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Social workers’ strike: confronting a privatized state

FILE illustrations/so.wo.1.jpg IS MISSING

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unday March 20 marked an important event in the history of trade unionism in Israel. The leadership assembly of the Social Workers’ Union (SWU), which organizes some 10,000 public sector social workers, rejected the Histadrut’s offer to sign a collective agreement. Instead, a majority of 14 to 11 decided to continue the strike which has been going on for 16 days already. The leadership assembly, which lasted nine hours, was called by the union’s Secretary-General Itzhak Perry and Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini after they had reached a draft agreement which would have improved wages to a certain extent. However, according to many social workers, including some in the union’s leadership, the agreement was full of holes and opposition to the agreement soon became militant. In the five days leading to the assembly, thousands of social workers demonstrated daily in front of the Histadrut building against the agreement.

At the time of writing, on March 21, 2011, the SWU is to meet and decide on how to continue the struggle.

Public sector social workers struggle for peanuts

The social workers’ strike was declared after negotiations between the Finance Ministry and the SWU reached an impasse. Two main issues are at the heart of the strike: the almost absurdly low wages of public sector social workers, and the fact that almost a third of social workers are employed in private NGOs and organizations, following the wave of privatization that has swept the public sector during the last couple of decades. Unorganized, these employees have no guarantees for a basic decent salary or fringe benefits

In the strike that began on March 6, the SWU demanded an end to the privatization of social services, and a collective agreement that would cover social workers in private organizations (NGOs) too. Thus the SWU created a new social-political threshold and exposed the harsh results of neo-liberal capitalism which Israel has embraced for the last 25 years.

Some 16,000 social workers (10000 in the public sector and 6000 in private companies), many of them women, bear the burden of dealing with the poverty, unemployment and neglect which characterize Israeli society today. Stricken families, children in distress, people with special needs, pensioners with little to fall back on, youth at risk, victims of family or community violence, addicts – all these people eventually end up at the door of social workers.

But the problem is not just low salaries, which start at little more than minimum wage for a social worker with an academic degree. The social workers are striking to stop the government policy of the last decades, which threatens to put an end to public services completely.

Already some 40% of social workers are employed via private organizations that were set up as part of the privatization of public services. A survey conducted by Dr. Roni Kaufman at Ben Gurion University’s school for social work shows that 75% of new social workers, those who complete their studies, go on to employment in non-governmental bodies because there are no positions in public sector jobs. Thus, some 6,000 social workers employed in private organizations outside the collective agreement are not unionized at all.

Government destroying public services

In an article from March 10, Yediot Aharonot journalist Gideon Eshet notes the significance of the social workers’ strike: “The SWU is the first trade union to understand this government privatization ruse and the significance it has on employment terms. Therefore the union is demanding that anything agreed for social workers in the public sector will be applicable to social workers in private organizations. If this is not done, the social workers’ leaders understand that in a few years there will no longer be social workers in public service. They will all be employees in private bodies under poor employment terms.”

The privatization of social services was rapid, and at first there was some confusion over what it would mean. A survey conducted by Prof. Yossi Katan in 2005 showed that many social workers viewed the privatization process positively. They may have believed their wages and employment terms would be better in the private sector. But senior officials in the Finance Ministry were not party to this confusion: the government and its economic sages saw the reduction of the public sector as a matter of principle. The process of privatizing the social services - implemented widely also in education and health services - was done with the purpose of reducing expenditures. The Government would continue to fund the service but as a lump sum to private agencies. In fact, no new posts have been created in public sector social services in recent years.

Today, when it is clear that employment terms for most social workers in private organizations are poor and their bargaining power is limited, the need to include them with an extension order is critical.

Dr. Kaufman warned of the dire consequences of giving up on such an extension order. In an article published on the Social Workers for Peace and Social Welfare website, Kaufman noted that this struggle was the last opportunity to achieve an extension order. If it is not won, he said, there will be no other opportunity to save this profession from the kind of collapse seen in England, where the vast majority of social workers have been “privatized” and are not unionized. Currently, he noted, some two-thirds of social workers are still in the public sector, but it is clear that very soon two-thirds will be in the private sector. Furthermore, this is exactly what the Finance Ministry wants, which is why it is willing to increase wages but adamantly refuses to consider an extension order.

Discrimination against the Arab sector

The failures in the privatization process became apparent in 2008. As a result, the Welfare Ministry appointed a committee headed by Yekutiel Tzeva to investigate possible reforms to the welfare system. The committee’s recommendations, submitted to the welfare minister in 2009, noted the need for a change of direction. The committee pointed out the lack of resources which meant some needs were not being met, and said the system was based on outdated legislation while many positions were unclear. The privatization of some departments had caused duplication of tasks, it said, and the system had become inefficient.

Another issue noted by the committee was the inequality in service provision, especially discrimination in service provision to the Arab sector. However, this report, like many other important reports, was not acted upon. Social services in the Arab sector are approaching a major crisis. As a result of increasing levels of poverty in this sector (some 50% compared with 20% national average), there has been a marked increase in the demand for welfare services in Arab towns in recent years.

According to a report by Dr. Amin Fares (Report by Mossawa Center) on the budgetary needs of Arab citizens in planning the 2008 national budget, the welfare budget in the Arab sector is NIS 328 per person compared with NIS 493 per person in the Jewish sector (approximately $92 and $139 respectively). The Forum of Welfare Bureau Heads in Arab towns conducted a survey in 2007 and concluded that some 170 additional social workers were needed. According to this survey, the number of appeals to Arab welfare bureaus had doubled during a period in which the number of appeals in the Jewish sector had risen just by 30%.

According to Ragheb Abbas, a senior social worker and head of the Kufr Qana Local Council bureau, an Arab social worker must take on an average of 300 cases, compared to 160 in the Jewish sector. Arab local councils have fewer resources and are sometimes unable to appoint social workers even if the positions exist, because they are legally obliged to fund 25% of each social worker’s salary.

SWU asleep at its post

The question is, where were the union and the Histadrut during the last 17 years since the signing of the last agreement. During this period, Israel saw class differences increase dramatically while the number of those under the poverty line rose above 1.5 million. The destruction of the social security system came together with the privatization of many services. Throughout this period, neither the SWU nor the Histadrut demanded that the 1994 agreement be updated. In fact, since that agreement was signed, the SWU has made no significant attempt to ensure its status or the status of social services in Israel.

This indifference reflects the positive attitude of Histadrut leaders to privatization, including the privatization of the Histadrut’s own assets. During this period, the Histadrut also turned its back on other critical issues such as unemployment. It avoided taking any position regarding the import of migrant laborers for construction, agriculture and care, and failed to address the growing network of laws and regulations that have transferred an increasing number of services to private firms. Ofer Eini is now negotiating an increase in the number of migrant laborers to be imported for construction and has already expressed his support for contractors’ demands for more foreign labor.

Union awakened by the street

As conditions worsened, a spontaneous movement formed among social workers, which shook up the SWU. Rank and file social workers began acting in 2007. In this year, two social workers started a petition which called for privatization to be stopped. At the same time, Dr. Kaufman carried out research which exposed the failures of the privatized system. As a result of these and other initiatives, the Center for the Rights of Workers Employed in Private Firms and Organizations was set up in cooperation with the union.

Also in 2007, the Atidenu (“our future”) movement was formed by social workers in order to advance the struggle for improved wages, to stop the damage caused by privatization, and to prevent the collapse of the welfare state. During the union elections of 2009, Atidenu put forward a list of candidates that run as an opposition to the old leadership and won 40% of the votes.

Following the elections, a majority led by Itzhak Perry and Atidenu agreed to cooperate and to unionize social workers in the private sector. For this purpose, the SWU set up an internal body called "Amuta" aiming to reach social workers in private companies. Inbal Schlossberg, who heads Amuta, recalled in phone conversation (March 11) the attempts to unionize private sector workers during the previous year. “We made great efforts to persuade social workers in private organizations to join us, but encountered many difficulties,” she said. “They expressed great fears regarding unionization.” She admits that they have not yet managed to significantly change the situation, but during the year they established links with 2,000 social workers in the private sector and set up a database. Some 500 did in fact join the SWU. Schlossberg claims that the strike has created a new dynamic, leading many more social workers to contact the SWU.

Students have no chance

Another important initiative which shook up the street was Osim Shinui (“social workers making change”) – a group of students from nine social work colleges in Israel which added much energy to the protest movement against conditions in the social services sector. Three out of four social work graduates are expected to be employed in private organizations with poor employment terms, so it is not surprising the students decided to act.

Karin Rivanovitch, Osim Shinui’s media coordinator, explained (phone interview 11.3) how the group was formed, and what it is doing now. “Osim Shinui is a nationwide organization with hundreds of social work students who decided to organize and act for the future of the social work profession and welfare services in Israel,” she said. “The purpose of the group is to present the students’ position on social work issues and the state of the profession in general. We work to effect change in the profession’s status and urge social workers to act for their own future and welfare. Since the organization was formed in 2009, action groups have been set up in colleges around the country. In the current struggle, group members are taking a significant part in leading the street to organize, and raising the profession’s public profile.”

Histadrut gave up on basic demands

The difference between the needs of social workers and the position taken by the Finance Ministry is hard to bridge. While the Ministry and the government aim to privatize public services and prevent the formation of new positions in the public sector, social workers – the vanguard of the struggle against poverty – demand what seems to them simple and logical: they ask for the resources they need for their work, and request a fair return.

In recent years, the SWU has adopted the demand to stop privatization of social services. It presents this issue in addition to wage demands to adjust the outdated salary scale, define internship wages and promotion, and improve wages for new social workers. These demands would amount to an average salary increase of 30-40%.

The Finance Ministry and Welfare Ministry, which were conducting the negotiations for the government, publicly expressed empathy for the social workers, but opposed the demands. Their opposition focused mainly on the demand for an extension order. Finance Ministry representatives are doing all they can to prevent such an extension order which would effectively neutralize the advantage (in state budgetary terms) of employing social workers through private organizations. The Ministry understands that yielding on this point would open the floodgates to similar demands in education, health and other privatized services. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been transferred in recent years from the public sector to private contractors to reduce state expenditure on welfare. The Finance Ministry does not intend to retreat from this policy, which is the direct result of the neo-liberal line taken by Israel during the last 25 years.

As a result of the Ministry’s insistence, Histadrut and SWU leaders took a “realistic” approach which gave up on the extension order demand. Instead, a high minimum wage was agreed on for workers in the private sector and a vague outline of government supervision to ensure that public funds transferred to private service providers for wages would be paid as agreed. Giving up on this question of principle left young social workers deeply disappointed, and led to extensive opposition to the draft agreement.

On the other hand, even the demands of veteran social workers in the public sector were not met in the agreement. As a result, the SWU and the Histadrut lost the support of the traditional base of every union, the stable, veteran employees, without gaining the support of younger social workers.

Points of contention

During a discussion at the SWU on March 20, a draft of the agreement between the Histadrut and union leaders and the Finance Ministry was presented. According to the union’s spokesperson David Golan (quoted in Ynet, March 16), the agreement significantly improves conditions for social workers by granting each a salary increase of 7.25% plus a NIS 1,100 ($310) index-linked supplement, to be paid retroactively from January 2011. In addition, all social workers will receive a one-off lump sum of NIS 2,000 ($564). In total, the spokesperson said, the supplements amount to some 25% on average, while for those at the lower end of the wage scale they will amount to some 45%. The union also fought for social workers employed by private bodies and won a historic and unprecedented achievement of a minimum wage for the entire industry of NIS 7,100 ($2,003).

However, after conversations with many social workers familiar with the agreement, it appears that the spokesperson’s claims have no basis in reality.

  • The 7.25% supplement is an increase that all public sector employees receive according to an agreement reached between the Histadrut and government a few months ago. This supplement will be spread out over 3.5 years and would have been paid regardless of the strike.
  • The additional NIS 1,100 is to be paid in return for an extra 1.5 hours’ work per week or 6.5 hours per month. In fact, it amounts to some NIS 750 extra per worker, to be spread over 3-4 years.
  • Those at the lower end of the wage scale will not be seeing supplements amounting to 45%. At the most, they will receive some 25%.
  • The one-off sum of NIS 2,000 is to be paid to all public sector workers according to a general collective agreement, and is in fact compensation for delayed wage increases during the years 2009 and 2010. It is in fact just minimal compensation for the wages eroded over this period. Furthermore, as a one-off payment would not be included in the salary of the public workers and so reduce spending for the government .
  • The promise to give social workers who are employed by private companies an industry-wide minimum wage of NIS 7,100 is a fiction. First it is a sum that should cover all costs and not what the worker will get eventually. Furthermore as the Histadrut gave up on the extension order, which was its only tool for ensuring private bodies pay this minimum it is not possible to guarantee the actual payment of the wage to the social workers.

To summarize, the Finance Ministry has succeeded in keeping public sector social workers on an outdated wage scale while improving conditions only minimally. Moreover, the minimum wage has no bearing on public sector employees – it is aimed at the private sector but the Finance Ministry decided not to intervene in this sector when it refused to countenance an extension order.

It must be noted that this struggle is not merely to compensate for issues that have arisen in the normal course of events during the last two or three years, which is the usual period of validity for collective agreements. The last agreement for social workers was signed in 1994 after a strike lasting 44 days, after which their wages were increased by 100% following years of neglect and wage erosion.

Toward a democratic workers’ movement

If, instead of negotiating in the social workers’ name, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini had supported the SWU by recruiting large workers committees to support the struggle, he would have avoided the shame of having the union’s leadership vote against him. The way the Histadrut chairman negotiates for workers in various sectors instead of their direct representatives is undemocratic. This was what happened in the case of Makhteshim Agan, the Dead Sea Industries strike, and the strike at the ports: Ofer Eini came in above the heads of committee leaders and reached an agreement without enabling committees to have their say.

However, this time the situation is different. The strength of the social workers’ movement was impressive, and created a new model for struggle. When workers show partnership and concern, organize themselves and prepare the struggle well, they are able to keep track of negotiations and hold their leaders accountable at the moment of truth.

The Histadrut has long been accustomed to obedience and agreement to its dictates. In the age of FaceBook it seems that old methods will no longer work. The social workers still face a serious test in achieving improved conditions, but regardless of the results of the negotiations, this struggle is a significant milestone in the creation of a new democratic workers’ movement with a clear progressive social agenda. "end"

Assaf Adiv is the National Coordinator of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma'an)

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