Jerusalem city workers go on open-ended strike over budget fight, layoffs

Garbage piling up as municipal employees object to firing of 2,150 workers amid battle between mayor and Finance Ministry

Shoppers walk past piles of garbage left by striking city workers, at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market, on January 7, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shoppers walk past piles of garbage left by striking city workers, at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market, on January 7, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jerusalem’s municipal services were shut down Sunday as city employees began an open-ended strike to protest the firing of some 2,150 workers amid a budget dispute between the city and the Finance Ministry.

Mayor Nir Barkat has ordered the layoffs due to the budget showdown with the ministry, which he said was withholding hundreds of millions of shekels in needed funds for Israel’s poorest city.

Jerusalem enjoys an annual “capital grant” from the ministry that helps it offset low tax income due to large populations with relatively high percentages that are not part of the taxpaying workforce, including roughly a third of the city’s population that is made up of ultra-Orthodox Jews and another third of Palestinian Arabs.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat speaks during a road opening ceremony in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In 2016, the grant came to some NIS 500 million, and in 2017 to NIS 700 million. Barkat has argued that the city’s unique challenges — such as its ethnic divide and the large percentage of its land area taken up by government institutions — require a larger grant from the national government.

As part of the campaign for such a grant, he announced last month that the city would have to scale back key municipal services and fire thousands of workers. He also launched a billboard campaign funded by the city to pressure Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to agree to up the capital grant, and paid with his own money for weekend newspaper ads against Kahlon.

The strike will see no garbage collection starting Sunday, the Tipat Halav early childhood clinics will close and municipal offices will remain shut throughout the day. The Payis Arena stadium in the city’s south won’t operate either, leading basketball officials to announce that Sunday’s planned game between Hapoel Jerusalem and Ironi Nahariya would be delayed until Wednesday while the teams search for a new venue.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during the weekly government meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 24, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The municipal workers’ union and the Histadrut labor federation exempted Jerusalem’s education system from the strike in response to a letter from the city’s parents’ union. All schools are operating as normal Sunday.

Barkat’s opponents in the city council argue his offensive against Kahlon is part of a personal campaign the mayor is conducting to boost his bid to join the top tiers of national politics ahead of the next election.

The “Hitorerut” movement, a political party led by city council member Ofer Berkovich that seeks to challenge Barkat should he stand for reelection, changed the name “Kahlon” on posters put up by the city against the finance minister to “Nir” and “Barkat.” Those include banners laid across the chords bridge at the city entrance, which had read, “Kahlon, against Jerusalem” and “Kahlon abandons Jerusalem.”

“We won’t sit still while Nir Barkat cynically exploits the city’s employees and holds Jerusalem’s residents hostage for his private campaign,” the group said in a statement.

The municipality issued a statement in response that accused Berkovich of “zig-zagging according to the prevailing mood on Facebook, and not doing what’s is right for Jerusalem… Money for services doesn’t grow on trees. We will continue to fight for Jerusalem’s residents.”

The municipal employees announced their strike Thursday, with some, including sanitation workers, beginning a partial strike already last week. Garbage has not been removed from the iconic Mahane Yehudah Market since last Thursday, while some garbage trucks dumped garbage outside the Finance Ministry headquarters building in the city.

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