A general strike took place in Israel on Monday 7 November, with workers in the civil service, public transport, universities, airports, sea ports and local authorities among those striking. The strike was called by the Histadrut trade union federation, to demand a reduction in the number of public sector workers that are employed by agencies rather than directly by the state and an increase in their wages and benefits.
About 20% of public sector workers are ‘employed’ in this way, on worse pay, terms and conditions than permanent employees. Many don’t qualify for social benefits and have no job security. The Histadrut has called for tens of thousands of agency workers to be transferred to direct employment.
An increased number of workers on short-term contracts with few rights is common across the globe as part of governmental austerity drives. With 300,000 contract workers, Israel is said to have the highest percentage of the workforce employed in this way among the OECD countries, with up to 10% across the entire workforce, compared with the OECD average of about 1.5%. It is becoming endemic in all sectors, not just in the food, security and cleaning industries but in education, health and other areas too.
Some concessions were made by the government following trade union pressure, including a little improvement in wages and rights of agency workers, but they were not offering enough for the strike to be called off.
This strike shows a high degree of solidarity between permanent and temporary workers in Israel and an understanding that the bosses will use the differences to undermine the wages, conditions and rights of all workers. However, disgracefully, the Israeli Labour Court limited the strike to just four hours, 6am to 10am, a turn of events that was probably no surprise to Histadrut leader Ofer Eini who had said: “The strike will be unlimited and only a court injunction could prevent it”.
The Histadrut leaders have a long history of failing to support workers’ struggles. There has been speculation in the Israeli press that they have only presented a radical face in this battle in order to regain some standing in the workers’ movement following the spontaneous, unprecedented ‘tent city’ movement of recent months.
Also, reports of the negotiations with the government over recent years suggest that an eventual deal over agency workers could include the Histadrut agreeing to more ‘management flexibility’ with the ‘newer’ workers to be employed in the public sector, making it easier to relocate or fire them.
Despite the role played by the Histradut leaders, there have been many strikes and struggles in Israel this year, including by social workers, rail workers, civilian police workers and a six-month strike at Haifa Chemicals.
In many cases there has been anger towards the union leaders and in the Haifa Chemicals dispute – which eventually won important concessions – the strike leaders switched their allegiance early on to the relatively new union organisation ‘Power to the Workers’ that has been willing to put up a fight in workers’ interests.