.

The certificates are being collected at a variety of congregations around the city, including Leo Baeck Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and IKAR, to name a few.

Teachers Get a Happy Ending — For Now

Meanwhile, a second labor dispute, this one brewing for an amazing 18 months, has been settled peacably, which almost counts as a surprise ending. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) reached a tentative agreement with the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) Tuesday.

For the past year and a half, teachers had been fighting for higher pay and more involvement and flexibility in the design of their own training.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, where what’s working in the Westside will work in South Central. The teachers in the classroom know what they’re dealing with; they should be included in the dialogue with the district, and that hasn’t been the case,” UTLA spokesperson Angelica Urquijo said the day before the agreement was reached.

In the preceeding week, a work-to-rule protest spread from West Valley schools to the rest of the district. Work-to-rule means teachers stop all the uncompensated work usually necessary to improve students’ education, such as spending unpaid hours after school tutoring children.

Urquijo said work-to-rule was meant to demonstrate how hard teachers really work, how the community of parents would stand behind them and how frustrating the interminable contract negotiations had become.

UTLA members reserved some frustration for their own president, John Perez, who was voted out earlier this month. He’ll be replaced July 1 by A.J. Duffy, a teacher who pledged to take a harder line against the district, especially on pay raises. That turn of events made the prospect of a strike seem more likely.

But just the day after work-to-rule went districtwide, the union and district reached an agreement running through June 2006. It includes a 2 percent retroactive pay raise from last July 1. The union also made gains on other contested issues, achieving a greater role for teachers in evaluating their own training programs and in providing more input on student assessmens.

Negotiators will go back to the table to discuss health benefits, which are funded through December.

Los Angeles in the past two years has trudged through a series of lengthy and painful labor disputes, running the gamut from supermarkets and buses to hotels and schools. At least LAUSD students, already working against the odds, won’t also have to overcome the fallout from a teachers strike.