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Country faces paralysis as hundreds of thousands of civil servants slow down service

Israel's most powerful union refraining from nationwide strike, for now

By Moti Bassok and Zohar Blumenkrantz

Public sector workers have commenced go-slow actions today, but have refrained for the moment from commending an all-out nationwide strike.

The labor slow-downs affect all ministries, local authorities, and government companies. It is not expected to affect trade on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

Finance Minister Avraham Shochat described labor disputes in the public sector at this crucial time as "very grave and irresponsible."

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Shochat said yesterday the government could not give in to the demands of the Histadrut labor federation - neither to its request for a pay rise of 16%, nor to one of 8%. The Histadrut is the biggest and most powerful labor federation in the country.

"With inflation of zero percent and a real pay increase of 7.5% over the past two years, the government can only grant workers modest pay rises," the minister said.

He added that he intended to instruct the relevant officials in his office to take all necessary measures to minimize the damage. The minister said he had not ruled out the option of seeking legal relief from the Labor Court and requesting that it issue "back-to-work" orders.

The Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce has also asked Shochat to take action to issue such orders if negotiations with the Histadrut fail. Federation President Danny Gillerman harshly criticized the Histadrut's intention to call a general strike in the public sector, saying: "The business sector is fed up with the various strikes that severely sabotage trade."

The Voice of Israel radio reported Sunday evening that One Israel leaders asked the Histadrut leader, MK Amir Peretz to avert a nationwide general strike, in order not to hurt the chances of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the prime ministerial elections to be held in two weeks. Peretz was formerly a member of the Labor Party, which formed the backbone of the One Israel party. But Peretz seceded to form a labor-based party headed by himself, which won two seats in the Knesset.