Transportation minister, Israel Katz, announced plans at the beginning of March to start work on dismantling Israel Railways. In response, trade union representatives declared that under no circumstances would the union accept unilateral changes. Right now, all eyes are on an impending confrontation between union workers and the minister, and the outcome can only be guessed at. However, it’s already possible to assume that Histadrut (labour federation) chairperson Ofer Eini will yet again act as mediator, brokering an agreement that will bring peace in the short run but will clear the road for destruction of Israel Railways as a public service guaranteeing jobs and equality.
The dispute over the railways is focused around a privatisation plan. Using as a pretext numerous failings in the functioning of Israel Railways, the government has been promoting what PM Netanyahu’s treasury people would consider to be the ultimate solution: eliminate the (fat) public sector in order to augment the powers of the (thin) private sector. In the next few years the government plans to invest about 100 billion shekels (US$ 27 Billion) in developing infrastructures and building new railway lines. A project will soon be underway for electrification, which will significantly improve service. This vast investment is to bring about a development of the country’s periphery and a reduction in highway traffic.
This welcome project is envisaged by Netanyahu’s government as a classic tool to enforce the privatization they want to lead in the entire public sector. In other words, the government plans to use public money to bolster local and foreign tycoons, whose brutality we are familiar with.
Ten years after the failures of British Rail privatisation, Israel’s government is trying to recreate that Thatcherite adventure, which started in the 1980’s. Here, once again, the excuse put forward is militant unions. Israel Railways workers’ union, headed by Gila Adrai, has in the past few months drawn criticism from all sides. Interestingly, while the post of union head was held by her predecessor, Shaul Okish, no threat of closure hung over the Railways. Okish exploited his position to appoint family members and was even accused of receiving bribes. However, he agreed to cooperate with management, allowing Railways work to be contracted out. Gila Adrai, who was elected in August 2010 after Okish’s removal, is now putting all her efforts into halting the momentum of privatization.
Rather than getting support from the Histadrut, however, Adrai finds herself time and again removed from the negotiating table by Eini, who seems to operate in complete harmony with the transport minister. Katz initiates controversy with the union; Railways workers go on strike; Eini tells an industrial tribunal that he will manage the negotiations. This is what happened last summer when safety was on the agenda, and this is what has happened this time, following the minister’s intention to outsource new carriage maintenance work.
Negotiations between the Histadrut chairman and the transport minister went on for two weeks, and a tentative agreement was finally reached at the beginning of March. That agreement spells privatisation, no less. It includes the outsourcing of old carriage maintenance work, as well as parts of the electrification project; the establishment of a subsidiary, owned by Israel Railways, to manage the company’s real estate assets; and the transfer of the cargo division into private hands (51%).
In order to neutralize the opposition of the Railways workers’ union to the deal, the two sides have agreed to include a clause promising a 25% pay increase for veteran employees and grant of 40 thousand NIS to each worker.
Eini doesn’t bother to minimize the differences between his position and that of the union. This is his modus operandi. While the transportation minister rushes to a press conference, where he criticises Adrai and threatens to shut down the railways, Eini pretends to be dissatisfied with the outcome. In truth, he is more than satisfied. He can now announce to the union that unless the tentative agreement is accepted, the result will be closure of the railways.
As in the social workers’ strike a year ago, Eini fails in his responsibilities as a workers’ leader, exploiting his links with the political elite to dictate a settlement that suits the Treasury. It will be remembered that the social-workers union rejected the settlement devised in March 2011 by Eini and the Treasury. Eini didn’t accept the position of the social workers. Instead, he helped to refer the matter to an industrial tribunal, where, under severe pressure, and in a bid to avoid restarting the negotiations from scratch without the backing of the Histadrut, the social-workers union was forced to back down.
Rather than ensuring that billions of tax payers’ money be used for the benefit of the public, and rather than pressuring the government into using the money to create thousands of jobs, Eini is promoting a settlement that will enable the handing over of the Railways to the tycoons, while turning the union members into another group of rightless contract workers.
The Histadrut, headed by Eini, lacks social vision. Faced with privatization plans and government outsourcing, a trade union worth its name should have presented an alternative plan for developing the public sector. A decent and dutiful union leader would see it as his first priority to eradicate corruption and inefficiency, which are rife within Histadrut unions. Not Eini. He prefers his connections with the financial elite, giving a Histadrut stamp of approval to the ugly face of capitalism.
Assaf Adiv is National Coordinator of WAC-MAAN, an alternative labor union.