Victory from the Bottom-Up
By Odelia Carmi | 28/10/2010
The cleaning women at Ben Gurion University of the Negev made history: after a years-long struggle they established the first union of cleaning women in Israel. Odelia Carmi, a social worker who was part of the process from the outset, talks about how to motivate a community of disempowered women from various sectors to photo: Amit Doitcher
fight for their rights – and to win
"Please don't forget to put the chairs up." Another school day is over. Rechshanda Sabri came to Israel from Takab, Iran, the land of Queen Esther, and like Esther, she is bright and beautiful, and also a rug-weaving artist. None of these abilities and talents was of use to her when she immigrated to Israel, and her oldest son was kidnapped from her in the transit camp, joining the statistics that never received recognition of an episode known as the "missing Yemenite children." After Rechshanda arrived at the moshav, built her house and reclaimed the Land, she took a job cleaning the nearby school. The chairs that never made it to the tabletops awaited her.
5 a.m. Ludmilla (names have been changed for publication) nods her head to the driver of the 5-bus. They have been meeting every morning at this time for five years. She is on her way to a workday that will finish after she has cleaned a floor of one of the buildings of Ben Gurion University, and today, three private houses as well. Ludmilla, a well-groomed and impressive 42-year-old woman, from Kishinev, left her oldest daughter clear instructions as to when she should collect the little-one from preschool, how long to warm up her spaghetti lunch, and good-luck wishes for today's test.
Ludmilla is one of two hundred cleaners at Ben Gurion University. Most of the cleaning staff is women; the majority is veteran immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in their 50s. Approximately 40% have academic degrees, and 85% have some post-secondary education. The cleaning women are employed by two cleaning contractors, and until two years ago, they were fired every nine months and then rehired. Most of the workers are employed in part-time positions in university cleaning jobs – four hours every day, from 6-10 a.m., after which they disperse to other jobs.
In March 2007, the Deichmann Building for Community Action was dedicated. The building houses the Community Action Unit, which fosters community projects in Beersheba such as the "open apartments" student-community integration project, and the "Barvaz" youth community theater.
Attending the dedication of the building was the German ambassador to Israel, former University President MK Avishai Braverman, and current university president Rivka Carmi. The ceremony was festive and joyous, but at the end of every building dedication stands a worker with a mop in her hand – in this case, Ludmilla and her friends, who were asked to clean the building after construction was completed. This is particularly difficult work, and according to the industry-wide agreement for cleaning workers, they were meant to receive a special bonus for it. In the case of the dedication of the Building for Community Action, the workload increased, but the salary remained the same.
The Social Justice Club (TZAH) was established at Ben Gurion University in 2005 by students from the Politics and Government Department, as well as others from the humanities and social sciences. The club works to promote social justice with an emphasis on workers' rights, and its activists are pioneers in advancing the rights of cleaning women at Ben Gurion University: approximately two years ago, members of TZAH began hanging flyers in the university bathrooms in Hebrew and in Russian, addressed to the cleaning workers. The posters informed the cleaning workers of their rights, and invited them to contact TZAH members.
Tal Barhav is a student of Politics and Government and a busy social activist: "At first, our activity was minor. We scouted out buildings in order to understand what we were up against, and we offered to help the workers with salary stub problems. But for four months, they refused to speak with us. They were suspicious. The dam burst when one worker began speaking, and referred us to other workers who shared the details of their exploitative terms of employment. In slow but sure steps, we began building trust. At the same time, we succeeded in obtaining the contracts of the university subcontractors, and saw that they were operating at a loss. We understood that the sum that the university was paying the contractor made it impossible to pay the cleaners under fair terms that included social benefits. If the contracting company were to do so, it would lose the tender. Following this, we set out to influence public opinion on campus."
In May 2008, the university sparkled. Welcome tents popped up on the grass. The cleaning staff worked frenetically as the important event approached. The board of directors of Ben Gurion University was convening for its annual meeting. Students wearing green shirts and with justice in their eyes took up their positions in silent protest at the entrance to the main conference area. Inside, at the conference itself, the President of the University, Prof. Carmi, admitted to the problematic employment of the cleaners, and declared that the university was committed to dedicating 5 million shekels in the coming year in order to set the matter straight. But already in June, just one month after the conference took place, the cleaners received letters of termination. "We thank you for your dedicated work," was the opening line. It turned out that at the beginning of August, the contract between the university and its contractor was scheduled to expire, obviating any further need for their services. The university announced that it would not renew the contract since the contractor was violating the social rights of the workers. The contractor, on his part, asked for an additional 35 agurot per hour per worker in order to provide a seniority salary addition.
The cleaning workers, some of whom had worked at the university since coming to Israel and who had accumulated twenty years seniority, were of course fearful for their futures. At 6 a.m., across from the chemistry building, an ad hoc meeting of a few workers and TZAH activists was held. The feeling in the air was that there was nothing to lose at this point. The workers who took part in the meeting returned to their friends and urged them to go on strike. At 7, the workers began exiting all of the buildings, and gathered in the square opposite the office of Prof. Carmi. It was a spontaneous and unprotected strike.
Rena – who holds an academic degree, hails from Soviet Georgia and is a grandmother of three, insisted after immigrating to Israel to become competent in Hebrew. Finally, after cleaning the classrooms on the medical school campus for eight years, the students gave her some yellow poster board and a marker to make a sign. At first she was confounded: "But what will I write? I never wrote a sign for a demonstration. I don't know how to write in Hebrew." Ultimately, however, she found the words. "Contractors Out," she wrote on the sign for her first demonstration.
The square filled up with signs in Hebrew, Russian and Spanish: "Let Us Work in Dignity," "Stop the Exploitation," "Bread and Work," "Rivka, Get Us Back to Work!" and also "Where's Your Shame?" White lab coats, as a symbol of protest, were hung up across from the President's Office.
At 10:00 a.m., university security personnel came to the spot between the president's office and the demonstrators. Many students and lecturers came to show solidarity with the demonstrating cleaning workers. There was a clear presence of media reporters in the square.
Sarah, who speaks seven languages, has worked at the university since arriving here from the Caucasus eleven years ago. She asked for the megaphone and turned towards the president's window. She spoke about the extra hours she works in cleaning at the university, without receiving any form of thanks or payment, about the practice of firing the workers every nine months, and about the lack of a pension. "What kind of work can a woman of my age do?" she asks. Afterwards, an engineering student who happened to be passing by asked for the megaphone. He told the workers that he, too, in his hi-tech job, is employed through an employment agency and receives no benefits. He concluded his comments by saying: "It's everyone's struggle." At the end of the day, Rena approached me and said that it was the first time ever that lecturers and students had greeted her.
Joining "Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers' Organization"
On the following day, a Thursday, the heads of the university are invited to a comptrollers' committee at the Knesset for a discussion of the flaws discovered a year earlier in the hiring of subcontracted workers at the university. MK Shelly Yachimovitztakes advantage of the opportunity to demand that the university's Attorney General find a solution for the one hundred and fifteen cleaning workers.
On Saturday night, a meeting of the temporary representative body of the workers is held together with the students and activists. The meeting is long and the atmosphere swings sharply between hope and despair. Up for discussion: the steps for next week and for the long-term. Representatives of the workers wonder if they should join the Histadrut Labor Union. Amit Deitscher, an activist in TZAH and a representative of Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers' Organization in the south, introduces the organization. At the end of the meeting, the decision is made to join Koach La Ovdim.
The following day, the workers convene in the Zunenfeld Auditorium at the university. This time, the refreshments in the foyer are intended for them. Representatives of the university demand that the students and the activists leave the auditorium. They believe that their presence will fan the flames of critique and agitation. But 150 workers leave the auditorium and threaten not to return until the students are permitted to enter. Representatives of the university and the subcontractor are in shock. Things heat up.
Ultimately, the workers obtain what they want, and the conference is held in the presence of the students. The subcontractor proudly announces that the contract has been renewed: they will resume their work already next month, and the university commits to appointing an ombudsman for them. The optimism and pride of having preserved their jobs permeates the stage. In the audience, feelings are mixed. There's a tremendous relief, together with anger and disappointment that the agreement between the university and the contractor was settled in the absence of the workers' representatives.
At the end of the struggle, representatives of the workers and the students organize a party. Ayelet Bar-On, a curly-haired and smiley student from the Forum for Social Justice, is in charge of raising donations for the party. As she goes about her task, she discovers that the residents of Beersheba have heard about the struggle and support the cleaning workers. Donations pour in.
Haim Cohen, a DJ from Red Music, is invited to provide the entertainment at the party: "I am proud to come to your party," he says in a telephone conversation with Ayelet. "We all suffer from this. They are our representatives. Hats off to them. Finally, I'm not afraid," and he promises to come again the minute we ask. When Ayelet arrives at "Kerem Felafel" in Neighborhood B, the young people who work there contribute a few bottles of soft drinks from their own pockets. "When it comes down to it, they deserve it. They're totally cool."
How We Worked
In order to recruit the workers to "Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers' Organization," we had to win their trust, to prove that we were capable of making a change, and to instill hope. To this end, we worked at different levels, including getting to know the workers personally, explaining about Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers' Organization, giving legal advice, holding social activities, and running groups in Russian and Amharic for workers who do not speak Hebrew.
Becky Cohen-Keshet, from the organization "Itah – Women Lawyers for Social Justice," gave the cleaning workers legal counseling on personal and work-related issues. The counseling was usually offered during work hours, between floor-washing and mop-wringing. The legal counseling is concrete assistance, building trust with the workers and showing that someone cares about their problems, and that a solution can be found.
Among the cleaning workers at the university are many immigrant women from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union who are not Hebrew speakers. In order to include them in the process, we established a group for Amharic speakers.
Sara Dankau also from “"Itah”: "In the Ethiopian community, the very encounter with a new person is an uncomfortable situation full of shyness. I am part of that community, and this made it easier for me to acquire trust, but I am not an Amharic speaker, and when I contacted them, they were wary of me and said: 'No, no, we're not interested.' The lack of trust was pervasive in all that related to their work, as well as an aversion to signing forms, because past experience taught that when you are requested to sign a form, they take advantage of you and take away your rights. The acquaintanceship period took a month, during which we came every morning and explained who we are and why we were coming. At the end of the month, we organized a living-room meeting. One third of the Amharic-speakers showed up. At first I was disappointed, but then I understood the greatness of our achievement. The goal of the meeting was to give them information about what had happened and what was going to happen. 'It's good that you explained it to us,' they told me, 'because all we know is there was a demonstration. We didn't know that so many things have been happening since then.' For the fourth meeting, everyone brought something to eat, and as we enjoyed an Ethiopian breakfast, the workers learned about their rights. At the end of the meeting, Gavianash said that the meeting was a 'mehaber.' 'Mehaber' is a well known and common concept among Israelis of Ethiopian origin, and it means 'a gathering' – to come together and help one another when there's a problem – to generate power."
Demand for Direct Employment
On Hanukkah of 2008, representatives of the workers and the students organize a party for the workers and their children. "Everyone is a small light, but together, we are a great light," in the words of a popular Hanukkah song. Colorful invitations in Russian and Hebrew are printed and distributed to the cleaning workers.
One of the participants in the party is Efrat. Her mother is one of the representatives. When she grows up, she says, she's going to be a journalist. "I'll cover workers' struggles. I'll help them to succeed." Meanwhile, she's her mother's secretary, teaching her how to use the Internet and helping her send emails.
Sharon also comes to the party. She's already in the army, but she's joining her mother during the short vacation she got. Sharon is a combat fighter in the border police, and her mother doesn't sleep nights because of the job she's chosen for herself. Sharon identifies with the struggle being waged by her mother and her mother's friends. With great confidence, excitement and determination, she says: "It's the university that has a responsibility to the workers, that employs them in practice – there needs to be direct employment."
A month passes. We're in January 2009. A new fiscal year begins, opening with a meeting of partners in the struggle. Representatives of the workers and representatives of the various organizations: "Shatil," TZAH, "Itah – Women Lawyers for Social Justice," "Koach La Ovdim – Democratic Workers' Organization," and the "Joint Forum for Social Justice." Representatives of the workers tell the participants that most of the workers are already unionized through "Koach La Ovdim." A decision is taken to organize elections for the committee and to begin a campaign to unionize workers employed by another contractor that works with the university.
March 8. International Women's Day is a holiday for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. It is a widely observed practice to give women a flower and a gift on this day. As part of creating a relationship and trust with the workers, we decide to mark this day, which holds a message of unity. "In honor of International Women's Day, we wanted to grant you a small gift that will remind you of the power, the beauty and the strength you possess as a woman and as a person." Representatives of the workers and the students give a flower and a card to each worker. The card describes the unionization of the textile and clothing workers in New York, thanks to whom this date was set as International Women's Day. Their struggle is an inspiration to us, from afar.
Three months later, elections for the workers' committee are held. Twelve workers, men and women, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Brazil, submitted their candidacy. It should be recalled that great courage is required to run for the committee. And it is apparent that the workers do not lack determination and faith. In the voting guide released before the elections, Daygo, one of the candidates, wrote: "Despite the fact that we are living in the 21st century, the workers are treated – particularly by the contractors and subcontractors – as slaves." "I am interested in fighting and upholding the rights of the workers," Ludmilla writes. And Sarah writes: "I have a desire to give workers the good feeling that they haven't yet gotten – that they deserve something!"
Members of the Yaari family give the workers a grant in memory of their mother, Yaffa London Yaari, a social worker who toiled for the advancement of women. The grant enables us to train the workers for the upcoming elections.
Tikvah Evron, a social worker and organizational consultant from Shatil, is assisting the workers in their process. They are learning what is expected of them as committee members, how to market themselves, and how to get elected. When asked why they submitted their candidacy for the committee, one of the workers said, "This time I'm doing something for myself. I need a little bit of time for myself, and not always for my home and family."
Since the elections, a committee meeting has been held every Thursday night. The meetings are open to all of the workers. The members attending the meetings speak different languages, and therefore, the meetings are translated simultaneously into Spanish and Russian. The workers committee promotes the rights of cleaning workers in the university, and to date, has considerable achievements to its name, such as the seniority addition, and other rights that can be seen on the pay stub. Every month, a workers' newsletter is also published in Russian and Hebrew. The vision is direct employment by the university.
One day last September, sixty cleaning workers employed at Ben Gurion University set out on a recreational outing for the workers. Members of the committee were the ones who determined the route, raised the funds, hunted for deals, and encouraged the workers to sign up for the trip. Again and again, they encountered surprise and wonderment. "For us? A trip for the workers?" During the day, we toured various sites, and the peak was the Wailing Wall. The women stopped, took out kerchiefs to cover their heads, and bought red strings signifying good luck for themselves and their families. Afterwards, they stood facing that great and ancient wall. Among other things, they prayed for "direct employment."
As 2009 approaches, Sarah is taking it upon herself to organize a modest holiday gift. Her daughter, Hagit, and her husband, Mordechai, are enthusiastically joining the initiative. The Yad Mordechai bee farm donates honey. When the members of the committee set about distributing the gift, Genia says to them, "If only this year could really be a sweet one, since it began that way – finally, we are being noticed."
I also volunteer to help distribute the honey. In the biology building, I get confused and give a honey jar to a lecturer. "This is from the workers' committee," I say to him. That lab coat, apparently, set me astray.
Rechshanda Sabri is my grandmother. I myself had the privilege of studying at the university and acquiring an education and a profession. Despite this, hiring by subcontractors and manpower agencies is a threat that looms over me as well.
As a social worker at the Hotline for Rights of Victims of the Privatization of Social Services, founded by the Social Workers Union and the Forum for Social Justice, I help those wronged by privatization and social workers employed in an exploitative manner. At the Hotline, we also work to support professional unions. We see points of similarity between the conditions of employment of cleaning workers and social workers. Despite the awareness and the activity in the realm of rights, social workers, too, suffer from a lack of knowledge, from their identification with the employer, and from the fear of losing their place of work. Moreover, social workers are very fearful of harm being wrought upon their clients as a result of their actions. Over the years, we have suffered from hidden oppression, from a belief that this is the situation and it can't be any other way. The process that needs to occur in order to understand that the power is in our hands, is long and sometimes difficult, but we have patience, and we take encouragement from the success of the cleaning worker.
Sabata, a new worker at the university, symbolizes the change in the perception and understanding that the power is in the hands of the workers. This month she told me that one day, the custodian signaled to her with his hands for her to approach him. Over the years, he used to address the cleaning women in that way: without words, only with a motion. "When I came up to him," Sabata said, he threw all kinds of assignments at me. "Please don't address me in that way," I told him. "It's impolite. My name is Sabata and I have a boss who gives me my assignments."