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Panel: Social Organizations for an Alternative Trade Union

On July 29, in Tel Aviv, 18 days into the war, WAC-MAAN held its seventh annual General Meeting. The first session began with a panel discussion on the need for a new trade union initiative in Israel. The organizers also raised the banner of “Workers against the War.” WAC members oppose the war in Lebanon and hold Israel principally responsible for it. Yet they do not support Hezbollah. The latter’s agenda has nothing to do with democracy and workers’ rights.

Because the need for a new trade union is an emerging topic among social organizations, we have chosen to publish large excerpts from the panelists’ contributions to the discussion.

The meeting’s second part was devoted to reports on WAC’s activities in various fields: legal advice; job placement in construction, agriculture and restaurants; and critiquing the Wisconsin Program.

Many WAC members attending the meeting came from Galilean villages that have been under rocket fire. One, for example, was WAC Chairperson Samya Nasser of Majd al-Krum, whose house suffered a direct hit. Another was Afif Butrus, a new board member, whose village, Maghar, has suffered fatalities from rocket attacks.

Assaf Adiv

Adiv is WAC’s National Coordinator

W

E MEET AT a time when the cannons are firing in the north. As a workers’ association that unites Jews and Arabs, we cannot remain indifferent to the terrible destruction this war is wreaking. We have issued a clear cry for an end to the fighting. Our cry is based on an internationalist approach, uniting workers across borders.

The Israeli leadership, which is principally responsible for this war, is hostile to the Arab world, indeed despises it. In Israel itself it has systematically shattered all the institutions of the welfare state. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have plummeted beneath the poverty line. Personnel companies have taken over the labor market. The government continues to permit the import of migrants in order to break the bargaining power of local workers, especially in construction and agriculture.

We at WAC aspire to deep social change. We devote every day, every hour, to the organizing of workers. We don’t believe that such an alternative can become a reality, however, unless our organization is committed to equality between Jews and Arabs. For this reason we demand an end to Israel’s policy of force. We consider ourselves to be part of the global anti-war movement.

We have no pretensions of replacing the Histadrut [the General Federation of Labour in Israel]. On the other hand, we aren’t willing to waste time waiting for the Histadrut, which has lost sector after sector to the forces of capital and privatization. At a time when Defense Secretary Amir Peretz, who chaired the Histadrut for the last decade, conducts a murderous war in Lebanon, it is clear that the building of a real trade union, democratic and Arab-Jewish, requires new leadership and a new direction.

Today’s assembly is an important landmark for WAC. It is no coincidence that we are joined by organizations and individuals that we’ve worked with over the past year: Attorney Orna Lin; Kav La’Oved; Tel Aviv University’s legal clinics; and the Hotline for Migrant Workers. This cooperation forms a broad basis for advancing our common purpose: the formation of an alternative labor union.

Attorney Orna Lin

Lin chairs the National Council of the Israeli Bar. Specializing in labor matters, she cooperates with WAC in representing the workers of Educational TV.

I

N THE 1980’s I had a job with the Finance Ministry, specifically with the official who was responsible for commerce and labor agreements. This put me at the deep heart’s core of the employer establishment. At that time there was only one factor to deal with: the Histadrut. It managed to make many gains for the workers, for the simple reason that almost all of them were organized. Israeli governments respected the Histadrut.

Now, after a quarter century, one can hardly overstate the depth of the change that has occurred. The Histadrut has reached the end of its strength. It lost it especially after Haim Ramon and Amir Peretz took over its leadership in 1995.

Not only did the Histadrut collapse from within, but the political environment also changed. Israel’s governments became increasingly capitalistic. The personal contract and the big money began to dominate everything. From the education I received as a child, I remember the sanctity of the term “job tenure.” Today, instead of organized jobs with tenure, what we find are personal contracts. People have abandoned collective agreements, preferring the big salaries that were promised them. They did not grasp the significance of breaking up the workers’ organization from within. I’m aware of the fact that I’m sketching the history of labor relations here in thirty seconds, but there are times when it’s important to remember these things. The dramatic diminishment of organized labor led to penetration of the job market by migrant workers and personnel contractors.

It should be noted that we do have very good labor laws from the 1950’s. But the moral collapse, where organized labor and work ethics are concerned, has rendered their enforcement impossible.

Why have I joined my efforts with WAC’s? When one works in this field as long as I have, one encounters various phenomena, often infected with charlatanism and cheating, that attempt to fill the vacuum left by the Histadrut. In WAC I discovered two things that appealed to me. First, there is a real commitment to serve precisely those workers whom it’s hardest to help, whose rights have been the worst trampled on. I don’t want these words to be taken as defiance of the Histadrut. It will do what it can, and it is still much needed for signing collective agreements with personnel companies and for reaching understandings with the government on the question of migrant workers. But it lacks real concern for the people who most need it.

The other thing I found in WAC is authenticity. I didn’t have the shadow of a doubt that here was a true attempt to organize workers – and not one of those organizations that disguise themselves for external motives. The labor market is presently at an all time low. We witness the terrible conditions of the migrants and those who work under labor contractors. We see lack of law enforcement, rising unemployment, and a constant preference for Israel’s national interests at the expense of social problems. This situation necessitates the renewed organizing of workers – an organizing from below. Such organizing can succeed if it’s done by clean and honest people whose first concern is the workers. The way is long and hard, but I am happy to be here, a part of it.

Dr. Yitzhak Saporta

Saporta is a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and a founder of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow, as well as Ha’Oketz, one of the leading social web sites in Hebrew.

I

N THE 1980’s, after finishing my studies in Psychology and Philosophy, I asked myself what the studying had been for. Then I decided to study labor relations. And now I have reached a place which, as I see it, is at the heart of all social problems: the issue of a labor union.

When we read about labor unions in Israel’s press, this is always with a negative association. They are a disturbing factor. We are always disturbing this huge economic system that speaks the logic of anonymous markets. Human beings are always, by nature, a disturbing element in such matters. Sometimes I think that the CEO’s should be left alone to do it all. Then we’d see what they can produce. Let’s see how much they earn when they’re all by themselves.

The situation of workers is better when there’s a union: equality, security on the job, less poverty. The influence of the union extends far beyond its own rank-and-file. Economists claim that the union rewards only those who are unionized, but non-unionized workers suffer. This is untrue. The union, by the mere fact of its existence, also helps the non-unionised. But in order for this to happen, a union must be big and strong enough. In the 1980’s, some 85% of the workers in Israel were organized. That was one of the highest rates in the world, almost as high as Scandinavia’s. In the last twenty years, however, Israel has undergone a complete turnaround. From a corporate state with a union – where the union, though problematic, was involved in the state’s economic policy and sought full employment – Israel has become a place where you can’t utter the words “full employment” without risking death by stoning.

The Histadrut wasn’t just a labor union, and herein lay its problem. It had national Zionist purposes. Until 1995, anyone who wanted health insurance from the main sick fund had to join it. That’s how it got a great many of its members. There was no need to organize from below (to use Orna Lin’s phrase) and as a result, the norms for such organizing never got established. Because the Histadrut was so strong, no good legal apparatus developed for organizing workers. It is a pressing need to anchor such organizing by means of Knesset legislation. For me this idea is at the heart of a democratic state. If we want such a state, we must ensure that it have strong unions.

Attorney Lilach Luria

Luria works in Kav la’Oved (Workers’ Hotline), which is among the leading organizations that defend weakened workers and migrants. It is very active both on the broad public level and in individual case work.

T

HE ASSOCIATIONS REPRESENTED here fill an important role in advancing workers’ rights. In the year 2005, just to give one example, Kav la’Oved distributed 40,000 information flyers just on the issue of organizing security guards. Yet the ability to bring about real change is very limited. We can get just the minimum that is anchored in law. Non-profit associations like ours cannot make use of tools like strikes or collective bargaining.

What then is the alternative? The first step must be the involvement of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the processes of labor legislation. The classic triangle for this in today’s world consists of employers, NGOs and the government.

The second approach is to advance new organizing efforts like those of WAC or those that have taken shape in the labor market of the communications media. This is the direction to move in.

Attorney Itai Swirsky

Swirsky directs the law clinics for public justice that are operated by Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law. The clinics give free legal advice to the poor. Within this framework, he recently initiated an open forum for organizations on the topic of how to bring about a new labor union in Israel.

I

WORKED FOR A FEW years in the law offices of attorneys who focused on labor laws. Generally, they represented the “bad guys” – the employers. Here I was exposed to all the ills of the labor market. The experience helped me to go ahead with the thing that really interests me: labor organizing.

This issue is beginning to arise, and we must create tools to push it forward. In recent years there’s been talk of enforcing labor laws. The experts say, “Let’s appoint more inspectors, and let’s make more laws that will compel the state to enforce labor laws.” The truth, though, is that workers’ organizations are the best, most efficient way to ensure the rights of labor.

Our idea is to cooperate with as many people as possible in order to study the factors that impede the formation of workers’ councils at workplaces. Taking part in the forum are academics and representatives of workers’ organizations, one of which is WAC.

The first impediment is fear! Workers fear to organize. This fear is very strong. We know about groups of workers that tried to organize and were broken up – sometimes by firing the organizers, sometimes by tempting and co-opting them, or simply by dogging their steps. The critical measure against fear is to bring as many workers as possible into the council, so that they will defend the organizers. Legally speaking, in order to represent the workers at a work place and sign collective agreements, a council must be supported by at least a third of the workers. De facto, however, if the council is to be strong enough to defend organizers, one needs support from a full 80%.

Historically, the Histadrut organized workers according to the branches they were in, making separate agreements by branch: industry, transportation, etc. In our forum, on the contrary, we speak of organization by workplace. This is harder, because it has never been done here. There is no culture or know-how for such organizing.

As to whether the Histadrut is still necessary, I would say that it knows how to sign the branch agreements workers need. On the other hand, it doesn’t deal with the workers. It goes to the employer and makes whatever agreement it makes. There is no organizing from below. There are no workers’ councils to enforce the agreements. That is why we think that alternatives are needed, both to do new things and to spur the Histadrut forward.

I am very glad that WAC is a participant in thinking about an alternative. I agree that it’s an authentic organization, which can do great things within its public.

Shevy Korzen

Korzen directs the Hotline for Migrant Workers, especially those who are pursued by the immigration police or who face deportation.

C

OOPERATION BETWEEN the Hotline and WAC has been going on for some time. As others have said here, the main thing that keeps workers from gaining their rights is fear. The way to overcome fear is to build solidarity. That is the basis for all organizing. It is vital for workers to understand that they share a common interest. The first thing an employer does in order to break the worker’s spirit is to bring someone else to replace him, to prefer the more desperate over the less desperate. Sometimes we hear complaints against migrants, who are said to take our jobs. But those who take our jobs are the bosses, who don’t want to pay what the law requires.

This situation is not confined to local and migrant workers. It is also true among the migrants themselves. Turks are pitted against Romanians, who are pitted against Chinese. I have counted migrants from fifty countries here. They speak different languages and can’t make themselves understood to one another. A real circus. As soon as someone begins to establish himself, the bosses bring in someone else and set them into conflict. Only through the realization that we’re partners will workers be able to regain self-respect and self-reliance.

The construction sector affords a clear example. When the government began, under various pressures, to take steps to improve the attitude toward migrant workers, we suddenly saw the start of a return of Israeli workers to construction. It began when the government decided to stop indiscriminate, mass importation. This put a brake on the bosses’ system of rapid turnover, firing and hiring, which constituted their greatest power. For that has been a whip against the workers. The moment the government stopped allowing unlimited turnover, the condition of the migrants who are already here began to improve, and in its wake there was also a slight improvement for Israeli workers. At the Hotline and at WAC we understood the message: the magic word is cooperation. I am very glad to see people here from various places, and I hope we shall continue to act together.

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