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.”