In Israel, a New Tide of Labor Activism Is Fighting Inequality

In Israel, a New Tide of Labor Activism Is Fighting Inequality

In Israel, a New Tide of Labor Activism Is Fighting Inequality

But it’s up against the country’s powerful right-wing politics and institutional racism against Palestinians.


Musa Alabid, 41, is getting organized. Alabid is a Bedouin from Rahat, in southern Israel, one of some 200,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel. He works at SodaStream, the Israeli carbonated-drink company popularized by Scarlett Johansson–studded commercials. A few years back, a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign targeted SodaStream’s plant in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, resulting in a wave of bad publicity for the company and putting Johansson under immense public pressure. SodaStream relocated from the Mishur Adumim industrial zone near the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement in the West Bank to a factory in Lehavim near Rahat, though the owner maintains the move was not because of the BDS campaign but because it had outgrown the facility.

But last year, frustrated SodaStream employees—Alabid among them—started to push for better pay and working conditions. So they turned to the Histadrut, Israel’s largest and state-aligned trade federation, which was founded by Labor Zionists in 1920. After continuing negotiations, in June the Histadrut filed a lawsuit against SodaStream’s management for allegedly trying to disrupt unionizing.

The union was, all things considered, a surprising choice. Israel’s nationalist trade federation initially excluded Arab workers like Alabid. The Histadrut was a crucial part of the early Zionist movement, and it became a backbone of the Jewish state. 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. Then came the age of neoliberal politics in the 1980s and ’90s, with waves of privatization that gutted Israel’s welfare state and labor movement. 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 rising again, albeit slowly, bolstered by the 2011 social-justice protests against the high cost of living and aided by new pro-labor laws, organizers report. While the Histadrut once passively ruled the field, alternative labor 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 One Percent and back to everyday 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.”

But the political impact of this mini-unionizing boom remains tempered by stubborn realities. 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.

In the backdrop, as Israel passes the 50th anniversary of the occupation, the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict appears all but buried, especially with Donald Trump in the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition firmly in power. This shift to the far right on the Palestinian question will not only have a dramatic impact on Israel’s future with its neighbors, but also on issues of socio-economic equality and labor conditions along the way.

The tension between Israel’s political realities and growing disenchantment with the economy is on display about 50 miles away from the SodaStream plant, in the working-class port city of Ashdod. That’s where a group of workers from a metal factory decided to work with a very small independent labor organization, WAC-MAAN, instead of the Histadrut, fearing the latter was too friendly with business interests. This is also Netanyahu territory, and the workers here were proud of it.

“I like Netanyahu and [far-right Jewish Home Party leader Naftali] Bennett,” said Dudi Zamir, 36, while participating in a strike this fall. “We did the army. We served our country. We love our country. And we just want to work with respect and to earn a living with respect.”

MAAN’s main campaign clients, however, don’t sound like Zamir: The group, which is openly opposed to the occupation, also works with the thousands of West Bank Palestinians laboring 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 organize these Palestinians. 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.)

Today, inside Israel, leftist groups face extreme demonization. But Zamir didn’t consider the alliance a contradiction. “A union is a union,” he said, praising MAAN for being constantly available. “It doesn’t matter who’s working with them.” He also didn’t blame Netanyahu for Ashdod’s tough economic times. He faulted the factory’s management, not the prime minister’s policies.

This arrangement didn’t surprise Dr. Jonathan Preminger, a specialist in Israeli unions. “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.”

That’s a core challenge facing the labor movement, mused Martin Villar, an organizer with Koach La Ovidim. “We decided as a movement that we unionize everyone,” Villar said. “We hope that they [union members] will go through this political change, but it’s not the main reason we do it.”

Villar was less sure about the political implications of it all. “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.”

A few hours away in liberal Tel Aviv, nostalgia for a socialist Zionist past was a driving force at the headquarters of the newly revitalized Histadrut newspaper, Davar Rishon (formerly just Davar). The 92-year-old paper was closed in 1996, but was relaunched a year ago online. “The Zionist movement was the labor movement,” explained editor Yaniv Carmel. “Histadrut is part of what caused Israel to exist.”

Founded in what was then British Mandate Palestine, the Histadrut was the major generator of the emerging Jewish economy, organizing workers and providing new Jewish immigrants with employment. It also clashed with the Palestinian labor movement in a bid to undermine the growth of competing Palestinian institutions. 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.

After the establishment of Israel and expulsion and displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, the Histadrut maintained its hand in the everyday life of middle- and working-class Israelis as well as an empire of major industries. It was the country’s largest health provider, through a comprehensive health-care network, which inflated its membership and solidified its dominance. The Histadrut was an integral part of what was, for Jewish Israelis, a protective and remarkably egalitarian welfare state.

But by the 1980s, a new ethos of privatizing and monetizing everyday life was taking root in Israel. By then, the Histadrut had become an unpopular body for many Israelis, who disparaged it as a self-interested, politically co-opted, and strike-happy handicap on the economy. The first major hit came in 1985, when, as part of a series of economic reforms, the government sold the Histadrut’s largest holding company to foreign investors. The fatal blow came a decade later, when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—“the great privatizer”—overhauled the national health-care system, cutting the Histadrut’s program down. Even the new Histadrut leader at the time openly gloated about gutting the historic trade union, Carmel noted.

“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.

Israeli politics were also beginning to shift—to the right. Mapai and then Labor had long dominated Israel’s coalition-based governments and had been close to the Histadrut. But in 1977, Israelis elected their first right-wing prime minister from the Likud Party, Menachem Begin. In the years that followed, as Labor and Likud promoted similar pro-privatization policies, issues like the country’s security and military, in which all Jewish citizens serve and which had always been central in political debates, became even more dominant.

With the historic tie between the Labor Party and the Histadrut disrupted, the latter thus pragmatically aligned with politicians of all stripes who would support it. “Histradrut’s policy is to get in with any politician who’s going to help them,” explained Steve Adler, former president of Israel’s National Labor Court, which deals with labor laws and social security.

And while public services shifted from union jobs to contract and subcontracted jobs with fewer benefits, the military, and the military’s large and costly pension system, continued to dominate budgets.

“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, labor, health, the majority of Israelis will say they don’t know.”

He added, “We can do all the social-justice work in the world and we still don’t have the leadership that can translate the social energy into political energy.”

For a moment 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.

“The new Israeli was an entrepreneur,” Carmel said. “And in 2011 the Israelis said, ‘Well this is shit. This isn’t Israel. Israel is supposed to be ha’am doresh tzedek hevrati [The people demand social justice],’” he added, referring to the protests’ slogan, echoing that of the Arab Spring.

In the following months, more and more Israelis became involved in labor activities and causes—all while Netanyahu also remained in power, housing prices kept rising, and business-as-usual governance continued.

“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, recently formed through the Histadrut, and a blogger for the website +972 Magazine. “It sparked this new consciousness of, ‘OK, maybe we can do better,’ and rethinking the relationship between workers and employees.”

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 labor movement faces in tackling the politics behind Israeli economic problems, Preminger 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.”

Still, when the protests broke out, union organizers were there to harness the energy. Among them was Koach La Ovidim, which started in 2007 as a counter-weight to the Histadrut aimed at organizing contract and other marginalized workers, said Koach spokesperson 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. (Bar Ilan said this was due to increased competition from Koach La Ovidim, which Histadrut spokeswoman Avital Shapira denied.) And MAAN, which had started in 1995 as a workers’ advice center, became an officially recognized, representative trade union in 2011, said Yoav Tamir, an organizer with MAAN.

Workers and organizers were also able to capitalize on a package of labor laws the Histadrut pushed through in 2009 during negotiations for the Labor Party to join Netanyahu’s coalition. Forming a labor 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 organizing 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 unionizing 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.

As numbers increase, so do the complications.

Villar of Koach La Ovidim 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. (As of 2007, about 11 percent of workers were estimated to be organized through them, according to Preminger.)

It’s because of workplace realities like this that many academics and leftists don’t like Histadrut, argued organizer Perlman, who started the first union for parliamentary aides through Histadrut. “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.”

While Israeli labor 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.

Instead, it’s in the settlements in the occupied territories—which the Israeli government heavily subsidizes and international law considers illegal—where the link between Zionism and a collective welfare approach lives on today, argued Haifa University Professor Danny Gutwein. The government spends 1.6 billion NIS (shekels, equivalent to $442 million) more on Israelis living in West Bank settlements than on those living in Israel, the Israeli watchdog group Peace Now found in a 2012. The Obama administration criticized settlements as a major impediment to peace; the Trump administration has given their expansion near full support.

For Carmel of the Histadrut newspaper, that’s also not necessarily a problem for the labor movement. “We see the settlers and we relate to them as to any other citizen,” he said. “We detach the question of the [Palestinian] territories from the social relations with the settlers. It’s a larger group, it’s an important group, and the restructuring of Israel involves all parts of Israeli society: Jews, Arabs, religious, secular.”

Still, that restructuring also involves political changes that thus far have impeded any serious cross-ethnic or national workers’ coalition.

“I don’t want to sound pessimistic or anything, and I do think unions are doing really important work,” 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.”

Carmel said he no longer identified with the Labor Party, calling it ideologically empty, or with the term “left,” as in Israel it no longer expressed his economic grievances. “I’m certain that a new political framework will evolve from this havoc,” Carmel said. “But I don’t know what form it will take.”

He added, “I hope when it will evolve that there will still be an Israel, too.”

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