Sunday 12 February 2012

A Worthwhile Strike

Israel is back on strike after an announcement last week by the main workers' union, the Histadrut, that it has ordered its workers to stay home.  The Histadrut is an umbrella organisation for hundreds of thousands of workers across Israel, and a strike by its members has the ability to paralyse the Israeli economy.  It is estimated that this strike is costing the economy more than NIS 300 million a day, the equivalent of almost US$100m.

For the average Israeli who is not a member of the Histadrut and is trying to get on with his daily life, the strike is a gross inconvenience.  Banks, public transport, government ministries, municipal services and Ben Gurion airport are all suffering closures, disruptions and delays arising from this strike.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is on record calling upon the Histadrut to cancel the strike, and has said that he believes that it is possible to find a responsible and just solution to the problem.  I believe that he is right that a solution is within the hands of the relevant authorities.  But who has the responsibility to take the first steps in finding the solution?  Despite the fact that many people on the streets of Israel blame the strikers for inconveniencing their lives, are the strikers the ones at fault in this case?

The strike revolves around the terms and conditions upon which temporary workers in the public sector are employed.  There are an estimated 250,000 temporary workers whose working conditions are under the spotlight in this strike, many of whom fulfil roles as cleaners and security guards at their places of employment.  It is common practise for these types of workers to be "temporary workers" on a permanent basis.  The employees are usually provided by agencies, which are hired by the government and other companies to provide appropriate staff.  Even though there is often an attempt to rotate staff between different locations, it is quite common for individuals to serve in the same job at the same location for many years - essentially acting in the capacity as a permanent member of staff.  The only difference between these individuals and permanent members of staff, is the fact that the agency staff continue to earn their money on an hourly basis for indefinite periods of time.  Not only does this affect their rights to take sick leave or to go on holiday without having go be concerned about paying their rent, it also has a substantial impact on their social benefits during the time that they are working and when they finally leave their positions.  The main beneficiary of this combination deal is the government, which is by far the largest employer of these temporary workers.

This is not the first time that the Histadrut has raised this issue.  A short-lived strike was already held during the middle of last year.  This strike was called off on the promise that the issue would be resolved.  Needless to say, no substantial progress has been made towards rectifying the status and the rights attached to these workers.  Although I am not a great supporter of all actions taken by the Histadrut in the past, it is my view that the union would not be fulfilling its obligation towards its members if it did not take a strong stand on this issue.  If the Histadrut does not act strongly where this is concerned, what is its main role in our society?

Naturally and unsurprisingly, there are ulterior motives at play which serve to partially cloud the matter.  The temporary workers are not actually members of the union.  This is one of the rights that is denied them in their capacity as temporary workers.  If the Histadrut is able to succeed in convincing the government to change the status of these employees to give them a permanent contract, the Histadrut stands to gain a substantial number of new members.  Additionally members bring additional membership fees through the coffers of the union, and additional strength in the political arena.  Whereas the Histadrut is presenting its actions as entirely altruistic in the interests of the temporary workers, there is another side to their actions which needs to be considered.

Israel's "summer of discontent" saw strikes and protests against increasing economic hardship for the average Israeli.  The cost of living continues to soar, while earnings levels fail to keep pace with these increases.  Ironically, the main group of protestors who camped for months in public areas across Israel come from the middle class.  The main population of lower paid workers were not well represented at all in these protests.  The reasons are clear.  Many of them are new immigrants, coming from countries where this type of social protest is unheard of, and runs the risk of being rounded up by government authorities who will not tolerate public protest.  Most of all, they are unable to take even one day off work to protest, for fear of not being able to feed their children at the end of the month.  The message from the social protest movement to the government is that Israelis of all levels are finding the already tough economic conditions increasingly unmanageable.  When unscrambling the myriad of messages that the government received from the social protests, the key message relates to the weakest members of society, particularly those who could not even afford to be involved to express their hardship and suffering.  I see the latest strike as representing these people.

One of the messages of humility that I have learned since moving to Israel, has come from watching people strive to make ends meet.  Watching people who are accustomed to living in sprawling comfortable homes in their countries of origin choosing to adjust their lives to live in small apartments and work unbelievably long hours for little pay, shows an incredible level of commitment to this country.  Equally, seeing people who are highly educated unable to find jobs in their own professions and willing to take on menial low-paying tasks to feed children and assure their education, has been a life-lesson for me.  These people, many of whom don't even have a moment to raise their heads in order to protest for fear of foregoing an hour which can produce a little more family income, need every protection that our society can offer them.  This is why I do support the strike that is currently causing enormous economic damage to our country.

Prime Minister Netanyahu should make his haughty statements about causing economic damage into a nearby mirror, for he is the one who should be taking further action to bring the strike to an end.  In so doing, he should be taking active steps to help and protect our society's most vulnerable people.  We all understand and appreciate the fact that the government is under immense pressure to reduce its spending, and that cuts need to be made across the board.  These cuts should also be felt by those interest groups who Netanyahu is trying to court in anticipation of a general election later in the year.  The message from the country is clear.  The correct solution is not to spend more, but to spend more responsibly.  Take money that is being diverted to electioneering, and help those who really need it.

If the social protest movement really believes in the message that it has been sending to the government, most Israelis will support this strike.  Although there is always a political undercurrent to social actions, this strike could bring about substantial and sorely-needed changes to those who really need it.  It is for this reason that I am willing, albeit reluctantly, to suffer the consequences of the strike.  It is my hope that others will join in this view.

Postscript:  Not long after this blog was written, the strike was called off.  No details are yet available of the deal that was agreed upon.  Despite this fact, I feel that the statements made in the blog are still worthwhile publishing.

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