Likud, Histadrut in Confrontation over the New Economic Program

The Likud government and Histadrut are locked in battle over the new economic program as each tries to rally public support to strengthen its hand before negotiations begin over compensation for higher prices and other major issues. Histadrut’s campaign of strikes, work stoppages and demonstrations against perceived economic inequities has been only partially successful so far.

Many worker groups have taken a cynical attitude toward the trade union federation, recalling that it had rarely objected when the previous Labor government raised prices and taxes and that Histadrut had usually supported the authorities in strikes involving public services.

The government has started a counter-campaign utilizing Cabinet ministers and senior Likud officials to “clarify” the new economic policy and “educate” the workers as to why it is necessary. But Premier Menachem Begin only added fuel to the fire last night when he used the term “Bolshevik” to characterize worker protests. Addressing a rally marking the 10th anniversary of the Land of Israel movement in Jerusalem, a group that demands annexation of the occupied Arab territories, Begin denounced the strikes and work stoppages.

“These days we hear discordant tones and threatening voices,” he said. “This evening I have come to say this government which was formed on the basis of the people’s wish will not be frightened by threats from without or within. The Bolshevik-like tones heard these days will quickly disappear.” Histadrut Secretary General Yeruham Meshel reacted swiftly. Begin’s words, he declared, make it plain what the Premier thinks of workers’ rights.

MASSIVE PROTEST RALLY

Meanwhile, the strikes, stoppages and rallies continued but not quite on the scale the Histadrut apparently hoped for. Sick-fund employees went on strike yesterday and clinics were manned by skeleton staffs. But a strike by bank employees was largely ineffective. All commercial banks, except the Bank Hapoalim, the workers movement bank, functioned normally today. Bakeries, which were supposed to be struck, remained open as did many other plants and enterprises where strikes had been called.

Histadrut’s biggest success was the protest rally held today in Tel Aviv’s municipal square which drew about 25,000 workers. At one point, the demonstrators blocked the Tel Aviv-Haifa road and border police units had to intervene to keep traffic moving. But they used persuasion instead of clubs and no injuries or arrests were reported.

The success of the rally was attributed largely to veteran labor leader Yitzhok Ben Aharon, the former Histadrut Secretary General, who is a spellbinding orator. He managed to infuse his audience with a militant spirit and instead of dispersing after his speech, worker groups numbering in the hundreds and even thousands staged impromptu demonstrations in some of Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfares.

No official contact between the government and Histadrut is expected until after the Histadrut convention to be held next week. Nevertheless, experts on both sides are preparing figures on the extent of price rises and compensation. Most employers seem to realize that wage hikes will be necessary but are waiting for a government-Histadrut agreement before determining the size of the raise.

One industrialist, Steff Wertheimer, a Knesset member of the Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) has already given workers at his metal plant a 10 percent raise. The Manufacturers Association decided to suspend him for breaking management solidarity. But the association now seems to be having second thoughts.

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