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Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side?

The infuriating pettiness of Israeli labor disputes

The three-day countrywide strike came to an end and all sides seemed happy. It was a historic achievement. It had highlighted solidarity of “strong workers with the weak” (quote by Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini), while Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz had demonstrated “social sensitivity” (Eini, again) in the all-night discussions. The cost may ultimately have been great, “but we are happy to pay it,” said Steinitz at the press conference. Smiles all ’round. It came over so warm and cuddly, I almost plotzed.

But could you, in no more than three rhyming couplets, tell me what the strike was about or what it actually achieved?

It was all about the workers on the bottom rung, one could say: subcontracted workers. These are the ones that an employer (bank, government ministry, hospital, factory, even school, hostel, nursing facility) maintain instead of a permanent, fixed employee, because it’s simply cheaper for them. The employer approaches an employment agency, and in piecemeal fashion, asks for “two nurses for three months, please. With chips, and go easy on the mayo.”

This is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the country. Their pay is usually lower than those they work alongside. They do not enjoy job security. Their employers (technically, the manpower agencies) do not normally offer them pensions, nor other employment benefits, such as end-of-year bonuses or holiday gifts, or contributions to hishtalmut funds (tax-free employer saving plans).

And union boss Eini took advantage of fairly widespread sympathy for such workers when he rallied his troops and shut the country down. He drew up a list of demands, which he’d only thought of last Tuesday, though the trend of outsourcing has been growing for years. He called for scrapping the whole idea of subcontracted workers, bringing them into the permanent worker fold, and most importantly, he demanded they all be given the same gifts that their permanent work colleagues get every Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Finance Minister Steinitz refused to accede to these demands. So the strike began.

There were no trains; there were no ships coming in or out of the country, in an economy that relies almost entirely on shipping for its trade as, for some reason, we don’t go in for much business with our immediate neighbors; mountains of uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets; Ben Gurion Airport froze all takeoffs for one morning; and ATMs began to run out of cash (bank workers, bless their little cotton socks, came out in sympathy too).

The daily routines of millions were disrupted. Journeys were canceled. The cost to the economy was enormous.

It took two days and a marathon all-night session until agreement was reached. By Sunday morning the strike was over, all sides were delighted. Eini praised the public for understanding that it was all for “social justice”.

What tosh and bunkum.

Eini has a dream. He has a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of the Histadrut’s creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all public sector workers [but only public sector workers] are created equal.” The labor federation in Israel, rather than rising historically from the downtrodden poor workers of society, is all about maintaining the incredibly cushy number of those in the public sector, who enjoy tenure (you can never sack them) and salaries in excess of their true worth, and who look forward to bloated and, in some cases, “free” (i.e. non-contributory) pensions. The more workers he can get to join those sullied ranks, the stronger his position.

While the final agreement saw barely 600 subcontracted workers become permanent staffers, many more will find their wages and benefits linked to those in the public sector. And linkage is vitally important. If thousands of workers have terms of employment that are connected in some way to the sector that Eini controls, then this is all that matters.

So what happened to the poorly paid cleaners and security guards and bank tellers in the private sector? Well, yes, they’re sort of vaguely mentioned in the agreement. But please stop trying to change the subject.

Interestingly, one of the “major” points was that the government agreed to employ a further 150 inspectors to ensure that the laws on subcontracted workers are enforced. How surreal. The public sector goes on strike to force the government to agree to enforce its own laws! What’s next? Children going on strike to force their parents to feed them more green vegetables and less of the ice cream and chocolate, if you please?

A word about Steinitz, who caved in after two days, welcoming the extra cost of millions to the public purse: “Israel is the only country in the west that is making such a reparation, strengthening the weakest workers at this time.”

He should take a closer look at Greece. Despite violent protests, thousands on strike, and incendiary street battles, the Greek parliament this week passed what it considered to be the necessary, painful medication for a very sick economy: it cut 300 billion euro from public pensions, and plans to lay off some 150,000 public sector workers.

But Steinitz and Eini can hold their heads high, for they know that when the going gets tough, the tough know what really justifies an all-out strike. They can pat themselves on the back, declaring that several hundred subcontracted workers in Israel will, come next Passover, get that all-important bottle of wine and a large box of chocolates.

About the Author
B. de Bono (not his real pseudonym) is a critic, philosopher, altruist, wordsmith, pedant, cynic, piano-player and optimist. But none of that pays the mortgage. So he's also a civil engineer, an editor and translator. Originally from London, England, he now lives in Israel and loves to point out how even more wonderful the country could be if only, perchance, they would put a few things right.