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Histadrut Chair Arnon Bar-David: “I Will Not Allow a Rich Country with Poor Citizens"

In an exclusive interview with Davar, Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David shared his insights about the recent elections and the challenges facing Israel and its workers today

ארנון בר דוד (צילום: יונתן בלום)
Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David: "if there are people who are thinking of starting conflicts with the workers, we’re prepared for a confrontation." (Photo: Yonatan Blum)
By Tal Kaspin and Gil Plotkin

Arnon Bar-David, what were your first thoughts when you saw the election results, both as a citizen and as the chair of the Histadrut?

“As chair of the Histadrut, I can say that we know how to handle any political situation, we know how to talk to all the parties. I look forward to working cooperatively with everyone who has been elected, for the good of the economy and for the State of Israel. We are after a long period of political instability, with five elections and multiple years without a budget, and the only responsible body operating here was the Histadrut.

“As a citizen, I will say that obviously a decision has been made. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we’ll go in extremist directions. I want the State of Israel to continue to be pluralistic, to provide a framework for all its citizens, of all varieties and with all political opinions. You can learn from what is happening in the Histadrut. We are leading a broad coalition, all the tribes of Israel are living here together.”

How do you interpret the results of Meretz and Labor [Israel’s two leftist parties, the former of which received below the qualifying threshold of votes and will therefore receive no seats in the Knesset, and the latter of which will receive only four seats]?

“It's a tragedy. I think there’s an absence of leadership here, it could have been different. This absence makes the current left-wing bloc irrelevant. I expect them to think about the future. It may be necessary to understand that at the moment they have nothing to sell."

The coalition-forming negotiations have already begun. Are you involved?

״The conversations are still in the initial phases.  There are still no guidelines for the new government, and there’s been lots of spin in the media. When there are things that have to do with us, we’ll deal with it. I’m in conversation with the party leaders, and at the moment I don't see any problems.”

On the agenda: a framework agreement, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining

What are the burning issues facing the government that will be formed?

“We are looking ahead: new wage agreements, collective bargaining agreements, teachers’ aide reforms, the minimum wage, fighting against the high cost of living. I knew how to work with Netanyahu as prime minister for a long time, I knew how to work with Lapid as well. I look forward to cooperation from any Minister of Finance who is elected.    

 “At the same time, if there are people who are thinking of getting elected and starting conflicts with the workers, we’re also prepared for a confrontation. My way is a responsible way within the bounds of the state, but everyone knows that we can also fight. We know how to take to the streets when necessary, and you might see us there in a few months.”

What’s the first thing that you expect the new Finance Minister to deal with?

"First of all, you have to make a budget. We’re in a transitional government, and in January we will enter an interim budget, so we need to start working quickly. The budget should provide solutions to the cost of living here. You have to look at young couples in the eyes, those who are collapsing under the high cost of living and the difficulty of buying an apartment, and give them solutions.        

“This budget should contain the wage agreements that we are working on, which will be significant after a few difficult years that we went through here. We will conduct tough negotiations with the new government and bring about a meaningful framework agreement.”

What about the minimum wage [which is currently 5,400 shekels ($1,530) monthly]?

“We will demand that the minimum wage be raised immediately to 6,000 shekels ($1,700). No gradual increase. The money gets to the workers, which is good for the economy. Today, new employees aren’t entering the economy, and those who offer less than 6,000 shekels aren’t getting workers.”

What about the economic “package deal” that was agreed upon with the Treasury and with employers [in 2021, which would have gradually raised the minimum wage over four years]? Is it still on the agenda?

“No, for me, the package deal is over. None of its components were legislated. The [public sector] salary freeze ends at the end of the year. In the first quarter of 2022, we reached huge surpluses. As I’ve said in the past, I will not allow for there to be a rich country with poor citizens.”

The Histadrut's relations with the Manufacturers Association [which represents 2,000 Israeli companies] ran aground. Why?

“They decided to take an oppositional stance towards the workers. As long as they don’t realize that an oppositional relationship will harm them, it will go on like this. In any trouble in the economy, they go looking to blame the workers. Any dispute they take to court. They invest a lot of money in the war against workers.

“Instead of raising the minimum wage by agreement, we are forced to do it factory by factory. I said that any factory that is unionized and has a salary of less than 6,000 shekels gets shut down. We did it in Osem [one of the largest food manufacturers in Israel], and the management also realized in the end that it was so. We’ll do it where it's needed.”

An agreement for public sector employees

What’s the status of the framework agreement for public sector employees?

"For us, the framework agreement is the first and most important thing. The discussions began, but were put on ice in the initial stages because of the elections. Behind-the-scenes talks are underway, and we expect direct talks to resume as soon as the government is formed."

By when would you want to finalize the agreements?

"In January, I want to see progress. This is the stage where we will begin to apply levers and pressure to reach an agreement.

“The agreement will start from 2020 [when high inflation began]. We know what has happened in the cost of living over the past two years, and we expect significant wage agreements.

“We worked to sign the collective bargaining agreement for security guards, and wages went up. I expect the incoming Minister to act immediately to expand the agreements. This is the only way to fight the high cost of living for these sectors, which are weaker and are severely affected by the high costs."

Next steps in the fight against the high cost of living

In the past few months, the Histadrut has fought against the high cost of living. How much success have you seen?

"The retail chains have not raised their prices. I feel like the big chains do the math before they raise prices. The Histadrut has led a very clear line here. The voice of the Histadrut has been heard, and the citizens and the media have cooperated."

What about the government?

“The government is very capable of dealing with this, by removing barriers, facilitating parallel imports, and many other steps. It’s not out of their hands. It’s not possible that a product that in Europe costs one euro, will cost five euros in Israel. This is an illogical situation. I have had conversations on this topic with several senior officials in the government that is supposed to be formed, and they all understand that this needs to be dealt with. They understand that this is an important and urgent issue.”

What are the next steps for the Histadrut?

"I intend in the coming months to establish the first cooperative supermarket. We are currently in the initial stages. It will have about 100 basic products that we will bring in parallel imports. We will purchase directly from importers. It will be online. Some products will be subsidized. We will continue to put up a fight against importers."

And where do you see the Histadrut a few years from now?

"I'm optimistic. The Histadrut is very strong, with branches everywhere. In years of pandemic and economic crises, we have proven that the Histadrut is here, and I think the public understands that. The public sees a relevant, responsible Histadrut that knows how to take responsibility and how to deal with any situation, and we will continue to do just that.”

This article was translated from Hebrew by Leah Schwartz. 

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