Unionizing for Social Change – this was the slogan of the Workers Advice Center’s annual general meeting, held June 11, 2011 at the Minshar School of Arts in Tel Aviv and attended by representatives of workers committees and WAC branches from around the country
Among those present were members of the workers committees at Salit Quarries, the Musrara Art School and the School of Visual Theatre, truck drivers and agricultural workers, restaurant employees, and construction and archeological dig laborers. Also present were guests from the Social Workers Union (SWU) who were among the leaders of the social workers’ strike. Today they continue to struggle against the flawed agreement signed, to the anguish of most of the workers, between the Histadrut’s leadership and the Finance Ministry.
The simultaneous translation and the easy switching between Arabic and Hebrew created a feeling of partnership and harmony between the members of the union. This Jewish-Arab unity characterizes WAC as an organization maintaining genuine partnership, in contrast to the atmosphere of animosity that has taken over the street in Israel in recent years. Notable were representatives of various attempts at unionization supported by WAC. The organization’s success in the past year in signing a collective agreement at Musrara and the start of negotiations in a number of other places reflects workers’ faith in WAC as a serious player in industrial relations in Israel.
The main report was submitted by WAC’s National Coordinator Assaf Adiv. Adiv noted that there is a link between the popular and workers’ struggles in Egypt and the Arab world and the situation in Israel where an increasing number of workers are looking to unionize and demand their rights. He said WAC has become an important address for an increasing number of workers without representation from the most exploited strata of society. Today WAC is active in organizing truck drivers, art teachers, waiters, construction and agricultural workers, quarry workers, and workers in other sectors.
After Adiv’s introduction, the spokespersons from the various workers’ committees were given the floor.
Amit Drori, chairperson of the workers’ committee at the School of Visual Theatre, spoke of the difficulties raised by the management as the teachers began organizing with WAC. At first, unionization with WAC was presented as undermining the special “family” atmosphere at the school. “We reject this claim and believe that unionizing for arranging employment relations will contribute to the school, and ensure that the teachers’ rights are respected and that they are treated fairly,” he said.
Niaz Qadadha, a member of the workers’ committee at Salit Quarries, emphasized the difficulties of working in a quarry in the middle of the desert where employment terms are poor and even basic rights are not respected. He described unionization with WAC as “joining the ship of the desert” for the Palestinian workers, who are certain the ship will lead them to safe shores. He also noted the collective agreement discussed by WAC and the workers’ committee vis-à-vis the management for over a year, expressing his hope that it will soon be signed (a few days later the management refused to sign and the workers began a strike; see articles on the Salit Quarries strike on the WAC website).
A waitress who initiated moves towards a workers’ committee at one of Tel Aviv’s prestigious restaurants spoke about the situation of waitresses and kitchen staff at restaurants which have a turnover of millions but refuse to pay decent wages. She also said that she and some of her colleagues joined WAC and are trying to persuade a sufficient number of others to join until at least one third have joined, which is the number required in order to set up a workers’ committee to negotiate for a collective work agreement with the management.
Of particular note were the words of social worker Tami Farber, who has been active in trying to change the face of the Histadrut-affiliated Social Workers Union. Tami spoke about the social workers’ struggle which was taken to the streets in militant demonstrations, and also about the disappointment and frustration they felt when the union signed a shameful agreement. At the AGM, she represented a group of social workers who had contacted WAC as an organization working along democratic lines independent of the Histadrut. She expressed her identification with WAC’s path as an organization able to give assistance and direction to new forces within the union in order to enrich the internal debate and strengthen the union. She also expressed her identification with the struggles of workers in various other sectors, and her support for the idea of making the Social Workers Union the backbone of a new social coalition.
In the second part of the meeting, three WAC coordinators presented central programs run by the organization with (1) Arab women in agriculture, (2) construction workers and safety at work, and (3) youth. WAC’s coordinator at the Baqa al-Gharabiyeh branch, Wafa Tayara described the progress made during the year in the placement of Arab women in agriculture despite the pressure from farmers to import more workers from Thailand. In addition to the efforts made in getting jobs for unemployed women under legal employment terms and according to local arrangements between WAC and the farmers, WAC also runs a women’s empowerment program with professional group leaders at the Baqa branch and at the Kufr Manda and Tamra branches. Thus the women who join the project not only benefit from improved employment terms but also from the strengthening of their standing in family and society.
Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, talked about the safety at work project, designed to raise the awareness about safety issues among Arab construction workers. The project, which began this year with assistance from the MANOF Fund of the National Insurance Institute, enables WAC to hold seminar days in Arab communities and establish closer ties with hundreds of construction workers and youth. These are held with the guidance of a certified safety officer specially employed for this purpose. Asma noted plans to hold a nationwide convention on the issue on July 23rd in Nazareth which will be the crowning event of our activities in this field, in an attempt to reduce the number of work accidents in construction.
The third report was presented by Dani Ben Simhon, on the issue of the Youth for Social Change project. The report included a description of the wide range of activities run by WAC in Arab schools and youth centers in the Nazareth area, which included meetings with Jewish students at the Kfar Hayarok School and in other frameworks. The project includes setting up regular youth groups in schools, emphasizing social issues relevant to all societies and issues relevant to young people in both Jewish and Arab societies. The project also includes a number of meetings between Jewish and Arab youth which concentrate on common ground for both groups as youth. This is an innovative and challenging project which offers an opportunity for the youth to get to know themselves better while encouraging critical thought and social change. This is in contrast to other Arab-Jewish partnership initiatives which have reached a dead-end in recent years.
At the end of the AGM, the audit committee report and the budgetary report were presented. All those present unanimously voted to approve the reports and ended the meeting ready for another year of intensive activities in a spirit of optimism and enthusiasm.