Israel: Sharp increase in Israeli workers’ struggles

But trade union leadership collude with the bosses to stab workers in the back

In the past few months we have witnessed a significant increase in the class struggle in Israel. Almost every organised workplace in the country has announced a labour dispute or gone on strike. Labour disputes have been announced in the rail company, the electric company, the court system, the former national airline company, the civil service workers, the Israeli central bank, the universities, the schools, the health system, the national security companies, the docks, the postal service, the national insurance company , the government employment agency and also some factories in private industry. Besides these struggles, there are also struggles that are starting to develop among non-organised workers, such as Manpower workers in the postal service and Manpower guards. There were also 2 general strikes in the last 4 months flowing from the refusal of local councils to pay local government workers’ and fire fighters’ wages.

Most of these struggles are related to the cuts and privatisations contained within the 2007 state budget. This horrific budget is another major step towards the weakening of organised labour and the welfare state in Israel. It means privatising the last big organised and state owned workplaces and cut even more from an already very severely squeezed welfare state sector. Many of these struggles have developed as a result of attempts to make structural changes in the workplaces without even telling the workers or negotiating with the workers’ committees. This is the case with the court workers and the government employment agency workers, where workers are going to be fired as a result of to decisions made by the management about changes in new technology without informing the workers about it. Many of the proposed privatisations contained in this budget are very significant and are aimed at destroying the last strong unions. Basic services like hospitals, universities, the electric company as well as welfare services, such as youth centres and those for disabled people, are going to be privatised.

The role of the Histadrut

The main organisation that is supposed to lead all these struggles against neo-liberal attacks and unite them is the Histadrut, the main union federation in Israel. The Histadrut leadership has repeatedly failed in its job of protecting workers’ interests and preventing privatisations and cuts. In every struggle that has developed in the last few months the Histadrut has refused to organise a major sustained offensive against the bosses. It did not try to unite any of these struggles, despite the fact they are all related to the same budget. These attacks have serious consequences that demand a militant response. One of the Histadrut’s leaders, who recently came to a postal workers’ meeting against the privatisation of the service, expressed very clearly how he sees privatisation by saying that the "question is not if it will be privatization, but how it will be privatised". In every one of these struggles the Histadrut refuses to mount a serious struggle so that workers get what they need and are demanding. This is not surprising given the standard of living of the Histadrut bosses. Offer Eini, the head of the Histadrut gets 30 000 NIS a month (€5400) which is similar to what an Israeli MP receives. The median wage in Israel is 5000 NIS (€900), six times less! It always tries to restrain workers from struggling and get them to agree to what the bosses want.

This approach was best seen during the crisis of the unpaid wages of the local council workers and fire-fighters. The reason for this current crisis is a result of the major cuts that were made in budgets that the state gives to councils which cover deprived areas. These cuts were made during 2001-2004 and brought the councils close to bankruptcy. As a result these councils claimed that they could no longer pay workers’ wages regularly. The Histadrut allowed this situation to continue without any sustained campaign. The only thing that was done by the trade union bureaucracy was a token, intentionally disorganised, one day general strike in 2004 which did not solve the problem.

More recently, the Histadrut leadership was forced to adopt more militant rhetoric because of the huge anger which developed amongst many sections of the Israeli working class over the non-payment of wages, despite the fact it only affected a small section of the workforce. This was particularly the case following the Israeli regime’s invasion of Lebanon in last summer. Fire-fighters were at the forefront of putting out fires and rescuing Israeli Jews and Palestinians who were caught in the Hezbollah rocket attacks against northern Israel. However, many of these fire-fighters were not paid a wage at all while doing this work. The discontent with the ruling elite in Israel climbed rapidly after the debacle of the invasion of Israel and coincided with numerous corruption and sex harassment scandals involving the highest echelons of the Israeli state. This led to higher levels of dissatisfaction with the government on a whole number of issues including that of the unpaid local government workers’ wages.

At the end of November, Offer Eini, the Histadrut chairman, announced a general strike that would last until all the wages of the workers were paid. Even then Eini and the Histadrut leadership didn’t think that unpaid wages for workers was important enough to call an all-out strike and use all the power of the working class to force the government and councils to give way. Instead, they only called 200,000 workers out on strike instead of 700,000 which represents the full membership of the Histadrut. The private section workers were told not to strike, as well as the health workers, the bus drivers and the teachers. After a one day strike, the Labour Court, which makes rulings on industrial disputes, ordered the Histadrut to stop the strike and negotiate with the Finance Ministry to come to some solution. The Histadrut agreed to stop the strike, despite the fact that the wages were not paid and opinion polls which demonstrated that 73% of the public wanted the strike to continue.

Empty threats

After three months of endless talks the Histadrut threatened to go on a strike again if the wages were not paid, but one day before the strike was supposed to begin, the Histadrut leadership cancelled it, using the excuse that the Israeli Prime Minister had promised to ensure the problem of unpaid wages would be solved. Eini fell for this nonsense and cancelled the strike, ignoring the massive support amongst 70% of the Israeli public for the strike and enraged calls from the council workers to finally do something and solve the problem. Even the capitalist press printed articles with headlines which wondered why Eini had sold out the workers. This indicated the huge pressure in society over this issue.

In the middle of March, Eini again warned that the Histadrut would call a strike if the Prime Minister did not find a solution to the dispute within a week. But on the morning of the strike, the Labour Court ordered the Histadrut again to postpone the strike, because they thought the problem was “very close to a solution”. After no change in the situation, the Histadrut finally called a general strike.

The strike was even smaller in terms of numbers of workers participating than the previous strike, and was organised terribly. However, given the mood in society, if the Histadrut had been serious about organising a strike and being seen to mount a serious challenge to the government, there would have been a massive response.

Despite a strike being declared on the airports, workers there were told to allow many flights to take off as “emergencies” and the management referred to it as a demonstration strike. The strike was over after only 7 hours without the wages being put into the workers’ bank accounts. The Histadrut came to an agreement with the government that the wages will be paid for all the council workers, apart from ten "problematic" councils. Nothing was agreed on pension contributions for the time when workers remained unpaid.

These ten “problematic” councils were in such a serious financial situation that their accounts have been frozen and any money that comes in goes to pay off debts. The Histadrut agreed that the wages for workers in these ten councils would be paid from the strike fund of the Histadrut! This is a truly incredible situation. There can be nowhere else in the world where as a result of a strike over unpaid wages where the trade unions agreed to pay workers wages!

Three weeks after the strike wages in two councils employing Israeli Arab workers have not been paid. In another council where Israeli Jewish workers are employed wages have only been partially paid. It is most likely that the question of unpaid wages will arise again and perhaps even in a sharper way because of the cuts in grants from central government to these councils.

One of the main Israeli newspapers wrote that Eini did not want a general strike that would solve the situation, because of his close connections with the head of the federation of big business in Israel. This article also stated that Eini did not call the bank workers out on strike because of his close connections with some of the top bosses of the banks.

Eini and the bureaucratic Histadrut leadership have completely sold out and do not represent the working class of Israel. These leaders stupidly think that if they cooperate with the bosses, workers will gain concessions.

The different workers committees are controlled by in reality selecting leaders from above not electing them from below. The Histadrut leaders have wages which are more comparable to those of the bosses than the workers they are supposed to represent. But the pressure from below is starting to affect Eini and his clique. Eini has already said that the next battle of the Histadrut will be to defend the manpower workers and improve their conditions. This is a direct result of the recent struggles of the manpower workers and their criticism of the Histadrut leadership (see "Contract postal workers storm Histadruth union HQ”). There are also signs from the more organised sections of workers that they feel that the current Histadrut leadership needs to be changed.

There is a bigger need than ever before to have a fighting democratic and socialist trade union federation in Israel that will defend the workers’ interests rather than a leadership which sabotages struggles on behalf of the capitalist class. Such a development in Israel could lay the basis for a genuine socialist mass workers party to defeat neo-liberalism and fight to change society.

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April 2007