1 May 2007 WAC: Workers’ Rights First!

“Workers’ Rights First!” was the slogan on the placards carried at WAC’s May 1st march through the streets of Tel Aviv. Men and women, workers in construction and agriculture, from […]

“Workers’ Rights First!” was the slogan on the placards carried at WAC’s May 1st march through the streets of Tel Aviv. Men and women, workers in construction and agriculture, from Kfar Qara, Um el-Fahm, Baaqa el-Garbiyye, Nazareth, Kfar Manda and East Jerusalem, were joined by workers organizations, leftist activists, poets and artists, both Jewish and Arab, as well as the union delegation organized by WAC. This delegation, with representatives from unions in Thailand, the USA, Spain and Germany, came to Israel to study the issue of workers in agriculture in Israel. Together, the marchers called for the unity of workers in the struggle for work and workers’ rights.

This is not the first time that Arab women march through Tel Aviv. On International Women’s Day, many Arab women marched these streets demanding work in the agricultural sector. But this time, their strength was doubled – by their side marched many men. These men came down from the scaffolding upon which they had worked all day in central Tel Aviv, and were joined by other workers organized by WAC – workers from restaurants and hotels, and workers from quarries near Jerusalem who are struggling for their rights and for improved work conditions.

The marchers shouted slogans such as, “We want work with full workers’ rights,” and “Workers’ unity is our children’s future.” Of particular interest was the slogan, “Unemployment for women equals poverty in the villages,” shouted by men and youth, which reflects the distress of Arab society today in which 83% of women are unemployed – the result of government policies plus conservative attitudes.

More relevant than ever

The marchers arrived at the Cinemateque Plaza where an exhibition of class-conscious art and poetry was presented. The works are published in “Beit Ha’Am,” a YNet site updated each Friday. This project, the initiative of the political-cultural magazine Etgar and WAC, presents social-political works of art and poetry that responds to current reality in this region. Many local Tel Aviv residents wandered round the exhibition while on the stage, a series of speeches and performances was presented. The exhibition accompanied the launch of The Red Anthology, published by Etgar, Maayan and Hakivun Mizrah, in which some of the poetry from Beit Ha’Am was presented.

Asma Agbarieh

Asma Agbarieh, a WAC activist and leader of Da’im, the workers’ party, MC-ed the event and emphasized the importance of workers’ unity based on social solidarity instead of individualist culture: “They try to make us forget that we have a right to live in dignity. It started with the Palestinians, continued with the Arab citizens of Israel, infiltrated the periphery, and today affects even the center, the workers in television and the press.”

Agbarieh spoke of the importance of the May 1st holiday that was cancelled by the Histadrut in 1995 in the light of empty promises of peace and economic growth. She called for the building of an alternative, an Arab-Jewish union, and a new social-political public agenda: “The source of our strength is unity and solidarity with all workers in Israel and around the world. This is our answer to nationalist and religious isolationism among both Arabs and Jews, and the way to overcome national and class oppression.”

Assaf Adiv

WAC general secretary Asaf Adiv opened by criticizing the government: “While the political arena and the Israeli press is busy asking whether [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert’s government managed the last war competently, we are waging another kind of war entirely – a war so that workers in Israel and in the region can live. We are struggling for the right of workers, both Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs, to return home at the end of the working day with heads held high, knowing that their children are assured a future, security and freedom.” The government must halt closures, Adiv continued, and allow Palestinians to work in Israel.

Adiv called on Jewish and Arab workers to join those already organized with WAC’s assistance, including Educational TV employees, workers at the El Yam factories, and quarry, construction, agriculture, restaurant and hotel workers, in order to create a new trade union. Adiv also noted WAC’s contribution to the creation of a new workers’ party, Da’im, as the basis of building a new society.

Junya Lek Yimprasert

Particularly moving were the words of Junya Lek Yimprasert, from Thailand, visiting Israel as part of the union delegation: “Employers continually find new ways of exploiting us and dividing us. They plant fear in the hearts of workers, but I want to say to you that they also live in fear. How long can people with so much hate survive? … We, members of the delegation, have seen so many walls here – walls of concrete and walls of fear. We cannot bring joy if we continue to build walls. We shout together – No walls between workers!” The crowd was stirred and shouted, “Su su!” – “struggle” in Thai.

Message of solidarity

Solidarity was tangible – not just in words, but in the presence of PO typists who are currently waging a fierce struggle for their rights and received a wave of support from the crowd.

Dr. Roy Wagner

Dr. Roy Wagner, member of Kav LaOved’s managing committee, spoke of the plundering of the rights and dreams of Jewish, Arab and migrant workers alike. “Workers have been forced to give up almost all of what sets them apart – their dreams, their dignity, their life. But this giving up is also their common denominator, and round this our forces can be gathered … Workers who have been pushed into the corner can unite and pave a new path for themselves, a path away from exploitation. This path, this self-paved path of solidarity and participation, this is the path of workers’ rights first.”

Dr. Itzhak Saporta

Dr. Itzhak Saporta, lecturer on industrial relations and organizational behavior, activist in the Democratic Rainbow and director of the internet site Ha’Oketz, declared that he was more optimistic than ever due to the increasingly widespread phenomenon of workers organizing themselves. He praised WAC’s pioneering role in this and in bringing back May 1st celebrations. Saporta also emphasized that unionization was the key to workers winning back their rights.

Arnold Eligado

The Workers’ Hotline representative, Arnold Eligado, a Filipino worker and editor of the newspaper Manila Tel Aviv, also stirred the crowd: “A few years ago, the idea that I could stand here and talk to you was just a dream. I was stuck in my fears. I remember the moment that my wife told me that our daughter had received permission to remain in Israel. In some far-off corner of the world, another migrant worker is hoping for the same news. His heart cries out when he thinks of loved ones left behind in his homeland. Another pair of hands working under the heat of the machine, another mother caring for children not her own. This is the life of a foreign worker. May 1st is the day in which the world recognizes us and our values. Stand tall and be proud – you are the heroes of the modern world.”

Att. Itai Swirsky

Att. Itai Swirsky, from the legal aid and welfare clinic of Tel Aviv University, organizes workers in new sectors, particularly manpower agency workers and security guards. Swirsky emphasized the importance of organization during the period of work, and not afterwards. He claimed that today the tendency is clearer than ever – “the destruction of all organized labor in Israel, so that in just a few years most of us will be agency workers, powerless before our employers. Precisely because of this danger, this struggle is so important.” He called on the Histadrut to draw strength “from below, from the workers, and to operate more democratically than it does today.”

Red culture

During the event, copies of The Red Anthology sold like hot cakes. This poetry anthology was produced especially for May 1st by the political-cultural magazine Etgar, the poetry magazine Maayan and Hakivun Mizrah. The collection includes the work of over 90 poets, both Jewish and Arab. Alongside the struggle for work in dignity, the struggle to nurture a working class culture must not be forgotten – returning art to the people. This is the idea that lay behind the decision to sell the anthology at a price that everyone could afford – 20 shekels – the minimum wage for an hour’s work.

Yehoshua Simon

Yehoshua Simon, poet, editor of Maayan and one of the anthology’s editors, presented the collection and read a new translation (into Hebrew) of Pete Seeger’s “Talking Union.” In honor of May 1st, the classic union song was given a different twist:

In the sailors’ strikes, here’s what they found / and out at Haifa Chemicals, here’s what they found / and out at Ashdod Port, here’s what they found / and in Kfar Qara, here’s what they found / and in Cinemateque Plaza, here’s what they found / that if you don’t let red-baiting break you up / and if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up / and if you don’t let vigilantes break you up / and if you don’t let race hatred break you up / you’ll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it!

WAC youth waved the Center’s flags among the crowd while on stage Amir Lev sang, “A manpower agency slave waited for me at the entrance / fixed to the door, breathing by the hour / his cheap cigarettes looked at me from his pocket / Sir, he said, please help.” (From the poem “Please Sir,” by Amir Lev, which also appears in the anthology.) The crowd was even further moved by Yoel Ben Simhon and the Sultana ensemble, who used the slogan “Workers’ Rights First” in their song. In the past they have also done versions of Meir Goldberg’s poems, some of which also appear in the anthology. Natan Slor sang “Child and Monkey”: “The world economy is sunbathing naked / there are so many poor that you can’t see the beach / In Brasilia the capital market drips / in San Paolo a child appears with a monkey / in the street, in the middle of the street / a child with a monkey.” Yasmin Even joined Dan Toren and together they sang “Empires Crumble Slowly,” another of Goldberg’s poems.

The highlight of the event was the granting of certificates of recognition for outstanding workers, presented by Wafa Tiara from Kfar Qara, a union activist with WAC which she reached through her work in agriculture. “We decided to honor workers who have nurtured solidarity in their groups and loyalty to WAC and its struggle to protect workers, workers who have created an atmosphere that leads away from an individualist consciousness and towards a class consciousness, which is the only way to change the reality in which we live.”

Workers and groups stepped up onto the stage one by one and received the certificates of recognition – a simple framed certificate that created enormous excitement. No one had any doubt that these are truly the heroes of a new trade union.

אודות Wac-Maan