The Social Workers’ Strike: A Setback with Important Lessons

By Assaf Adiv from Challenge magazine

 

The social workers’ strike ended in disappointment. (See Background article.) After the momentum gathered by thousands of social workers who took to the streets for 23 days, there is the feeling of a squandered opportunity. The agreement forced upon them by the Finance Ministry, the Labor Court and the Histadrut goes directly against their expectations and demands.

The reason for the failure was not lack of preparation. The Social Workers’ Union (SWU) had been campaigning for more than a year. The union was even involved in organizing the social workers in the private sector, where unionization had floundered. Experienced wage negotiator Shalom Granit was hired to prepare a new wage scale. Aims were set for increasing the number of posts and correcting distortions in welfare services. At the moment of truth, though, all was forgotten. Why did the social workers have no leadership able to express the strength of the rank and file? And what can be done to ensure that such a failure doesn’t happen again?

Ofer Eini: A Test Case

The social workers faced officials from the Finance Ministry, a well-oiled machine made up of clerks who toe the neoliberal line, aiming to cut government spending and reduce the public sector. When the workers demanded an extension order to cover their colleagues in the private sector, this went against the policy of privatization. But privatization is in the DNA of the economic route that Israel has taken for the last 25 years, and it has the support of all major parties: Likud, Labor, Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu.

 

Only a mighty social-political force could shift the Finance Ministry from its line on privatization. Without such a force the social workers didn’t have a chance. The supportive press, which covered the strike in its early days, proved to be a broken reed. The moment Histadrut Chairperson Ofer Eini changed his tune and came out against the strike, public support disappeared. Not a single political force stood unequivocally by the workers.

Eini’s leadership is a critical issue. Even if the entire SWU had united behind the union’s principal demands, it would have been unable to effect real change as long as it remained subordinate to Eini.

 

There is something symbolic in the fact that 17 years have gone by since the last wage agreement for the social workers was signed. The SWU’s long slumber did not come about by chance. During this period, the Histadrut under Haim Ramon, Amir Peretz and Eini worked in full partnership with the government on a series of privatization initiatives affecting industries and welfare, education and health services. In addition, the Histadrut gave up its control of pension funds without a fight. These funds have become a comfortable source of profit for the leading insurance companies.

 

Eini, who took over from Peretz as Histadrut Chairperson in 2006, has forged for himself the role of super-mediator in the economy, relying on his alliance with Shraga Brosh, Chairperson of Israel’s Manufacturers’ Association. It was Eini who fostered Ehud Barak’s participation in the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Previously, he had strongly supported the wars in Lebanon and Gaza. He serves as Israel’s ambassador against Palestinian calls for a boycott. Because of his kingmaker role—and his partnership in the economic policies of Barak, Olmert and Netanyahu, Eini serves more as mediator in labor disputes than as a labor representative.

Eini’s “campaigns”

When Eini declares a strike, he usually organizes transport for workers to Jerusalem, where he distributes banners and sandwiches to show that the Histadrut is active at street level. He then goes into the finance minister’s office, signs an agreement and sends the workers home.

 

In the social workers’ struggle, nobody asked the Histadrut to make sandwiches. When Eini sat down to finalize the agreement with the Finance Ministry, he never dreamed that most of the social workers in the union council would vote against it. (The leadership council of 30 is the leading body of the union that according to the rules of the union has the authority to accept or reject the agreement.) The power and excitement of the social workers dazed him. Instead of using their energy to build up a strong trade union, Eini rushed to dampen their spirits, hoping to prevent a precedent in which the rank and file decided.

 

The arrangement that Eini brought to the Finance Ministry is not unique. In recent years, he has reached similar arrangements on issues such as the privatization of the ports and the post office. He closed a deal on the minimum wage with his partner Shraga Brosh of the Manufacturer’s Association, without involving the Finance Ministry, and he compelled the government to accept the draft he had come up with. Just a few months ago, he reached an agreement with the government regarding the wages of hundreds of thousands of public sector employees. The social workers were another case in a series, and Eini had no intention of changing the framework just for them. As soon as he stepped up to the negotiating table, Finance Ministry officials understood that they could make a deal at a very attractive price.

 

The vote of the SWU against Eini’s dictates is a significant precedent. The Labor Court made a grave mistake when it ruled that the union’s decision was not democratic. In fact, the very opposite is true. This was a foundational event which, for the first time in Histadrut history, actually expressed the position of the workers. In unions around the world, there is no way that the chairperson of a trade union federation would sign in the name of an affiliated union without a debate and a vote. Even conservative unions, accustomed to directing from above, have changed their behavioral patterns in recent years and opened themselves to the new winds blowing through union street.

Difficult choices

The Histadrut’s position on privatization and its lack of internal democracy are two sides of the same coin. As long as this continues to be the case, the Histadrut will strangle workers’ struggles. In this latest case, Eini avoided any step that could be interpreted as support for workers in other branches. Instead, he closed a deal with the Finance Ministry behind the backs of the social workers and contrary to their position.

 

The social workers now face a difficult choice. In the light of the lessons learned from the strike, it’s clear the union must undergo radical changes. But even if it chooses a new leadership, it will still face the same question it faced a year ago. The important lesson from the recent strike is that fervor in the streets is not sufficient. A striking union needs a wide coalition which can stand firm in the face of the Finance Ministry and the political establishment. If there is no change in Histadrut leadership, the union leaders will continue to be stuck with the likes of Eini, and their struggle will fail yet again.

 

The fighting spirit of the social workers was a message to all workers who are sick of corrupt and fossilized unions. To prepare for the next strike, they must start an open dialogue with other movements, unions and organizations to form a wide front opposing neo-liberalism and privatization, supporting equality and social justice.

 

The union must also confront the discrimination against Arab social workers. If the new union manages to recruit thousands of social workers in the private sector and activate thousands of Arab social workers whose voice has not been heard, while at the same time giving expression to the enormous energy among its members, it will be able to make a serious contribution – not just toward improving the wages and conditions of its members, but toward advancing the cause of social change in Israel.

 


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