Israel: Union leaders call off general strike against austerity cuts

After just a couple of days of tremendous action, the leadership of the Israeli trade union federation, the Histraduth, called off a general strike on 30 April.

The strike action arose after the Israeli Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, announced a new package of attacks on Israeli workers on the eve of the war in Iraq. The Minister hoped that people would be more concerned about the threat of a potential Iraqi missile attack then about the so-called plan for the regeneration of the Israeli economy. The furious reaction of trade unionists shows just how he miscalculated.

The plan includes the government taking over the pension schemes of the Histadruth (trade union federation) in order to undoubtedly later on privatise them.

The cuts package also includes the sacking of at least 6,900 teachers, a cut of one hour daily in teaching time, the transfer of the well-baby units to health insurance organisations, the privatisation of whatever is still left of government property, and a cut in the wages of all public sector workers. A proposed tax ‘reform’ programme will mean more taxes on workers’ savings and lower monthly wages. This tax plan will benefit the upper middle class but not the more than 50% of the population that does not earn enough to even pay regular income tax. The plan also attacks women working in the home, demanding that they too should start paying national security. Single parents are again at the sharp end of government cuts…and the plan does not end here!

The government aims to force through these attacks quickly. The legislative part of the process had already begun in parliament last Wednesday. Other parts of the new legislation, which only require changes in different ministerial decrees, are already implemented.

The opposition parties have zero credibility with which to resist the government’s attacks. The Histadruth, which is seen by many as the leading opposition force to the government’s plans, has a leadership that is afraid to lead anything or anyone. But such is the pressure from below they were forced to start an open-ended strike of the public sector and the banks on the day before May Day.

Maavak Sozialisti, the CWI in Israel, has participated in four workers’ demonstrations and protests. They were organized by, amongst others, broad social organisations, and not by the Histadruth. However some workers’ committee members, last Wednesday, attended a demonstration in Jerusalem.

"If you compromise, you must resign!"

Maavak Sozialisti members attended May Day events that unfortunately had almost no workers present (and none were called to participate). However we went on after the

demo to a meeting of the strikers’ main forum. Maavak Sozialisti members outside the meeting held a little demonstration and gave leaflets to workers’ representatives.

Union shop floor representatives of the strike were at the meeting and also Histadruth leaders, including its top figure, Amir Peretz. He addressed the meeting and commented on his discussions with the Israeli President, Moshe Katzav, who called for Peretz and Netanyahu to enter negotiations. Peretz recommended calling off the strike. He said protests should be made using ‘sanctions’ instead. The shop floor representatives would not hear of it.

From the bottom floor of the Histadruth building, we could hear these shop floor activists shouting at Amir Peretz, sometimes with the same rhythm of the demonstration outside.

Workers on the protest used the Maavak Sozialisti loudspeaker to shout: "Amir Peretz, you are a chicken. If you are compromising, you have to resign!"

After discussions with Netanyahu, Peretz agreed to take part in negotiations over the government’s austerity plans. This opens the way for accepting the plan, which will be a disaster for the working class and poor. Israel already has over one million people living below the poverty line.

This is undoubtedly a historical moment for the unions. An alternative to the Peretz leadership might rise at anytime. Maavak Sozialisti members argue the need for the unions to have a campaigning leadership that fights for the class interests of its members.

On the May Day demo, and the day before, we sold about 1,200 shekels worth of the strike issue of our paper, and collected about 30 new names of people interested in Maavak Sozialisti.

A Maavak Sozialisti member made a militant speech at the demonstration/festival held by the youth wing of the Histadruth. Afterwards we ran a Maavak Sozialisti public meeting, which new people attended.

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May 2003