Solidarity Magazine » Palestine http://solidaritymagazine.org Fri, 01 Mar 2013 19:29:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.8 Palestinian workers at Salit Quarries make history http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/06/palestinian-workers-at-salit-quarries-make-history/ http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/06/palestinian-workers-at-salit-quarries-make-history/#comments Thu, 30 Jun 2011 14:12:22 +0000 http://solidaritymagazine.org/?p=1623 Continue reading ]]>

by Eli Osheroff

The article was first published in Zman Yerushalayim, taken from Maariv’s NRG website, June 26, 2011

Israeli employers, Palestinian workers and an Arab-Jewish union: Workers at Salit Quarries demand basic, fair employment terms, but the quarry management says their claims are childish. The first organized labor dispute in the West Bank is coming to a head – is this ideological adventurism or a revolutionary precedent?

The drivers bringing their heavily loaded trucks into Salit Quarries near Maale Adumim were greeted enthusiastically this week. As each truck passed, a group of workers gathered round and called in Arabic, “Stop! Support us! There’s a strike here, we’ve been working here for 20 years without fair terms!”

Most of the drivers stopped. One driver said with feeling, “We understand!” “But if we strike the owners will take on someone else instead,” another said. “Hezi [the factory manager] promised me 3,000 shekels,” said a third.

The trucks coming from outside are part of the quarry’s “emergency plan.” Usually, the factory quarries its raw material from the nearby hills, but because of the strike which began last Thursday, it is receiving stone from outside. The huge boulders on the trucks are destined to be ground to gravel, which will be sent to the cement factory at Givat Shaul, and from there to building sites around the country.

Most of the workers sit under a makeshift awning. The manager, Hezi, has succeeded in persuading some to break the strike, and he operates the factory machines at low output. The workers aren’t worried about this. They believe that within a few days the usual faults and mishaps will begin and their expertise will be needed once more.

Nihaz Qaddha (Abu Mahmoud), father of four, engineer and member of the workers’ committee, is among those under the awning. “We don’t want to harm the quarry, we don’t want to strike,” he says. “The management made us declare a strike by its behavior and attitude. We want what we are legally entitled to: wages paid on time, pension contributions, wage slips and social benefits.”

What’s the management’s aim?” Musabah al-Bayeed asks rhetorically. “To stop the workers organizing, to ensure they don’t know their rights, to make each one look out only for himself. It’s time we entered the 21st century from the point of view of our employment terms.”

The workers who had been calling to the truckers return to the awning. The black tarpaulin is the only thing protecting them from the burning sun. Some 30 men sit under the awning, all of them around the age of 50, tanned manual laborers with faces lined from thirty years working in the desert. One of the workers’ children from the nearby shanty neighborhoods brings a bottle of water. A worker cuts open a watermelon and someone else passes round some home-baked pastries.

Despite their failure to prevent the entry of the trucks, there’s a good spirit under the awning. Perhaps it’s the sudden vacation from hard toil, perhaps the feeling of dignity in the struggle for rights, but there is also another reason: they understand that they’re making history. This is the first unionized workers’ struggle of Palestinians confronting their Israeli employers in the West Bank, in the framework of an Israeli workers’ organization.

Like any labor dispute in Israel, this dispute has the approval of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and is protected by the Israeli labor courts. The situation is complex, but it well reflects the experience of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN), the organization directing this strike.

Watching out for each other

This article should have begun differently. During the last few weeks, Zman Yerushalayim has followed the Salit Quarries workers’ committee as they prepared to sign the first collective agreement in a West Bank factory. It was to be a satisfactory end to a long journey.

After more than two years of negotiations, including power struggles, wages being withheld, and endless talks with attorneys on both sides, the final meeting was to have taken place last Thursday, June 16. However, on the previous Monday the committee received a call from the management: the meeting had been cancelled, they said, and declined to give a reason for this. The committee decided enough was enough, and work was brought to a halt.

The troubles in Salit Quarries have been going on for a long time. The quarry was founded by a Jerusalemite, Uzi Kalab, in the early 1980s. The Civil Administration granted the license to quarry. The quarry is surrounded by the shanty neighborhoods of the Jahalin Bedouins. The workers say that the Bedouins and the quarry came to an understanding: they would allow the quarry to be established and in return they would be offered jobs. The heavy dust caused by the quarry would not have been acceptable to most towns in Israel, but the quarry was considered part of the Jahalin industrial zone. The quarry was to have funded schools and infrastructure using revenues from taxation, but in reality the taxes were channeled back to Israel, just like most raw materials extracted in the West Bank. The Bedouins made do with earning an income.

Eleven quarries under Israeli ownership licensed by the Civil Administration currently operate in Area C [as defined by the Oslo Accords]. Salit is a private firm, so it is not obliged to disclose its financial information. A report requested by the Interior Ministry in 2008 from a private architectural firm illustrates the scope of Salit’s economic interests: Salit produces gravel used for strengthening concrete; it is the most highly demanded gravel in construction and constitutes some 70 percent of the mining and quarrying industry in Israel.

How crucial are the quarries of the West Bank to the construction industry in Israel? In the year 2007, the Israeli market used some 48 million tons of gravel. Some 9 million come from Area C, of the 12 million produced in this area each year.

The report asserts that Israel is dependent on gravel from the West Bank and has no intention of giving up this source. “These reserves, at the current rate of output, will supply gravel for another 30 years assuming no political changes are made to Area C,” the report notes. It is not clear what Salit’s financial situation is like, but it is probable that its profits have grown with the flourishing of the real estate market. The workers note a number of new Mercedes trucks bought by the quarry recently.

Since the quarry was established, the workforce has become more varied. Many of the workers still come from the shanty neighborhoods, while others come from Ramallah and the Hebron area. Abu Mahmoud, for example, worked on the Kuwaiti oil wells, and returned after the first Gulf War. His children study in the West Bank universities, and will not continue in their father’s footsteps at the quarry. When the situation in Kuwait had stabilized, he received an invitation to return, but that was in the optimistic days of the Oslo Accords when it seemed things might improve here. Despite the situation, he doesn’t regret coming back. “My home is here,” he says.

The quarry workers have various roles including vehicle mechanics, drivers and smiths. A huge automated grinding mill crushes the stone, but there are many breakdowns, and only the more experienced workers are able to fix them.

For many years the workers considered the quarry a hard but dignified place to work. They never received wage slips and never clocked in. The arrangement was based on the belief that “it’ll be ok.” The general attitude of the owner was fair and amicable. If someone fell sick, he would visit and ask how he was doing.

There was someone we could count on,” the workers say. At the end of the 1990s, Kalab died and the quarry was taken over by his sons who were less involved in daily management. Under a stern manager, the factory sank into anarchy. The workers suffered insults and abuse. (Our attempts to speak to the manager for his answer to these claims was met with the response, “Get lost!”)

When the humiliation increased, the low wages began to be felt. The workers sought legal solutions and turned to Jerusalem attorneys. Palestinian workers in such a situation are fearful of confronting management, but they understood they had a number of points in their favor. Firstly, the level of skill required at the quarry is relatively high, so they would not be hastily dismissed. In addition, as one worker said while pointing to the factory premises, “There is no [separation] fence.”

The metal installations, valued at millions of shekels, stand unmonitored. The agreement was, as the worker says, “We’d take care of him and he’d take care of us.” For many years including during the two intifadas, in a poor area which suffers from theft and includes many metal traders, the quarry continued to operate undisturbed. The Jewish managers continued to arrive and there wasn’t even a guard. “Just for a fence and guard, they would have to pay hundreds of thousands each year,” says Assaf Adiv, secretary-general of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN).

For a number of years the Israeli lawyers failed to solve the problem by legal means. The Histadrut was irrelevant. By word of mouth, the workers heard about the WAC office in Jerusalem and came for a meeting. Finally things began to move: signatures were collected, elections were held for a workers committee and negotiations were begun with the management. The most important achievement was the issuing of wage slips which began in 2008.

On the level of the Filipinos”

To explain how contact was made with WAC as opposed to the Histadrut, we must go back to the beginning of the strike, to WAC’s General Meeting in Tel Aviv. In the spirit of the uprisings in the Arab world, the atmosphere was one of elation. Some 100 representatives of various workers committees arrived – an eclectic mix of people who would not otherwise have a chance to meet: Arab women working in agriculture in the Galilee and the Wadi Ara region; teachers from the School of Visual Theatre and the Musrara School of Photography in Jerusalem; a waitress from an exclusive Tel Aviv restaurant; leaders of the social workers’ strike; and Palestinians from the Salit Quarries who had received a permit for a single entry to Israel.

Abu Mahmoud spoke for the workers and described WAC poetically as “the ship of the desert that would lead us to our destination.” A few months ago, the organization bought headphones for simultaneous translation. WAC management members – Ashkenazi and Mizrahi men and Arab women – switched so freely between Hebrew and Arabic that the translators got confused and they weren’t sure which language they were supposed to be translating.

WAC was founded in the mid-1990s by veteran leftwing activists. The first months saw a number of sporadic activities to assist various individual workers. “For many years we simply managed correspondence with government ministries, the National Insurance Institute and employers,” Adiv explains. With time, the achievements added up: NIS 7,000 compensation for a cleaner dismissed from a bank; the successful pursuit of a sewing workshop owner who closed up and disappeared; and in the first years of the new millennium the workers’ committees began to be established.

To begin with, WAC concentrated on organizing Arab female agricultural laborers, then they worked with laborers at the Israel Antiquities Authority employed via a manpower contractor, and organized truckers and others. WAC’s strategy is to go into all the places the Histadrut neglects. “The Histadrut is an important player in the market acting for the benefit of the workers,” Adiv says. “I do not deny its status. But it has retreated from the battle time after time. As a fighting force, it is simply powerless, especially for the weaker workers, the exploited, the Arabs, because it has been recruited for national objectives.”

The Histadrut, according to Adiv, has forsaken more than the Arab sector. “The Histadrut fails to protect all those with fewer skills, whether Ethiopian immigrants, or older workers,” Adiv says. “Twenty-five years ago, the Histadrut organized 85 percent of the workers in Israel, the highest rate in the western world. Today, only 26 percent of the workforce is organized. In other words, more than half of those in the workforce have been cast aside. In addition, there are some 30,000 Palestinian workers in the settlements that are not represented at all.”

Adiv describes the status of Palestinian workers in Israeli factories as “slightly less screwed than African workers, a little stronger than the Thais, a little below the Ethiopians, roughly on the level of the Filipinos. Arab citizens of Israel are a little higher. So we’ll go with the weaker workers and they can turn to us.”

The Histadrut need not fear for its status, but WAC can certainly provide its leaders with food for thought. During the last decade, a total of some 8,000 workers have passed through WAC. Today, it has about a thousand members who pay a monthly membership fee of about NIS 35 [$10] and are organized in nine workers’ committees. Some 14 people are employed by WAC. They all earn minimum wage, according to a deliberate policy. Most of the workers Adiv represents earn more than he does.

The Teachers Union and the Waitress

Little by little, WAC has entered premises where the concept “workers committee” was about as distant as Salit Quarries is distant from the School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem. WAC began being active in the field of the arts last year when it organized the workers committee at the Musrara Art College. Yossi Mar Haim, music teacher and member of the committee, explains that as a result of the steps at the school, 70 teachers are now employed with tenure for the first time.

This is the first time we’ve received a salary for 12 months, including pension and fringe benefits” he says. “Up till now, we worked just eight months each year on a self-employed basis.” The teachers at Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theatre heard about the efforts at Musrara and decided they too wanted to take this step. Their negotiations with the institution are now at a peak.

There is something in WAC’s activities that crosses all sectarian boundaries,” says Amit Drori, teacher and committee member. “By working with them, you realize there are many aspects and phenomena that are a matter of principle, regardless of what field you work in.”

Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, Dana (not her real name), a waitress at one of the city’s classiest restaurants, is setting up a workers committee whose members are preparing for negotiations with the management. “At the end of the day, the tips reach the bosses and they decide what to do with them,” she says, explaining her decision. “Or they take you to sommelier training and don’t pay you.”

It doesn’t make sense that wealthy bosses like ours try to pay restaurant expenses using coupons,” she continues. “As soon as we began getting organized, they said, ‘we’re a family, we’re a home, we’re friends, why do we need negotiations?’ Don’t they understand it’s nothing personal? I don’t want my bosses to be my family. I want them to be my employers and to give me what I should get.”

WAC, as can be understood, has a clear leftist agenda. Despite this, its messages are not comprised of ideological statements and visions for a distant future. Its day-to-day activities, its concern with pension percentages and sick pay, are almost dull.

The breakdown of achievements in the monthly bulletin is laconic: “Driver Y.T. was awarded NIS 7,500 in his case, driver H.Y. was awarded dismissal compensation of NIS 32,000.” There is no overblown glitz here.

Each day, a WAC delegation comes to the small awning near the Salit premises to support the workers. They stay there till 4 p.m. “The strike is also a kind of work,” Abu Mahmoud says, and displays a list he keeps of those present. WAC describes the strike as an “all-out strike.”

A year ago, the workers struck for four days. The strike ended with the start of negotiations for an inclusive deal. Their monetary demands, they emphasize, are minimal – no more than the law prescribes. “And no less important, we want them to treat us respectfully,” says Musabah al-Bayeed. The mechanism to create this respect is, according to the draft agreement, a joint committee of workers and management which will meet once a month to discuss various claims.

Till last week, nothing was heard from the management. However, Salit board member Rabbi Natan Natanson told Zman Yerushalayim that “they’re not kids, but they don’t have a clue about communication between workers and the company. All these rights and all these nice things, they’re all from WAC’s explanations which are ruining the little work ethic they’d had till now. Since WAC arrived we have suffered from things they have done less seriously and less willingly. We’re not sure if they’re doing the right thing, even for themselves.”

Their wages are low,” Adiv explains. “If I tell the Salit management I want to double their wages, I’ll be starting a world war. We are only asking for basic terms. We have to reach a reasonable and logical agreement.”

In the spirit of the uprisings

For both sides, time is the decisive factor. The quarry has to supply its clients with raw materials, while the workers’ savings are running low. Most earn about NIS 5,000 per month, or NIS 200 per day. A day without work is a day without a wage. WAC, a small organization, has no strike fund.

A few hundred Israeli factories employ a few thousand Palestinian workers in the [West Bank's] Maaleh Adumim area, especially in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. Strikes, especially in the quarries, occur once in a while. They are usually spontaneous. Each side flexes its muscles, then a wave of dismissals comes or the Israeli factory owners add a few hundred shekels to wages to buy industrial peace.

The organized strike at Salit, it seems, is the first of its kind in the West Bank. How is it that Palestinian workers are striking under the protection of Israeli law? “Israel did not annex the territories completely, but gradually applied Israeli law to the West Bank,” says Dr. Amir Paz-Fuchs from the law faculty at the Ono Academic College.

Some lawyers call this ‘legal annexation,’ such as the Knesset elections law or the firms law that were applied to the territories but only for the settlers,” he says. “Israel doesn’t want to annex the territories and expose itself to the world’s wrath, so the courts are solving this dilemma. When the state talks about Israelis, it claims Israeli law should be applicable to them. But it gets complicated when the owners are Israelis and the workers are Palestinians. This is where we have the High Court v. Kav Laoved.”

The High Court v. Kav Laoved from 2007 is what led to a revolution in the legal definition of Israeli factories in Area C. At the beginning of the millennium, a Palestinian worker at Givat Zeev municipality turned to the labor courts and demanded his employment terms (pension contributions, compensation, overtime) be made equal to those of Israeli workers.

The municipality refused, claiming that the worker was subject to Jordanian law. The worker won the case, but the municipality appealed to the National Labor Court and won. Judge Shmuel Tzur ruled that “There is no special reason to conclude that the employment of workers from this area [the territories] should be subject to Israeli law.”

Kav Laoved appealed to the High Court. High Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin overturned the National Labor Court ruling, saying, “The National Labor Court had in fact removed from Palestinian workers the cover of protection which Israeli legislators saw fit to grant Israeli workers. This removal constitutes… discrimination and creates an irrelevant and immoral distinction between the employment terms of Israeli workers and those of Palestinian workers.”

Natanson nonetheless insists that the strike is superfluous. “If they want to strike, let them strike,” he says. “The state permits strikes, and they can take advantage of this right. The agreement should not have been brought for signing on the 16th. These childish claims are unbecoming of adults.

We didn’t agree to changes. There were things we had to prepare. We wanted to update everything. In the meantime, they’re just hurting themselves and the workers. WAC is the one creating all this political uproar.”

However, on the ground it’s clear the strike has already attracted attention. On the busy road to Ramallah many Palestinian vehicles pass, honking their horns in support. “People hear about the strike and want to know what’s going on here,” says al-Bayeed.

Can strikes with an Israeli organization become widespread around the West Bank? Dr. Guy Davidov, labor law specialist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the chances of success for this strike are reasonable. “In order to succeed, you need bargaining power, but I don’t know if they have that,” he says.

Even if they have the protection of the law, they will fail if the quarry is able to hold out. If they fail, others will not hurry [to do the same] but if they succeed, perhaps others will succeed in similar cases. The question is how long the quarry can stand it. The workers, for example, have no strike fund, so they can’t last long. In a case like this, you can fail even if you strike. But perhaps the quarry will back down, because it may understand the importance of the workers being satisfied.”

Adiv was recently interviewed by Shalom Yerushalmi in Maariv as one of the only Israelis who foresaw the uprising in Egypt. Regarding Israel, he remains with both feet firmly on the ground.

We believe that any change no matter how small is good,” he says. “It increases confidence and grants a feeling of power, a feeling that things can be different. That’s why WAC struggles for another thousand shekels for the worker, another few percentage points for pension contributions.”

Abu Mahmoud, sitting with his workmates under the awning, notes the connection between their strike and the uprisings. “The revolt in Egypt was due to government corruption and injustice,” he says. “Our demands here are similar. We want justice and dignity.”

But his main interest is the daily grind: “We already have an agreement. The management simply refuses to sign it,” he says.

Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger

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The Palestinian workers in Salit Quarry need your support! http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/06/the-palestinian-workers-in-salit-quarry-need-your-support/ http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/06/the-palestinian-workers-in-salit-quarry-need-your-support/#comments Tue, 21 Jun 2011 16:25:13 +0000 http://solidaritymagazine.org/?p=1594 Continue reading ]]>

On June 16, 35 Palestinian workers at Salit Quarries in Mishor Adumim (a settlement area east of Jerusalem in the Occupied West Bank) began a general strike. The workers, organized with the independent Union WAC-Ma’an, are demanding an end to exploitation and humiliation, and insist on signing a first collective agreement. The strike began after the workers and the union approved a draft agreement, while the management tried to take advantage of the opposition of a small number of more privileged workers in order to break the union and avoid the agreement. WAC and the workers demand that the agreement be signed immediately. If the agreement is not signed, the strike will continue.For the story and pictures see

http://www.wac-maan.org.il/en/article__200

http://www.wac-maan.org.il/en/article__201

You can send an email to the quarry and block their mail with messages of support to the workers.

Send mails to the General Manager Mr. Hezi Soroka hezi.salit@gmail.com
Send mails also to Mr. Natan Natanzon chair of board of Salit natannat@gmail.com

please send us a copy to roni@hanitzoz.org.il

Donate to a strike fund:
WAC does not have a strike fund. We do not know how long the strike will last but
we would like to have some emergency funds to give the workers in case the strike
continues for over a week. If money will arrive after the strike ends it will be put in a
special strike fund for future struggles.

Our bank account

Name of bank: Bank Leumi
Branch: 801
Name of Account holder: Workers Advice Center – Ma’an
Account: 101-537704
Address: Jerusalem boulevard # 1, Jaffa
(Tel: 972-3-5120333)
Swift Code: LUMIILITTLV
IBAN: IL030108010000001537704

Please note: for Salit strike

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Workers organized in WAC- Maan insist: "No work without an agreement" http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/06/workers-organized-in-wac-maan-insist-no-work-without-an-agreement-2/ http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/06/workers-organized-in-wac-maan-insist-no-work-without-an-agreement-2/#comments Sun, 19 Jun 2011 19:03:38 +0000 http://solidaritymagazine.org/?p=1589 Continue reading ]]>

On June 16, 35 Palestinian workers at Salit Quarries in Mishor Adumim (a settlement area east of Jerusalem) began a general strike. The workers, organized with the independent Union WAC-Ma’an, are demanding an end to exploitation and humiliation, and insist on signing a first collective agreement. The strike began after the workers and the union approved a draft agreement, while the management tried to take advantage of the opposition of a small number of more privileged workers in order to break the union and avoid the agreement. WAC and the workers demand that the agreement be signed immediately. If the agreement is not signed, the strike will continue.

 

 

On April 11, 2011, at a general meeting of the quarry workers, WAC’s National Coordinator presented the draft of a first collective agreement for the quarry. The agreement was reached after more than a year of negotiations with the quarry management. It was translated into Arabic and the workers weighed the important achievements against the demands that were not fully met. Finally, a vote was taken and a decisive majority approved the agreement. A small minority of workers on a higher wage scale claimed the agreement was inadequate and voted against.


When WAC reported to the management that the workers had approved the agreement, it was expected they would go forward with the signing. A date was set for the signing, May 2, but at the last moment the quarry management began working intensively to break up the workers and drive a wedge between them and WAC . Meetings were repeatedly postponed, and finally we declared a labor dispute and strike.


The management’s behavior during the last couple of months and its attempts to take advantage of the opposition of the minority of workers to act against the workers’ committee and the union left us with no choice but to declare a strike until the agreement is signed. Salit management betrayed the confidence of the union and the workers. Only an official collective agreement can rebuild this confidence.


WAC and Salit Quarry workers are determined not to work without an agreement. The organization calls on the management to come to its senses and sign the agreement immediately.

 

For a full presentation of the details of the situation at the quarry, the process through which the union was built in the Quarry and the issues at the heart of the negotiations see article.

 

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The Social Workers' Strike: A Setback with Important Lessons http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/04/the-social-workers-strike-a-setback-with-important-lessons-2/ http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/04/the-social-workers-strike-a-setback-with-important-lessons-2/#comments Sun, 24 Apr 2011 17:18:26 +0000 http://solidaritymagazine.org/?p=1491 Continue reading ]]> 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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Israel – Social workers’ strike, confronting a privatized state http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/03/israel-social-workers%e2%80%99-strike-confronting-a-privatized-state/ http://solidaritymagazine.org/2011/03/israel-social-workers%e2%80%99-strike-confronting-a-privatized-state/#comments Thu, 24 Mar 2011 16:36:36 +0000 http://solidaritymagazine.org/?p=1416 Continue reading ]]> By Assav Adiv

Sunday March 20 marked an important event in the history of trade unionism in Israel. The leadership assembly of the Social Workers’ Union (SWU), which organizes some 10,000 public sector social workers, rejected the Histadrut’s offer to sign a collective agreement. Instead, a majority of 14 to 11 decided to continue the strike which has been going on for 16 days already. The leadership assembly, which lasted nine hours, was called by the union’s Secretary-General Itzhak Perry and Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini after they had reached a draft agreement which would have improved wages to a certain extent. However, according to many social workers, including some in the union’s leadership, the agreement was full of holes and opposition to the agreement soon became militant. In the five days leading to the assembly, thousands of social workers demonstrated daily in front of the Histadrut building against the agreement.

At the time of writing, on March 21, 2011, the SWU is to meet and decide on how to continue the struggle.

Public sector social workers struggle for peanuts

The social workers’ strike was declared after negotiations between the Finance Ministry and the SWU reached an impasse. Two main issues are at the heart of the strike: the almost absurdly low wages of public sector social workers, and the fact that almost a third of social workers are employed in private NGOs and organizations, following the wave of privatization that has swept the public sector during the last couple of decades. Unorganized, these employees have no guarantees for a basic decent salary or fringe benefits.

In the strike that began on March 6, the SWU demanded an end to the privatization of social services, and a collective agreement that would cover social workers in private organizations (NGOs) too. Thus the SWU created a new social-political threshold and exposed the harsh results of neo-liberal capitalism which Israel has embraced for the last 25 years.

Some 16,000 social workers (10000 in the public sector and 6000 in private companies), many of them women, bear the burden of dealing with the poverty, unemployment and neglect which characterize Israeli society today. Stricken families, children in distress, people with special needs, pensioners with little to fall back on, youth at risk, victims of family or community violence, addicts – all these people eventually end up at the door of social workers.

But the problem is not just low salaries, which start at little more than minimum wage for a social worker with an academic degree. The social workers are striking to stop the government policy of the last decades, which threatens to put an end to public services completely.

Already some 40% of social workers are employed via private organizations that were set up as part of the privatization of public services. A survey conducted by Dr. Roni Kaufman at Ben Gurion University’s school for social work shows that 75% of new social workers, those who complete their studies, go on to employment in non-governmental bodies because there are no positions in public sector jobs. Thus, some 6,000 social workers employed in private organizations outside the collective agreement are not unionized at all.

Government destroying public services

In an article from March 10 Yediout Ahronot, journalist Gideon Eshet notes the significance of the social workers’ strike: “The SWU is the first trade union to understand this government privatization ruse and the significance it has on employment terms. Therefore the union is demanding that anything agreed for social workers in the public sector will be applicable to social workers in private organizations. If this is not done, the social workers’ leaders understand that in a few years there will no longer be social workers in public service. They will all be employees in private bodies under poor employment terms.”

The privatization of social services was rapid, and at first there was some confusion over what it would mean. A survey conducted by Prof. Yossi Katan in 2005 showed that many social workers viewed the privatization process positively. They may have believed their wages and employment terms would be better in the private sector. But senior officials in the Finance Ministry were not party to this confusion: the government and its economic sages saw the reduction of the public sector as a matter of principle. The process of privatizing the social services – implemented widely also in education and health services – was done with the purpose of reducing expenditures. The Government would continue to fund the service but as a lump sum to private agencies. In fact, no new posts have been created in public sector social services in recent years.

Today, when it is clear that employment terms for most social workers in private organizations are poor and their bargaining power is limited, the need to include them with an extension order is critical.

Dr. Kaufman warned of the dire consequences of giving up on such an extension order. In an article published on the Social Workers for Peace and Social Welfare website, Kaufman noted that this struggle was the last opportunity to achieve an extension order. If it is not won, he said, there will be no other opportunity to save this profession from the kind of collapse seen in England, where the vast majority of social workers have been “privatized” and are not unionized. Currently, he noted, some two-thirds of social workers are still in the public sector, but it is clear that very soon two-thirds will be in the private sector. Furthermore, this is exactly what the Finance Ministry wants, which is why it is willing to increase wages but adamantly refuses to consider an extension order.

Discrimination against the Arab sector

The failures in the privatization process became apparent in 2008. As a result, the Welfare Ministry appointed a committee headed by Yekutiel Tzeva to investigate possible reforms to the welfare system. The committee’s recommendations, submitted to the welfare minister in 2009, noted the need for a change of direction. The committee pointed out the lack of resources which meant some needs were not being met, and said the system was based on outdated legislation while many positions were unclear. The privatization of some departments had caused duplication of tasks, it said, and the system had become inefficient.

Another issue noted by the committee was the inequality in service provision, especially discrimination in service provision to the Arab sector. However, this report, like many other important reports, was not acted upon. Social services in the Arab sector are approaching a major crisis. As a result of increasing levels of poverty in this sector (some 50% compared with 20% national average), there has been a marked increase in the demand for welfare services in Arab towns in recent years.

According to a report by Dr. Amin Fares (Report by Mossawa Center) on the budgetary needs of Arab citizens in planning the 2008 national budget, the welfare budget in the Arab sector is NIS 328 per person compared with NIS 493 per person in the Jewish sector (approximately $92 and $139 respectively). The Forum of Welfare Bureau Heads in Arab towns conducted a survey in 2007 and concluded that some 170 additional social workers were needed. According to this survey, the number of appeals to Arab welfare bureaus had doubled during a period in which the number of appeals in the Jewish sector had risen just by 30%.

According to Ragheb Abbas, a senior social worker and head of the Kufr Qana Local Council bureau, an Arab social worker must take on an average of 300 cases, compared to 160 in the Jewish sector. Arab local councils have fewer resources and are sometimes unable to appoint social workers even if the positions exist, because they are legally obliged to fund 25% of each social worker’s salary.

SWU asleep at its post

The question is, where were the union and the Histadrut during the last 17 years since the signing of the last agreement. During this period, Israel saw class differences increase dramatically while the number of those under the poverty line rose above 1.5 million. The destruction of the social security system came together with the privatization of many services. Throughout this period, neither the SWU nor the Histadrut demanded that the 1994 agreement be updated. In fact, since that agreement was signed, the SWU has made no significant attempt to ensure its status or the status of social services in Israel.

This indifference reflects the positive attitude of Histadrut leaders to privatization, including the privatization of the Histadrut’s own assets. During this period, the Histadrut also turned its back on other critical issues such as unemployment. It avoided taking any position regarding the import of migrant laborers for construction, agriculture and care, and failed to address the growing network of laws and regulations that have transferred an increasing number of services to private firms. Ofer Eini is now negotiating an increase in the number of migrant laborers to be imported for construction and has already expressed his support for contractors’ demands for more foreign labor.

Union woken up by the street

As conditions worsened, a spontaneous movement formed among social workers, which shook up the SWU. Rank and file social workers began acting in 2007. In this year, two social workers started a petition which called for privatization to be stopped. At the same time, Dr. Kaufman carried out research which exposed the failures of the privatized system. As a result of these and other initiatives, the Center for the Rights of Workers Employed in Private Firms and Organizations was set up in cooperation with the union.

Also in 2007, the Atidenu (“our future”) movement was formed by social workers in order to advance the struggle for improved wages, to stop the damage caused by privatization, and to prevent the collapse of the welfare state. During the union elections of 2009, Atidenu put forward a list of candidates that run as an opposition to the old leadership and won 40% of the votes.


Following the elections, a majority led by Itzhak Perry and Atidenu agreed to cooperate and to unionize social workers in the private sector. For this purpose, the SWU set up an internal body called “Amuta” aiming to reach social workers in private companies. Inbal Schlossberg, who heads Amuta, recalled in phone conversation (March 11) the attempts to unionize private sector workers during the previous year. “We made great efforts to persuade social workers in private organizations to join us, but encountered many difficulties,” she said. “They expressed great fears regarding unionization.” She admits that they have not yet managed to significantly change the situation, but during the year they established links with 2,000 social workers in the private sector and set up a database. Some 500 did in fact join the SWU. Schlossberg claims that the strike has created a new dynamic, leading many more social workers to contact the SWU.

Students have no chance

Another important initiative which shook up the street was Osim Shinui (“social workers making change”) – a group of students from nine social work colleges in Israel which added much energy to the protest movement against conditions in the social services sector. Three out of four social work graduates are expected to be employed in private organizations with poor employment terms, so it is not surprising the students decided to act.

Karin Rivanovitch, Osim Shinui’s media coordinator, explained (phone interview 11.3) how the group was formed, and what it is doing now. “Osim Shinui is a nationwide organization with hundreds of social work students who decided to organize and act for the future of the social work profession and welfare services in Israel,” she said. “The purpose of the group is to present the students’ position on social work issues and the state of the profession in general. We work to effect change in the profession’s status and urge social workers to act for their own future and welfare. Since the organization was formed in 2009, action groups have been set up in colleges around the country. In the current struggle, group members are taking a significant part in leading the street to organize, and raising the profession’s public profile.”

Histadrut gave up on basic demands

The difference between the needs of social workers and the position taken by the Finance Ministry is hard to bridge. While the Ministry and the government aim to privatize public services and prevent the formation of new positions in the public sector, social workers – the vanguard of the struggle against poverty – demand what seems to them simple and logical: they ask for the resources they need for their work, and request a fair return.

In recent years, the SWU has adopted the demand to stop privatization of social services. It presents this issue in addition to wage demands to adjust the outdated salary scale, define internship wages and promotion, and improve wages for new social workers. These demands would amount to an average salary increase of 30-40%.

The Finance Ministry and Welfare Ministry, which were conducting the negotiations for the government, publicly expressed empathy for the social workers, but opposed the demands. Their opposition focused mainly on the demand for an extension order. Finance Ministry representatives are doing all they can to prevent such an extension order which would effectively neutralize the advantage (in state budgetary terms) of employing social workers through private organizations. The Ministry understands that yielding on this point would open the floodgates to similar demands in education, health and other privatized services. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been transferred in recent years from the public sector to private contractors to reduce state expenditure on welfare. The Finance Ministry does not intend to retreat from this policy, which is the direct result of the neo-liberal line taken by Israel during the last 25 years.

As a result of the Ministry’s insistence, Histadrut and SWU leaders took a “realistic” approach which gave up on the extension order demand. Instead, a high minimum wage was agreed on for workers in the private sector and a vague outline of government supervision to ensure that public funds transferred to private service providers for wages would be paid as agreed. Giving up on this question of principle left young social workers deeply disappointed, and led to extensive opposition to the draft agreement.

On the other hand, even the demands of veteran social workers in the public sector were not met in the agreement. As a result, the SWU and the Histadrut lost the support of the traditional base of every union, the stable, veteran employees, without gaining the support of younger social workers.

Points of contention

During a discussion at the SWU on March 20, a draft of the agreement between the Histadrut and union leaders and the Finance Ministry was presented. According to the union’s spokesperson David Golan (quoted in Ynet, March 16), the agreement significantly improves conditions for social workers by granting each a salary increase of 7.25% plus a NIS 1,100 ($310) index-linked supplement, to be paid retroactively from January 2011. In addition, all social workers will receive a one-off lump sum of NIS 2,000 ($564). In total, the spokesperson said, the supplements amount to some 25% on average, while for those at the lower end of the wage scale they will amount to some 45%. The union also fought for social workers employed by private bodies and won a historic and unprecedented achievement of a minimum wage for the entire industry of NIS 7,100 ($2,003).

However, after conversations with many social workers familiar with the agreement, it appears that the spokesperson’s claims have no basis in reality.

The 7.25% supplement is an increase that all public sector employees receive according to an agreement reached between the Histadrut and government a few months ago. This supplement will be spread out over 3.5 years and would have been paid regardless of the strike.
•The additional NIS 1,100 is to be paid in return for an extra 1.5 hours’ work per week or 6.5 hours per month. In fact, it amounts to some NIS 750 extra per worker, to be spread over 3-4 years.
•Those at the lower end of the wage scale will not be seeing supplements amounting to 45%. At the most, they will receive some 25%.
•The one-off sum of NIS 2,000 is to be paid to all public sector workers according to a general collective agreement, and is in fact compensation for delayed wage increases during the years 2009 and 2010. It is in fact just minimal compensation for the wages eroded over this period. Furthermore, as a one-off payment would not be included in the salary of the public workers and so reduce spending for the government .
•The promise to give social workers who are employed by private companies an industry-wide minimum wage of NIS 7,100 is a fiction. First it is a sum that should cover all costs and not what the worker will get eventually. Furthermore as the Histadrut gave up on the extension order, which was its only tool for ensuring private bodies pay this minimum it is not possible to guarantee the actual payment of the wage to the social workers.

To summarize, the Finance Ministry has succeeded in keeping public sector social workers on an outdated wage scale while improving conditions only minimally. Moreover, the minimum wage has no bearing on public sector employees – it is aimed at the private sector but the Finance Ministry decided not to intervene in this sector when it refused to countenance an extension order.

It must be noted that this struggle is not merely to compensate for issues that have arisen in the normal course of events during the last two or three years, which is the usual period of validity for collective agreements. The last agreement for social workers was signed in 1994 after a strike lasting 44 days, after which their wages were increased by 100% following years of neglect and wage erosion.

Towards a democratic workers’ movement

If, instead of negotiating in the social workers’ name, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini had supported the SWU by recruiting large workers committees to support the struggle, he would have avoided the shame of having the union’s leadership vote against him. The way the Histadrut chairman negotiates for workers in various sectors instead of their direct representatives is undemocratic. This was what happened in the case of Makhteshim Agan, the Dead Sea Industries strike, and the strike at the ports: Ofer Eini came in above the heads of committee leaders and reached an agreement without enabling committees to have their say.

However, this time the situation is different. The strength of the social workers’ movement was impressive, and created a new model for struggle. When workers show partnership and concern, organize themselves and prepare the struggle well, they are able to keep track of negotiations and hold their leaders accountable at the moment of truth.

The Histadrut has long been accustomed to obedience and agreement to its dictates. In the age of FaceBook it seems that old methods will no longer work. The social workers still face a serious test in achieving improved conditions, but regardless of the results of the negotiations, this struggle is a significant milestone in the creation of a new democratic workers’ movement with a clear progressive social agenda.

Assaf Adiv is the National Coordinator of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an)

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Israel – Pyromaniacs http://solidaritymagazine.org/2010/12/israel-pyromaniacs/ http://solidaritymagazine.org/2010/12/israel-pyromaniacs/#comments Tue, 14 Dec 2010 17:15:52 +0000 http://solidaritymagazine.org/?p=1115 Continue reading ]]> By Ido Mahel Challenge Magazine

The Carmel fires of December 2010 were not the result of just another failure or the hand of fate. They arose from the policies of the government of Israel, which pays close attention to the stock exchange while ignoring the consequences of its own neoliberalism: wars, “natural” disasters, poverty and unemployment.

The privatization of the security and life-saving services is not new. For many years the Finance Ministry has been putting its hopes in the privatization of the police and prison services. Meanwhile it neglects those services that have not been privatized, and the chaos in the firefighting services reflects this – units spread out across the country lacking any coordination between them. In Israel there is one firefighter for each 7000 citizens (compared to the international standard of one for each 1000 citizens), no firefighting aircraft and fire-engines over 20 years old.

As the flames spread over the Carmel range, it was clear that the period of grace for the government had come to an end. This same government behaves as if it is on another planet – it continues to apply the privatization policies, aims to reduce regulation of the banking sector, and shuts itself off from all criticism coming from the outside world as well as any arrangement with the Palestinians. US President Barack Obama “doesn’t understand.” The Europeans are “anti-Semitic.” The Palestinians “just take without giving.” And the workers? They pay the price. There is indeed a price to these neo-liberal policies: in the case of the Carmel fires, 42 dead, 5000 hectares of charred woodland and 17,000 evacuees.

A year ago, the heads of the firefighting services asked the government to allocate NIS 540 million ($149 million) for the purpose of saving the services. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he was unable to decide without a public-opinion survey. Netanyahu asked that the survey investigate the public’s attitude to the firefighting services in general, and in particular its opinion about withdrawing the firefighters’ freedom to unionize and right to strike.

In the face of suggested reforms, which would turn the services into a nationwide coordinated system with a higher budget, Netanyahu demanded that they be seen as part of the security sector and be prevented from setting up workers’ committees. This demand is part of Netanyahu’s attack on organized labor. Many firefighters’ unions can be found throughout the world, and firefighters are well aware of their right to strike when their livelihood is threatened. In Israel, the last strike addressed the problem of budget for updating the services; it was not a demand for higher wages for the firefighters themselves. Moreover, during the second Lebanon war, when the firefighters’ pay had been withheld for a number of months, they nonetheless called off their industrial action and went out to extinguish fires.

We can assume that the government will use philanthropic band-aids to cover the damages on Mount Carmel, including a special grant for residents who fled their homes, assistance in rebuilding, reliance on non-profit associations and perhaps even soup kitchens, as it is wont to do whenever its policies cause damage to weaker populations. But when the Israeli economic vision follows the American dream – a thin budget, small deficit, decreasing taxation of capital – the result is the robbery and exploitation of more and more people, with nobody to protect them against the flames. There is a budget for new tanks and planes, there is a budget for the most advanced military technologies, there is a budget for settlement and construction in the Occupied Territories – but there is precious little ability to fight fires.

Netanyahu needs to give a reckoning not just to Israeli citizens but to people around the world. On Thursday, immediately after the fires broke out, the prime minister asked many countries to throw him a lifeline. His pleas were heard, and planes arrived from Greece, Britain, Cyprus, France and even Turkey, while firefighters arrived from Bulgaria, fire-engines from the Palestinian Authority, and various other forms of assistance from other states. It is likely the fires would have destroyed even more if Israel had not received the assistance of the giant Russian Ilyushin aircraft and the “supertanker” hired from an American firm. Where was the European anti-Semitism that generally stars in Israel’s headlines? Where is Obama’s hostility, which we have learned to accept as axiomatic?

Where are the Turkish terrorists? Or Palestinian terrorists? The fire destroyed the chronic mantra that “The whole world is against us.” States around the globe, who are sick of the occupation and Israel’s obstinacy, nonetheless came to its rescue as the fires raged. And now – will the government of Israel do something in return? It seems not.

The US announced that negotiations for an extended moratorium on construction in the settlements had failed, showing that Netanyahu continues to trample on any hope of dialogue with the Palestinians. If he doesn’t seize the extra credit he has just been granted by the international community, if he doesn’t pick up the phone to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, send a reconciliatory message to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad, if he doesn’t show the world he is ready to get down from his tree for the sake of peace – the next fire will be too much to handle, no matter how many shiny new planes we get from America.

Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger

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