Monday, July 10, 2017

Ha’am doresh tzedek hevrati (The people demand social justice)

 Histadrut, Israel’s largest and state-aligned trade union federation, was founded by Labour Zionists in 1920.  This nationalist trade union federation initially excluded Arab workers. The Histadrut was crucially part of the early Zionist movement and a backbone of the Jewish state. The Zionist movement was the labor movement,” explained editor of the newly revitalized Histadrut newspaper, Davar Rishon , Yaniv Carmel. “Histadrut is part of what caused Israel to exist.”At its peak, it represented over 80 percent of Israeli workers and had a hand in all parts of economic and social life, from transportation to publishing to health insurance. In 1930 the Histadrut founded the socialist Mapai Party, which, as the precursor to Israel’s current Labor Party, was to dominate Israeli political life for decades.

Then came waves of privatization that gutted Israel’s welfare state and labour movement. “It was a very radical transformation in which suddenly so many jobs in what was the public sector were now performed by private employees,” said Professor Orly Benjamin of Bar Ilan University. Services Israelis once considered a right had now become a commodity. Today less than 30 percent of Israeli workers are union members. And as the private sector grew, so did wage and economic divides: Israel has among the highest rates of poverty and inequality among the 35 countries of the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

Now, the union movement is slowly rising again bolstered by the 2011 social-justice protests against the high cost of living. In 2011, it looked like Israelis were ready for change. Angry at the high cost of housing and basics like cottage cheese, young Israeli leftists pitched a tent on Tel Aviv’s iconic Rothschild Boulevard. In the months that followed, over 400,000 out of a total population of 8 million citizens took to the streets in an unprecedented show of anger over economic issues, dubbed the social-justice protests. “People say the protests failed, and they changed very little when you look at government’s neoliberal policies, but I think one of the big changes is how people think,” argued Haggai Matar, a leader in the Journalists’ Union. “It sparked this new consciousness of, ‘OK, maybe we can do better,’ and rethinking the relationship between workers and employees.”

However, there was one central Israeli issue the protests left out: The occupation of the Palestinians and the institutional racism faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. It was an intentional move by organizers to not alienate the Israeli majority. But it also revealed the deep divides any labour movement faces in tackling the politics behind Israeli economic problems, Dr. Jonathan Preminger, a specialist in Israeli unions commented argued. The core of the protest was a certain kind of person who in the past benefited from the Jewish-oriented Zionist welfare state,” Preminger said. “They were harking back to this. ‘Why are you taking this away from us?’ But in this image there was no place for Palestinians. This image is exclusive of Palestinians.”

While the Histadrut once passively ruled the field, alternative labour groups are increasingly competing with it in a revitalized fight to organize workers against cutbacks in salaries and services, unprotected outsourcing, and abusive or nonexistent labor contracts. Unionizers hope that labor alliances among the country’s divided voters—from working-class Jewish Israelis to Palestinian Arab citizens, ultra-Orthodox Haredim, Russian immigrants, leftist activists, Mizrahi Jews, and West Bank settlers—will reorient Israel’s economic—and then, perhaps, political—arrangements away from the 1% and back to the people.

“Unionizing is a tool to bridge the differences between the various groups in Israel,” said Yaniv Bar Ilan, spokesperson for Koach La Ovidim (Democratic Workers’ Organization), a rising though still small trade federation. “Only in the workplace can you actually unite.”  Koach La Ovidim started in 2007 as a counter-weight to the Histadrut aimed at organizing contract and other marginalized workers, said Yaniv Bar Ilan. Even before the protests, the field was changing: In 2010 the Histadrut started a new division specifically dedicated to signing up new workplaces, which until then it had not been actively doing.

In the working-class port city of Ashdod. There a group of Jewish workers from a metal factory who decided to work with a very small independent labour organisation, WAC-MAAN, instead of the Histadrut, fearing the latter was too friendly with business interests. The group, which is openly opposed to the occupation, also works with the thousands of West Bank Palestinians labouring in Israeli settlements, where exploitation is rife. In 2007, an Israeli court ruled that Israeli labor laws, like the minimum wage, apply to workers in settlements. In practice, violations are the norm. MAAN is the only representative trade union trying to organise these Palestinians. MAAN had started in 1995 as a workers’ advice center and became an officially recognised, representative trade union in 2011

Another 150,000 Palestinians, only about half of whom have legal permits, work at menial jobs inside Israel, according to Ala Khattab of Kav Laoved (Worker’s Hotline), a nonprofit that provides them with legal aid. The Histadrut, in a controversial arrangement, collects dues from West Bank Palestinians officially working in Israel, and then provides some compensation to the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, which nominally covers workers in the Palestinian territories.

Sadly, at the polls, Israelis generally vote on security-related issues over economic problems. And in recent years, Israel’s right-wing and increasingly extremist politicians have been winning elections based on the security argument, while nearly all parties, from the right to the left, have largely promoted the same pro-privatization and neoliberal economic policies.  The shift to the far right on the Palestinian question will not only have an impact on Israel’s future with its neighbours, but also on issues of socio-economic equality and labour conditions along the way. “If you walk in the streets of a regular Israeli town and you ask people what is the difference between the left and the right on peace and settlements, everyone will know,” said Rami Hod, executive director of the Social Economic Academy, which educates and trains groups and leaders on social-justice issues in Israel. “About the state and religion, everyone will know. But about tax, labour, health, the majority of Israelis will say they don’t know.”

Inside Israel, leftist groups face extreme demonisation. Dudi Zamir, an activist with MAAN explained “A union is a union,” praising MAAN for being constantly available. “It doesn’t matter who’s working with them.” 

Martin Villar, an organizer with Koach La Ovidim, pointed out  “One of the things that frustrates me the most is that even the people that are part of your trade union and that you are taking care of every day, in the end they go and vote for parties that are actually doing the opposite of what you believe,” said Villar. “So we are in weird times. The left in Israel is in a very big problem. We don’t know what to do, actually.”

Dudi Zamir is an example of this contradiction when he says “I like Netanyahu and [far-right Jewish Home Party leader Naftali] Bennett. We did the army. We served our country. We love our country." He also didn’t blame Netanyahu for tough economic times. He faulted the factory’s management, not the prime minister’s policies.

Dr. Jonathan Preminger commented, “Unionism has never simply been a left-wing concept, in terms of the progressive view,” he said. “It’s easy for people to be part of unions and keep what from the outside looks like exclusive national concepts. Everyone has their contradictions.” While Israeli labour organizing is no longer specifically about Zionist aspirations, Preminger said that many still invoke these historical images to justify their work. “I don’t think we can see any link between labor organizing and what the state would want,” Preminger said.

Roy Perlman, a Histadrut organizer explained "This is the place where all the tensions of Israeli society meet,” he said. “It’s a place that’s not perfect from the academic or ideological point of view. People unionize not because they read Marx. They unionize because they feel this need to work together against this system that wants us to see each other as competitors.”

Villar remarked, “We hope that they [union members] will go through this political change, but it’s not the main reason we do it.”

Villar described trying to organize security guards who worked at East Jerusalem Jewish settlements in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. It was a personal and professional challenge—and then it all fell apart when someone in the security company spread a Facebook post by a Koach La Ovidim organizer expressing political opinions that offended many of the guards. The Sheikh Jarrah settlement was a particular flashpoint for anti-occupation activists for several years, with Jews and Palestinians joining together for weekly demonstrations. In Silwan, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has accused security guards of acting with impunity. The guards, from the Modi’in Ezrachi company, ultimately unionized through Histadrut Leumit, a smaller rival of the Histadrut, according to researcher Lior Volinz. Israeli Journalist Avi Barelli and other labor activists dismissed Histadrut Leumit (National Histadrut) as a “yellow union” preferred by employers because of its pro-management reputation.
Preminger said. “But I don’t think they are going to change much at the moment. I don’t think people are going to join unions at the moment as a way of dealing with larger issues and the social disparities and the occupation, not yet at least. However, the fact that people do join unions puts them in a particular new mind frame. And once you take that first step, new things open up.”
Reforms to the labor laws was pushed through by the Histadrut in 2009 during negotiations for the Labor Party to join Netanyahu’s coalition. Forming a labour union already required the support of one-third of the workers and representation from a recognized outside trade union. The new laws prohibit employers from barring worker access to union organising representatives and fines employers if they do not negotiate with any new union established in their organization. In 2013 the National Labor Court went further and prohibited employers from harassing or monitoring employees to discourage them from organizing, and even prohibited management from expressing views critical of unionising efforts.

In the first five months of 2013, 60 percent more workers unionized and more new union locals were established than in all of 2012, the daily Ha’aretz reported. Since 2011, Koach La Ovidim has grown from 15,000 to 22,000 members, reported Bar Ilan. Shapira declined to provide an exact Histadrut figure, but she said there have been “tens of thousands” of new yearly members, including contract and tech workers. Roy Perlman, a Histadrut organizer, estimated that there are around 800,000 members. The Histadrut set up 22 new worker committees in 2011, 39 in 2012, and 40 in the first half of 2013, according to Israel’s TheMarker, a daily business newspaper published by the Ha’aretz group. The Young Histadrut (NOAL), which organizes youth, also added 7,400 new members between 2012 and 2013. MAAN, meanwhile, has doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 workers, said Tamir.

Adapted from here

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