Israel: Be’er Sheva Bus drivers striking for nearly three months

A struggle for basic union rights

Bus drivers in the town of Be’er Sheva have been on strike for almost three months, fighting for recognition of elected shop-stewards, for a collective contract, and for better working conditions.

The public bus service in Be’er Sheva, the capital of the poorer south of Israel, was privatized in December 2003. The new private company, ‘Metrodan’, naturally began implementing its best methods to squeeze profits out of this new goldmine.

Abandoned by the Histadrut (Israeli Trade Union Federation) officials, all 300 workers of the old public company were sacked. Only some of them were re-instated in the new company, which reduced the number of drivers to about 140. Their collective contract was abolished, and all workers of the new company were employed under slavish conditions. Officially paid 19.50 NIS (less than 3.5 euro) per hour, the workers had to endure draconian fines taken from their salaries by the management who was spying on them – such as a 350 NIS fine if a bus ticket was "missing" or a 200 NIS fine if a driver’s shirt was "untidy". These fines forced some of the bus workers to labour up to 12 hours a day just to make ends meet.

In a previous interview with Maavak Sotzyalisti (CWI Israel), the workers’ elected chief-steward, Shaul Tzfani, described the beginning of the strike: "On November 10th, after 10 months of slave labor, with miserable salaries and fines, we decided to establish an official workers’ committee. By 22:00 hrs, we went to the offices of the Histadrut. Sixty drivers held elections and registered to the Histadrut. We have tried to reach negotiations with the management and win official recognition of the committee, but we were denied. We declared an official labor dispute, and after 14 days [the minimum period required by law], since there was no progress, we began the strike".

Threatened by the workers’ move, the management informed the workers that it was willing to concede to demands for better conditions. Management said they would agree to everything, except a collective contract or recognition of official representatives. They understand very well that organized workers will be an obstacle in their path for maximum exploitation. For that reason, other private transport companies have expressed their full support for the management, knowing that the example of the Metrodan workers’ struggle could encourage drivers in their own companies to take similar steps to defend their rights.

Polls show support for strikers

However from working people, in general, support has gone to the strikers. Various polls indicate around 70% support from the streets of Be’er Sheva for the bus workers and opposition to Metrodan managers, who have sought to blame the drivers for the dispute. People have expressed deep anger for what privatization has brought for both the service (with fewer buses regularly available) and the working conditions of the drivers. In some cases, people were getting on buses operated by scabs and yelling at them for betraying the struggle.

But, unfortunately, despite the general support of the public, the bus drivers’ struggle is not yet won, and has actually stagnated. The workers have full confidence in the Histadrut, but the union federation, although on this occasion giving the strikers basic support (such as a ‘struggle fund’), is limiting the struggle to the legal field.

At the beginning of the dispute the drivers blocked the entrance to the bus parking area to completely shut down the company’s activity. But a Labor Court decree, won by the management, said this action had to stop. This was accepted by the Histadrut, which called upon the workers to wait for a victory in court, while holding silent picket lines. This ‘moderate’ policy led to, in a short time, the number of scabs rising to 30, and now that figure has doubled. Recently, the government allowed another private transport company to operate in the city, in an attempt to break the strike. The workers who look for a serious and decisive strategy for victory only get personal advice on how to "make more noise", while the trade union leaders will "take care of things" in court.

The Histadrut is about to launch a national campaign calling on other drivers in private companies to organize themselves like the Metrodan workers. That is very important, but a publicity campaign will not be enough. A militant national union-organising campaign is needed and it should be used to help the Metrodan workers win a quick and decisive victory. The scabs at Metrodan must be stopped working, strike supporters need to be mobilised, and strike action needs to be called in public transport nationally, despite decrees made by the Labor Court or the government.

In this fight against a storm of privatisation, a national forum of workers should be established, to conduct a nation-wide struggle that will be able to block the employers’ attacks. Eventually, in order to secure decent working conditions in the public transport, and to get a good service, public transport should be re-nationalized, and run under the democratic management and control of workers.

Show solidarity with the striking Be’er Sheva bus drivers!


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February 2005