Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Here We Go Again

It's strike time again.

While to most of the world that means renewed air strikes on Baghdad, here in Israel, "strike" has a much more down-to-earth connotation.

It’s like clockwork. As soon as the annual budget in Israel is proposed to the Knesset, the labor unions go into high gear.

It starts with a teachers warning strike. School starts an hour late for a couple of days. Then the local authority workers strike. Finally, the government workers join in and close down the Income Tax Authority, the Interior Ministry, the Employment Service and more. The garbage collectors stop picking up the trash, and the kindergarten assistants (though fortunately not the teachers who are paid by a different ministry) walk off the job. Already 100,000 local authority workers and 40,000 government employees have walked off the job.

I understand the frustration. The austerity plan that Finance Minister Netanyahu has proposed is pretty severe. But then so is the economy. Look around: there are no tourists, the high tech office parks are looking more and more like ghost towns and too many of my friends are unhappily unemployed.

“But how can they just fire 6,000 teachers?” eleven-year-old Amir asked, referring to the part of the plan the most directly affects him. “What, we just won’t have a science teacher anymore?”

In years past I would have railed against cuts in the education system and argued instead to reduce defense spending. But that hardly seems prudent these days. What if a three-month delay in completing the security fence along the old Green Line leads to another thirty fatalities?

No, there’s no easy way out this time. No pat answers.

Yet, we’re less than six months past the last strike that took place in October 2002. The only country I can think of that strikes as often as us is Italy. Maybe it’s the sun baking out of our brains any remnant of good sense.

As the strike grinds on, as it inevitably will, unlikely solutions will be proposed. The Clerks Union has already proposed some elements of the strike are a security risk: with no garbage collection, bombs could be waiting in every trash can, set off no doubt by the countless street cats inhabiting those same bins. Two and a half years ago, a strike spanned Rosh Hashana, totally negating the holiday greeting “may you have a sweet new year.”

But this is nothing compared to when the sympathy strikes start in (currently "scheduled" for this coming week). The worst is the airports authority, which one year shut down all flights for days on end. That was at a time when I was traveling a lot for my startup, and we were scheduled to make a presentation on stage at a big conference in California.

People were camping out at the airport, hoping for an open window. I stayed at home until it was announced that one flight would be allowed to depart, an El Al flight on Motzei Shabbat. Which just happened to be my flight. It was enough to make one believe in God. Or El Al.

I have experience with strikes in the “old country” as well. I remember when my father, a newspaperman at the San Francisco Examiner for 35 years until he retired a few years ago, went on strike. All the city's papers were shut down for what seemed to me as a young boy to be an eternity. I imagined my father walking the picket line and collapsing while evil taskmasters forced him to march forever onward with nary a milk and cookie break.

The main area where our family is being affected currently is in kindergarten. A sign was posted on the classroom door informing us that they weren't going to be able to open gan the next day unless the parents volunteered to take turns as teacher’s assistants. This too was deja vu: the same thing happened in the October strike and Jody, whose work schedule is flexible, stepped up to the plate.

Five year old Aviv was ecstatic. His mother was coming to be his teacher. He got dressed by himself and ate a double breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios and toast. He raced out the front door, and Jody had a good time, too: she got to observe the kindergarten in action. It was a unique opportunity; an ironic blessing in disguise.

And there’s one more blessing: the meter maids are also on strike. So, while many of the city's offices may be closed, there’s lots of free parking outside!

Not that the hordes of soon-to-be-unemployed will have any change to feed those meters...

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