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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776

Workers of the World? I

November 16, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

It is now two months that it has been impossible to perform any basic bureaucratic operation like renewing a vehicle license or passport, due to the strike of government employees in many offices - but not all offices, and often it is not easy to know who is and who isn't striking; moreover, it changes from day to day: today housekeeping and administrative workers in some (but not all) government hospitals are striking; yesterday it was the technicians who maintain the baggage sorting computer at Ben Gurion Airport. And in any case, there are "leaks" in the workers' solidarity, so that if you know the password, and whom to ask for, and who to say sent you, you can get a passport even in the midst of the strike. A few weeks ago, the Histadrut (national labor federation) tried to escalate the struggle, and announced a general strike, intended to be the most devastating in the history of the state. The government sought a back-to-work order from the national labor court. People stocked up on food, gasoline, and cash for days before the planned strike date, moved up their flights abroad, and kids (and adults) made plans for their forced vacation days. I turned on the radio at 6:00 am to hear the results -- but the court was still sitting. Finally, at 6:30, it was announced that the strike was permitted, but limited to four hours. This obviously took the wind out of the unions' sails, and created a day of chaos (would the banks open or not? And if so, when? Would the trains run? etc.). So we went back to the annoying, ongoing public workers' strike.

As the strike shifts around among different subsectors, one can lose track of the issues, as there are a number of different and not always interconnected grievances: pension reform, streamlining and privatization, reduction in welfare payments, laws limiting the right of public workers to strike, etc. Moreover, while the past two months have been particularly annoying, it often seems as though this particular strike is just part of an ongoing permanent strike -- Israel has a rich history of public sector strikes, and without examining the record, it certainly feels as though we are just living with an ongoing condition, that started longer ago than one can remember: if it's not the teachers, it's the college professors, or the municipal workers, or the medical workers, or the motor vehicle department, etc. As I see the strike notifications all around Europe each morning in the Herald Tribune, I realize that Israel may be no different from many European democracies; however, that doesn't change the feeling that the strike -- especially the public sector strike as a protest expression (not only as a tool for bargaining for specific benefits and rights) -- is a part of Israeli culture - like driving recklessly, cutting in line, shouting into one's cell phone, and asking you how much you paid for your house/car/sweater.

The current strike is being labeled by some as a kind of "battle of the Titans" between Amir Peretz, head of the Histadrut, and Bibi Netanyahu, the avowedly Thatcherite finance minister. Peretz, it is said, with his attempted "mother of all strikes," is seeking to prove that the Histadrut is not obsolete and decadent, but rather, still a powerful force for social justice. Netanyahu, on the other hand, wants to break the unions and their power to disrupt the life of the nation over what is perceived by many to be pursuit of political agendas and maintenance of a parasitic bureaucracy. It is not clear who will win, though it is pretty clear that most of us will lose.

There is something a little sad and pathetic about this "titanic" struggle, when considered in the light of the history of Israel, a history intimately and uniquely tied up with the history of the labor movement?

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