Jerusalem workers strike called off as layoffs rescinded

Officials in municipality and ministries of finance and interior agree to 45-day grace period for talks on ways to make up capital’s chronic budget shortfalls

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 employees on Sunday agreed to end a strike that had left piles of garbage strewn throughout the capital, as officials from the city and the finance and interior ministries launched talks toward resolving its budget woes.

Municipal services were shut in the morning as city employees began an open-ended strike to protest the firing of some 2,150 workers amid a budget dispute with the Finance Ministry.

Mayor Nir Barkat 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.

On Sunday afternoon, however, the municipality announced it had agreed to a 45-day grace period during which a team made up of municipality, Finance Ministry and Interior Ministry officials will hammer out an agreed-upon financial framework for making up the city’s budget shortfalls.

The team will include two Finance Ministry officials — director general Shai Babad and budgets director Shaul Meridor — as well as Interior Ministry Director General Mordechai Cohen and Jerusalem Municipality Director General Amnon Merhav.

All 2,150 layoffs are suspended and other steps frozen for the duration of the talks.

Barkat welcomed the grace period on Sunday, crediting Histadrut labor federation chief Avi Nissenkorn with brokering the stopgap.

“I want to thank Histradrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn and welcome his intervention to resolve the crisis. We sat two hours this morning in his office and presented Jerusalem’s many problems and challenges that require budget help. That led to the establishment of the joint committee,” Barkat said in a statement.

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 brief strike saw no garbage collection from Thursday to Sunday, leaving piles of reeking refuse throughout the city and causing road closures around the iconic Mahane Yehuda market.

The closure of the city’s Payis Arena stadium led 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. It was not clear if the game would go ahead later Sunday, or whether the delay was still in effect.

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