More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Social protest leaders are losing their way
nything but politics! This was the protest movement’s strategy from the start. Not right, not left, and above all, almost every politician that came to visit the tent encampment on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard was unceremoniously ejected. The marketing strategy was to avoid any sign of affiliation, and on this apolitical basis support for the protest reached unprecedented dimensions. Even when Histadrut Chairperson Ofer Eini offered his assistance, he too was scornfully turned down – and for good reason: Eini was the right-hand man in the building of the rightwing government, and was key to breaking the social workers’ strike. The protest movement refused to allow him to rehabilitate his public image on its account, and justly so.
However, during its short life, the protest went through a number of stages, and now it has become the complete opposite of what it set out to be, sinking into shameless political wheeling and dealing.
At first, the protest leaders refused to lay out their demands, speaking only about the costs of housing and about changing the system. Instead of demanding Netanyahu’s head, as architect of the privatized, free-market economy, they demanded the impossible: that he adopt a revolutionary agenda and re-establish the welfare state. Later, they expounded their aims more clearly, and when Netanyahu appointed Prof. Emmanuel Trajtenberg to head a committee charged with recommending reforms to counter the impoverishment of the middle classes, the protest leaders appointed their own advisors – Prof. Avia Spivak and Prof. Yossi Yonah – to come up with reforms of their own.
But this didn’t help. Trajtenberg submitted his committee’s recommendations, the protest movement folded up its tents, Netanyahu passed the report on to his government, and since then the protest has found itself at a dead end. The reason for this is straightforward: the media, which at first fawned on and promoted the protest leaders, later threw them aside as old news and stood firmly behind Trajtenberg’s report, praising and glorifying it as heralding the social revolution.
Then Daphni Leef and her comrades decided that the way to regain the protest momentum was to hold personal meetings with all Knesset members appearing in Knesset committees. “They are working for us,” the leaders explained when asked how they expected their demands to be met by a government whose ideological approach is so contrary to their own.
But it soon became clear that Knesset members were not enough and that they would have to meet with government ministers too. Daphni Leef held the first such meeting with rightwing Shas minister Eli Yishai, who was quick to declare his support for the protest. At one stroke, Yishai erased all his former wrongs, from deporting the children of migrant laborers to the racist legislation directed at Arab citizens. Thus the slogan “They are working for us” became “We are working for them.” This metamorphosis was rapid. The lack of faith in the political system and their unwillingness to present themselves as a political alternative made the protest leaders servants of the establishment.
The peak came when they approached Eini, whom they had rejected just a short time before. The moment Daphni Leef and her comrades understood that Netanyahu had made a political killing on their account by adopting Trajtenberg’s report, Eini became a lifesaver, able to resuscitate the movement before it sank into a coma. Eini grabbed the opportunity with both hands. He sought a good excuse for declaring a labor dispute and a general strike. Since the reason for a general strike must be related to industrial relations, workers employed by manpower contract agencies were singled out (henceforth "contract-agencies"). The protest leaders were overjoyed and joined the call for a general strike. When Koach La Ovdim (The Democratic Workers’ Organization) decided to support the Histadrut’s move, the protest leaders contacted the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Maan) too, to ask us to participate.
From the moment Eini made his move, the protest movement was muted while Eini and his functionaries caught the headlines. Histadrut Transport Union Chairperson Avi Edri appeared on television and roundly denounced the contract-agency form of employment. Two hours later, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich appeared on a different program and joined the chorus, speaking of “invisible workers” and the legislation she had proposed to counter the problem. Yonah and Spivak have long been forgotten, Trajtenberg is being lauded by the media, Eini and Yachimovich are taking over the protest, and the movement itself has been sidelined. Eini and Yachimovich will handle the protest until the next elections, and Daphni Leef and Co. can join them if they feel like it.
But the truth is, they don’t have a choice. They made such an effort to avoid losing the support of the public and to avoid internal schisms, yet now their connection to the Histadrut is causing widespread antagonism. Eini’s record is so problematic, and his credibility so low, that it’s not clear how the protest leaders will bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets again. The public understands that Eini is one of those same politicians whose only interest is retaining their positions of power. He relies on the large workers’ committees that have ignored contract-agency workers for years, sacrificing the rights of thousands.
WAC-MAAN and the Histadrut
Regarding the issue of WAC’s participation, I have to admit it is hard for us to agree to this, and I’ll explain why. When Avi Edri talks excitedly about contract-agency workers, we are shocked. Edri is chairperson of the Histadrut’s Transport Union, and as such he is signatory to the collective agreement signed with the Israel Road Transport Board which enables haulage firms to avoid recording drivers’ work hours and pay them accordingly. Truck drivers’ basic wage is minimum wage, and additional wages are composed of various bonuses. WAC is inundated with requests for assistance from drivers exploited by their employers and compelled to work long hours beyond the legal limit.
Regarding contract-agency workers, the following example epitomizes the issue. For three years, WAC has been organizing contract-agency workers, both Jewish and Arab, who are placed by the contractor with the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Histadrut committee at the Antiquities Authority ignores the agency workers and disregards their demands. We also clocked a significant achievement in Judge Goldberg’s precedent-setting ruling on March 3, 2010. The judge determined that according to the Employment of Employees by Manpower Contractors Law 1996, paragraph 12a (a), the 21 archeological workers employed via the contract-agency Brik must be taken on as regular workers by the Antiquities Authority, because they had already worked at least nine months with the Authority. Similarly, in the Israel Museum, the Histadrut workers’ committee ignores teachers employed for years on personal contracts and who suffer severe discrimination. So how are we to believe Eini’s pure intentions? From Eini’s point of view, the contract- agency workers are merely an excuse to take over the protest movement. As for the protest leadership, one cannot rely on a group which leads by gut reaction, devoid of any clear political strategy.
Regardless of the labor dispute announced by the Histadrut and the protest leadership, we continue our daily work on the issue of contract labor workers. We have just declared a labor dispute in Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theatre after the management refused to reach a collective agreement with the workers’ committee organized by WAC, which aims to regulate the employment of teachers employed as “service providers.” We continue our struggle for truck drivers toiling under the warped collective agreement reached by the Histadrut, and we continue struggling against the Antiquities Authority, which uses Brik contract-agency workers in its archeological digs.
We are partner to any social initiative and any protest movement that aims to bring about real social change. Unfortunately, the protest leadership is allowing its historic achievements, which have made such an impression on Israeli society, to slip through its fingers.
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger