The Histadrut’s new unionization drive in the service of Netanyahu

Dani Vazana, Unionized: The Renewal of Organized Labor in Israel, Sh’hakim Publishing, 2017, 488 pp. Dani Vazana’s “Unionized” deals with thousands of workers who have recently started to unionize in the...

Dani Vazana, Unionized: The Renewal of Organized Labor in Israel, Sh’hakim Publishing, 2017, 488 pp.

Dani Vazana’s “Unionized” deals with thousands of workers who have recently started to unionize in the Histadrut. It constitutes an important and authentic testimony concerning this new phenomenon. The description of the human dramas that accompanied the new unionization attempts, the successes and failures, is fascinating and sometimes even thrilling.

Unfortunately, with regard to the broad political meaning of unionizing workers in the Histadrut, the book lacks any perspective. It is obvious that the author is a zealous supporter of the Histadrut leadership, which serves as a fig leaf to Netanyahu, contributing to Israeli society’s slide toward the abyss of nationalism and racism.

Assaf Adiv

Dani Vazana’s book Unionized was published at the end of 2017. It brings the story of the new unionizing trend in Israel, which during the last decade has been changing the social landscape. In particular, it has changed the actions of the Histadrut and brought about the rise of new workers’ organizations.

Vazana is one of those who initiated the unionization of the employees at Pelephone Cellular Company, where employees started organizing within the Histadrut in 2012. He is not closely acquainted with the new unionization attempts of other organizations – Koah LaOvdim and WAC-MAAN – but his book provides first-hand testimony on the process of unionization in Israel. Therefore, it constitutes an important contribution to the understanding of this phenomenon. The description of the human dramas that accompanied the new unionization attempts, the successes and the failures, is fascinating and sometimes even thrilling. Unfortunately, with regard to the broad political meaning of unionizing workers in the Histadrut, the book lacks a genuine perspective, as if the author’s world does not go beyond Tel Aviv. The Occupied Territories and the Palestinian problem are not treated at all. The same holds for the Syrian Civil War and Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. As far as the author is concerned, the dramatic political and economic changes that the world is undergoing are nonexistent or irrelevant.

Thus this book, which deals with the Israeli labor market under Netanyahu’s three governments from 2009 until today, completely ignores the rise of the racist right wing in Israel. The author describes a wonderful reality: During the last decade, he claims, we have been witnessing promising social changes; the Histadrut, led by Ofer Eini and then Avi Nissenkorn, continues to serve the revolutionary promise of the social protest movement. It is true that the new unionists’ movement, for which Vazana rightly considers himself a representative, includes a militant element struggling for workers’ rights, but in its soul it is tucked into the pocket of the political Right, where it serves beneath the baton of Netanyahu.

Unionizing as a lever to strengthen the Histadrut’s status

Most of Vazana’s book is dedicated to attempts made by employees in various firms to struggle for their rights within the framework of the Histadrut. The author correctly describes the crisis that the Histadrut underwent during the 1980s and the 1990s due to the neoliberal agenda of Israel’s political and economic establishment. The author correctly points out that the Histadrut’s DNA does not include an element of active search for new groups of workers. He points out that the Histadrut, which has always been sucking at the establishment’s udders, was never prepared for a situation where the government and the capitalists would act together to privatize and break the public sector, thereby pushing the organization into a corner.

For instance, Amir Peretz, who chaired the Histadrut during the years 1995-2005, attempted in 2003 to help the strikers at Dimona’s “Haifa Chemicals”. This strike exposed his weakness, for it was evident that the employers paid him no attention. This situation is described in Assaf Sudri’s film, Strike, where Peretz’s militancy is revealed as nothing but weak posturing. The Histadrut’s impotence has pushed it from failure to failure while its economic bankruptcy deepens.

Ofer Eini replaced Peretz as Histadrut chairperson in 2005. Eini is described by Vazana as a visionary leader, capable of carrying out an internal, radical change in the organization, restoring it as a lead actor in Israel’s economy. Eini is described as embodying a new direction for the Histadrut, an internal and radical change, while any direct confrontation with the government is avoided (p. 113). This approach has enabled Eini to achieve many organizational and economic gains for workers instead of fighting against the government. Vazana lauds Eini’s unique leadership capacities, e.g. the fact that he managed to carry forward far-reaching legislation for the benefit of new unionizations, and his initiative to create a department for the promotion of unionization, and the fact that he allocated resources to this field which did not exist previously in the Histadrut.

According to Vazana, when a group of committed activists at Tel Aviv University’s Law Clinic established Koah LaOvdim in 2007 as a framework for a new union federation, the initiative motivated Eini to carry out changes in the Histadrut, investing resources and interest in organizing. This new direction was codified in the important legislative amendments that Eini achieved in 2009 (we shall return to the price he paid for them). A new department was launched in the Histadrut, aiming to encourage and accompany new unionizations. In this department we see the central role of the members of Dror Israel, the alumni organization of the working youth movement (HaNoar HaOved), which is motivated by social ideology.

Vazana conducted scores of interviews with people who initiated the new unionizing drives and with the leaders of the new Organizing Department. These Histadrut activists talk about their difficulties and uncertainties. The descriptions are fascinating, but the overall picture is one of privileged people lacking in revolutionary spirit and social activism. Socioeconomically, most of them are middle-class Israeli Jews with key positions in their firms. Their political stands oscillate between Right and Center, and they are careful not to identify themselves with the Left. In their lexicon we do not see words like Palestinians, occupation, African refugees, war, environment, renewable energy, human rights or freedom of expression. In their eyes, the trade union is simply an instrument to increase wages and improve job conditions. We may guess that at least one group within this new generation of activists had a different position that was critical towards the Histadrut leadership and that identified with a leftist agenda, but this voice, if it exists, is not mentioned.

Eini paved the way for the rise of the Right

Vazana describes in detail the 2009 negotiations toward forming Netanyahu’s government, where the Histadrut chairperson played a leading role. It is a fascinating description that shows the power and the limits of Ofer Eini. As head of the Histadrut, he led the negotiating team of the Labor Party, becoming the architect of the coalition between Netanyahu and Labor’s Ehud Barak (p. 101).

Vazana emphasizes the important gains Eini managed to plant within the agreement, which helped to advance the unionization process. Alas, Netanyahu’s rightist, adventurist government did more than just agree to legislation benefiting the workers. The record of his government (2009-2013) consists of megalomaniacal plans to attack Iran (which were thwarted by the leaders of Israel’s defense system), a massive drive to build more settlements, the foiling of Obama’s attempts to promote peace with the Palestinians, and the intensification of racist tendencies within Israeli society.

Why does Vazana ignore these processes? How is it possible to separate Eini’s gains from the fact that he provided legitimacy to Netanyahu’s policies? Is he claiming that the reforms gained by Eini are so important that it was right to pay the price of the destruction wrought by a decade of Netanyahu’s rule? The author does not cope with these questions. He seems unaware of the fact that the rule of the extreme right wing in Israel undermines progressive projects, political or social.

The trade union at the crossroads

In the epilogue, Vazana presents his own ideas. In his view, there is no contradiction between a neoliberal economy and a strong labor movement. Thus, the needed change is not to be found in the political sphere, and the development of organized labor can be achieved independently of the ruling party’s ideology. He argues that “today’s affinity between the newly unionized people and the political parties is totally loose. Finished is the age where workers’ organizations are recruited to serve political goals” (p. 483).

The definition of the Histadrut as “unpolitical,” espoused by Ofer Eini and Avi Nissenkorn, is untrue. As mentioned above, it was Eini who promoted Labor’s entry into the government of Netanyahu. And the same Nissenkorn, who joined the Labor Party just recently, attempted in 2017 to bring it into the government.

Throughout the world, trade unions have always been pivotal in political life. We love to remember the unions that played, and still play, a revolutionary role in bringing about political change, loyal to values of universal solidarity in the spirit of the immortal maxim, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” However, there have been many other cases where unions acted from narrow interests, so that their members could benefit in return for their silence about injustices committed against the “others”—colonized peoples, minorities, and immigrants.

In the 21st century, the dilemma that trade unions face is even more acute than in the past, inter alia because of the technological changes created by the Third Industrial Revolution. These changes marginalize large segments of the industrial working class. In the West, the elimination of traditional industries, like coal mines and car factories, has brought sections of the blue-collar working class to abandon their traditional left-wing affiliations, moving them to embrace the racist Right. In the US, it was the underemployed white working class that ushered Donald Trump into the White House. Only recently we’ve seen the German fascist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), announces its intent to create a new trade-union current for the workers who support it.

Vazana doesn’t deal with these new and complicated dilemmas. It is clear that he fervently endorses the current leadership of the Histadrut, which serves as a fig leaf to Netanyahu and contributes to the deterioration of Israeli society. Without a progressive, universal worldview, without a stubborn struggle against the nationalist Right, without striving to create solidarity between Arabs and Jews, no true union movement will arise in Israel.

  • Translated from the Hebrew by David Merhav
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