The workers’ struggle in Israel

This is a guest post by Alex Bjarnason

The Israeli trade union movement is experiencing a revival; with 21’000 new members joining  a trade union this year alone, and a wave of unionisations in the high-tech industry and notoriously anti-union corporations such as McDonalds and Ikea.  The Histadrut, Israel’s Trade Union Congress (TUC), are involved in frequent clashes with the Israeli government and a collection of ministers who are openly hostile to the labour movement, but some activists in the UK continue to challenge the Histadrut’s legitimacy as an independent trade union.

Last week, the Histadrut signed an agreement with the Cleaning Companies’ Organisation to provide private sector cleaners with the same pay and benefits afforded to public sector cleaners. Private sector cleaners will now have access to sick pay, reimbursed travel, service pay, paid holiday leave, holiday gifts, and subsidised lunch meals. Whilst this isn’t necessarily headline grabbing, it highlights the Histadrut’s role championing workers’ rights, a fundamental role for any legitimate trade union.

The Histadrut are currently involved in two major disputes with the Israeli government. Israel’s ports are run by government companies and are highly unionised, with average wages of around 450,000 shekels (£80,000), and close to 90% of exports and imports passing through the two main ports in Haifa and Ashdod. The Israeli government is determined to reform the ports by opening competing private sector ports, increasing capacity and the flow of goods, reducing the high cost of living, and limiting the power of a small workforce that can strike and cause the entire economy to shut down.

Port reform is relatively popular, with many Israelis frustrated by persistent media reports about dodgy business deals at the Ashdod port. With public support secured, the government are persevering with reform without engaging the Histadrut in meaningful dialogue over the fate of workers who will be affected. Whilst the Histadrut have agreed not to launch a general strike over the reforms, they are preparing for a fight.

At the Israeli Foreign Ministry, civil servants have been involved in a protracted labour dispute that began in February and has developed into a paralysing strike, with consular services available only in emergencies. Foreign Ministry staff are protesting against stagnant pay and poor management, but there is a deeper subtext to the dispute. They have been slowly marginalised because they are viewed as being too left-wing, with politicians preferring the opinions of the military or political aides.

Due to legal problems, long-term Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been forced to temporarily step down without replacement, further undermining the ministry and producing a leadership vacuum. Rather than seriously negotiate with the workers to end the labour dispute, the government has attempted to circumvent the ministry by using alternatives such as Shin Bet, the internal security agency. The Foreign Ministry are now refusing to work with Shin Bet, and the labour dispute isn’t showing signs of ending.

These are just a few of the examples of the prominent role a vibrant trade union movement plays in Israeli society. Rather than being a branch of the Israeli government, the Histadrut are an independent trade union fighting for workers’ rights. Lets support them.