Likud, Labor Confrontation at the Histadrut Convention

The 23rd convention of Histadrut opened here tonight and immediately took on the aspects of a battleground between Labor and Likud over the government’s controversial new economic program. Premier Menachem Begin, who had been scheduled to attend the opening ceremonies, was notable in his absence, an indication of the bitter feelings that have developed between the Premier and the trade union federation which has encouraged strikes and work stoppages during the past week to protest the economic measures.

Even Israel’s universally respected President Ephraim Katzir, whose office is non-political, was not immune to heckling. When he said it was only natural for Histadrut to struggle for a more equitable distribution of the economic burdens, Likud delegates interrupted his speech, shouting that such remarks exceeded his authority. They began to chant “Begin to the government,” their traditional slogan during Likud’s long period in the opposition. Labor Alignment delegates countered with cries of “Begin go home.”

Histadrut Secretary General Yeruham Meshel, the main speaker of the evening, was also interrupted by heckling. He declared that Histadrut did its utmost to reach an understanding with the new government but would insist that the wage-earner must not be made the victim of the new economic policy and that his living standards must not deteriorate.

SINGING OF SOCIALIST ANTHEM SPARKS WALKOUT

Meshel greeted the President and the ministers present who “represent the government” but did not refer to Begin’s demonstrative absence. Sources close to the Premier said later that Begin felt that aspects of Histadrut’s campaign against the economic program were directed against him personally and was “insulted.”

Begin was quoted as saying “Histadrut delegates yelled ‘Begin go home’ so I stayed at the Premier’s office where the people elected me to be.” The deep rift between the Labor and Likud elements of Histadrut was emphasized at the end of the opening session. When the delegates rose to sing the “Internationale,” the Socialist anthem, the Likud contingent walked out.

The Histadrut convention is attended by 1501 delegates who were elected last June. The breakdown by party is Labor Alignment, 841; Likud, 429; Democratic Movement for Change (DMC) 122; Communists, 46; Religious workers, 27; Independent Liberals and the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) 19; and Sheli, 17. Histadrut has a membership of about 1.4 million workers.

The convention will move to Tel Aviv tomorrow for its working sessions and will close on Thursday. Prior to the opening, Meshel said he would not hesitate to attack the new economic policies because “we are convinced they will not achieve the expected goals, will not check inflation but will instead increase it.”

Finance Minister Simcha Ehrlich expressed other views in a speech to the Likud delegation last night. He said his program would not create unemployment and promised that not only social welfare cases but workers in the three lowest wage brackets will receive compensation. “Whoever will work will get more but whoever will not work, let him not wait for gifts and donations,” Ehrlich said.

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