Israel: Municipal workers robbed of their salaries

During the recent years, while the municipal councils served as the main target of the budget cuts and massive redundancies, they were given new authority and responsibilities. Starting about a year and a half ago, the municipal councils began to collapse, one by one, under the weight of budget cuts from central government, deficits and lack of proper funding.

This was especially the case of those local councils in Israeli-Palestinian towns. This collapse meant, first and foremost, a reduction in services given to the public by the municipality, and withholding council workers’ wages (the higher-ranked officials had, of course, a separate budget for their fat-cat wages and were not affected). As a result more and more workers had to do their jobs without receiving any salary for it. This crisis results directly from the lack of sufficient government funding to the poorer towns and Israeli-Palestinian towns, but the relatively low level struggle organised by the unions during the first few months of the crisis has allowed the Ministry of Finance to use the act of withholding worker’s wages as a weapon deliberately aimed at breaking the workers’ spirits.

Withholding pay from the municipal workers denies workers their most basic right. The Ministry of Finance has demanded that workers accept a "streamlining plan" if their wages are to be paid. This plan means nothing more than sacking municipal workers en-masse and widely damaging the services provided to the public. Local council workers, knowing well enough what hides beneath the pretty phrases of "streamlining" and "efficiency increase", have refused to sign the plan. The Ministry of Finance responded by a "starvation" plan. This plan is quite simple: until all of the municipal workers withdraw their demnds and fully accept the sacking, budget and salary cuts and reduced job benefits, they are not paid for the work they’ve already done. The workers have been presented with a choice: surrender, or starve!

The general strike

On the 7th of September, the local council workers of the town of Yahud locked themselves inside the city hall, armed with ready-to-detonate gas tanks, in protest against eight months without pay and the plan to fire 60 workers. The Yahud workers were brutally evicted from the building by the YAMAM riot police soon afterwards. The workers concluded that they could not wait for a Histadrut (Israel’s trade union federation) which is unwilling to fight for them, and decided to act independently. On the 21 September, the Histadrut declared a long-awaited general strike. Merely two weeks before that, the Histadrut leadership had once more given up a struggle, when it commenced in a partial public-sector strike but withdrew from it, without achieving any of its goals, using the excuse of a decree by the Court of Labor Affairs.

However, this time, after many months in which the government’s act of withholding the workers’ wages has caused widespread public outrage, from the street as well as from the media, the Histadrut leadership yielded to the pressure from below. This general strike one saw a more militant attitude on part of the workers, the most noteworthy examples of which was the bank and stock exchange workers’ (who are, in almost every case, involved in a labor struggle in their own workplaces) strike, that managed to completely paralyse the financial markets, and the fact that during the day and a half of the strike, three different demonstrations were held by municipal workers.

This time, despite the massive propaganda efforts by the Ministry of Finance, the most Israelis strongly approved of the strike, and even the Court of Labor Affairs knew that it could not end the strike without allowing some concessions. After a day and a half, the Court of Labor Affairs decreed the end of the strike, in exchange for the payment of worker’s wages by the government (nominally calculated, and without wage with-holdment compensations) in a few days, or until the end of October in the case of about forty impoverished municipalities, most of them Israeli-Palestinian.

Results of the strike

In the first days following the strike the general feeling on the street was that for the first time in years, workers had achieved a real victory against the capitalist government’s attacks. The strike itself cost the industrialists more money than the entire sum the government owes the workers. However, once again the government broke the agreement, and did not transfer the money to the workers. Even to those municipalities it did transfer funds to, these funds cover only the net value of the deficit, and the collapsing municipalities are left to deal on their own with the money they owe to the inland revenue. The government still has not paid wages to the workforce and tries to portray the local councils as "separate businesses", to which the government "does a favor" by paying their debts.

However, the strike’s victory was not as sweeping as Histadrut chairman Amir Peretz tried to present it or as it could be if not for the compromises made at the end of the action. The court ruling actually punishes the workers who refuse to accept the "streamlining plan". It appears, from recent assessments, that around 5,000 workers were fired – a figure equivalent to a quarter of those who had not received wages for months on end. The Histadrut leadership has also given up the demand for interest and compensation payments for the withheld salaries, This issue has lead to widespread public outrage following Knesset Member (Member of Parliament) Avraham Poraz’s suggestion of abolishing any compensation. Workers had to independently appeal to the courts to demand these payments – which should also cover the workers’ overdraft and loans.

Even the strike itself, though showing the workers’ potential power, has ended in a compromise that did not fully reflect the workers’ willingness to fight. The Histadrut leadership, which should have called for such a strike months ago, has failed again by agreeing to end it without the wages being paid and without objecting the condition of accepting the "streamlining" agreements. An effective countermeasure [by the Histadrut] could have been a strike by the organised private sector workers and calling for mass solidarity demonstrations.

The main question that still remains open is how the next stage of the struggle – against the next wave of sacking and budget cuts – will develop. The workers will have to strengthen their independent resistance from below, in cooperation with other militant sectors such as the bank workers and dockers, as well as with the urban working class who suffer from greatly reduced services, in order to increase their power and force the Histadrut leadership to act or to step aside. An uncompromising struggle could lead the municipal workers to victory, but could do much more. It could open a struggle against the capitalist government’s attacks against the entire worker class and move from a defensive fight to an offensive.

Translated to English by Omer Golan. This article first appeared in Ha Ma’avak [The Struggle], newspaper of Ma’avak Sozialisti, Israeli section of the cwi

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October 2004