Israeli workers committees shoot themselves in the foot

The heads of several workers committees organized in the Histadrut recently announced their support for Israel’s right-wing Likud party, arguing that they could form a counterforce within that party against privatization schemes. Rather than stepping up to head a social movement and lend the weight of organized labour to the struggle for peace and equality, and in favour of a new social agenda, as unions do in Britain and in several Western countries, these short-sighted leaders prefer to support Likud, thus giving a hand to a party that is right-wing, war-mongering and anti-labour.

alon hasan - pic amir meiri - globesThe workers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently halted operations at all Israeli embassies in Israel and abroad, causing, amongst other things, the cancellation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned visit to Latin America. The workers held a strike and displayed great civil courage in making it clear that their social needs come first, despite accusations of harming the national interest.

The Foreign Ministry workers’ struggle joins a long list of new struggles and unionization drives that the Histadrut (the National Federation of Labour) has been leading lately. The Ness Technologies workers and workers at the cellular phone and insurance companies are part of this wave of unionization. The effort of workers at Pelephone, a cell phone company, was a turning point, because the employer opposed the effort vehemently, threatening workers and trying to impair the leaders’ job conditions. The National Labour Court ruling in favour of the Pelephone workers, in January 2013, became a landmark for the right to organize, reaffirming the total ban on employers’ involvement in the process.

This is no doubt a healthy process, continuing the awakening of the 2011 social justice protests and expressing disgust at the takeover of Israel by tycoons. But when this new labour power is translated into the political arena, it turns out that some of the leaders continue to think in old terms. One of these is Pelephone Workers Committee Chairperson Barak Levi, who began last week to recruit the workers for Likud party membership. The putative logic is that if workers want to gain power, they should enter the ruling party, which is presently the Likud, vote in the primaries, and thus threaten those politicians who are anti-labour.

Levi claims to be building a power base within the Likud Central Committee in order to block policies that would foster competition in the cellular and telecom industry, for such policies might adversely affect their profits and hence the conditions of employment within them. Levi’s approach is also taken by Ashdod Port Workers Committee Chairman Alon Hassan. A person with dubious private monopolies in the port, Hassan fell out last year with then Labour Party leader Shelly Yachimovich; he influenced his mates in the port to shift their loyalty to Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog. Yachimovich did indeed lose her position. Now Hassan has announced that he is shifting his loyalty from Labour to Likud in order to unseat the Minister of Transportation, Likud’s Yisrael Katz. For Katz has been leading a ruthless attack on the workers committees at the Ashdod and Haifa Ports as part of his plan to build two privately owned ports, thus cutting the government’s monopoly over the ports.

It is wrong, corrupt, and destructive for union leaders to join the Likud in quest of political leverage in the trade-unionist struggle. They are copying the tactics of the extremist Moshe Feiglin group, which has entered the Likud in the past decade with great success. The comparison is absurd and hopeless. When a far-right group like Feiglin’s enters the Likud, it joins a party which is basically close to its views. On the other hand, when organized workers enter Likud they join a party that is hostile towards the very idea of organized labour, a party that is tied inextricably to capital. Their chance of gaining influence within the Likud is close to zero.

By seeking to join the Likud, these two important labour leaders are choosing a corrupt and unprincipled path. First, the new affiliation amounts to a declaration that issues like the occupation of Palestinian lands, the rights of the Palestinian people, and racism do not interest them. This is a clear negation of the principle of solidarity between workers, regardless of nation, religion, and race, which is the basis for the notion of a trade union. The two leaders share another motive as well: there is no risk that anyone in the Likud will criticize them for a number of questionable practices that they already follow: allowing contracted workers into their workplaces, rampant nepotism, benefits to family members, and personal use of their status as Workers Committee representatives.

The workers’ movement worldwide has been historically connected to the socialist and social democratic parties. It has opposed racism, religious or national discrimination, and military occupation. It has led the call for peace and disarmament. In many countries, when trade unions found that the traditional political parties were supporting the neoliberal capitalistic line, they launched the movement to create an independent leftist alternative. In 2005, for example, labour and socialist leaders in Germany, led by Oskar Lafontaine, broke with the German social democracy.

Another example is the pressure that British unions put on the Labour party to take a different path from the one adopted in the Blair years: they threatened to support more consistent leftist alternatives. In an article in the Independent of April 1, 2014, the leader of the biggest British union, Unite, warned Labour that he would start an alternative workers party. Despite the adoption of swinish neoliberal capitalism in Israel, we have not seen a similar movement within the Histadrut. Despite its unionization initiative (something new in the Histadrut, which used to work with employers only) this labour organization has remained conservative, intimately connected to the establishment. Ofer Eini, who has led the Histadrut in the past nine years, was responsible for forming Netanyahu’s ruling coalition in 2009 and has distanced the Histadrut from anything politically or socially progressive.

The Histadrut absented itself from the 2011 social protest movement, which challenged the government’s neoliberal agenda and demanded a change in priorities. Eini backed MK Shelly Yachimovich when she gained the Labour Party leadership. Rather than create a new leftist alternative, Yachimovich and the protest-movement leaders who joined her in the Knesset attempted to separate the struggle for social justice from the issue of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. This tactic disintegrated the protest movement and cost Yachimovich the party leadership. It also created an ideological vacuum, with the absurd result that we now see union members entering the Likud.

To assume that there is no alternative to the Likud in the political arena is to forfeit in advance the battle over the form of Israeli society.

There is indeed a new trend to unionization in Israel. This is refreshing, and I have no intention here of detracting from its value. At the same time, it is a mistake to see a workers committee or trade union as the be-all, end-all. When organized workers take a narrow view of caring for a small interest group, joining racist right-wing elements, they become what are known as “yellow unions” in workers’ movement jargon – enemies of social change.

It would be fitting instead for unions to form a new social, economic, and political agenda, a central pillar of which would be equality between Arab and Jewish workers, the fight against corruption, opposition to occupation and wars, and a clear preference for social welfare. The mistrust felt in Israeli society toward the corrupt political leadership, especially given the coalition parties’ support for an anti-worker and anti-social line, can be fertile ground for a new political direction, protecting the working class and giving it a positive horizon.Assaf Adiv in National Director of the Independent Trade Union Centre WAC MAAN

אודות Assaf Adiv