Strike Ends as Israel and Unions Reach Pact
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JERUSALEM -- Israel's first general strike in five years ended Sunday with an agreement that improves conditions for nonunionized contract workers used by government agencies.
The walkout, which began Wednesday, shut government offices, banks and the stock exchange, paralyzed postal services and affected public transportation as well as some hospital services. Israel's main airport closed on the first morning of the strike, but it reopened hours later under a court order. Garbage had been piling up, and A.T.M.'s had started running out of cash.
Marathon negotiations between the Finance Ministry and the Histadrut Labor Federation, the umbrella union for hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers, failed to produce a compromise before the weekend.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Ofer Eini, the chairman of the Histadrut, held a joint news conference about 10 a.m. on Sunday, soon after the start of the workweek here, at which they announced that they had reached a deal. The dispute involved government agencies' growing use of contract workers, especially cleaners and security guards, hired through employment agencies, who earned substantially less than unionized employees.
The Histadrut supported last summer's popular social justice movement that brought 400,000 Israelis out into the streets at its peak. Those protests were mostly driven by issues like the lack of affordable housing and the rising cost of living, but speakers at the rallies also highlighted the plight of contract workers, particularly in the education system.
On Sunday, Mr. Eini thanked the workers' committees and unionized workers who took on the cause of nonunionized workers, and he thanked the public for its patience. Adopting the language of last summer's protests, he said that the workers had "helped us make a more honest and just society," and that the public "understood that it was a just struggle."
Mr. Steinitz, for his part, said he thought that Israel was making "an historic correction that strengthens weaker workers," one that was both just and would encourage people to go to work.
Under the deal, the minimum wage for contract workers is to be raised, and they will receive improved benefits, including employer participation in savings plans, larger employer participation in pension funds and subsidized meals. The agreement also calls for a small number of contract workers to be transferred to direct employment and for more inspectors to ensure that the rights of contract workers are being upheld.
In return, the Histadrut agreed to hold off industrial action for three years on issues pertaining to the economic conditions of contract workers employed as cleaners and security guards.
First Published February 13, 2012 12:01 am