Organized Labor – That Is, Labor Organized against Itself
By Avi Bareli | 23/12/2010
Ever since the 1970s, Israel's Histadrut Labor Federation has increasingly identified itself with the socioeconomic approach of the large labor committees, while the Israel Labor Movement has increasingly identified itself with the middle class, whose members began to become photo: JPO
disgusted with the idea of organized labor although they did not understand that most of them needed its protection. This process was linked to a gradual but obvious abandonment of social-democratic ideology and thus to a loss of interest in the Histadrut
Over the past two decades a campaign is successfully being conducted in Israel to push organized labor to the sidelines and to promote “greater flexibility in the job market” so that employers will not be forced to face employees who have organized themselves into labor committees and who demand their rights. The directors of this campaign are politicians and officials who have a rightist orientation to social issues and neoliberal, monetarist economic views and whose ideology is shared by leading industrialists and major financiers who began to flourish in the years of privatization as well as by their public relations people.
One of the important results of privatization, especially the wholesale elimination of the job market at bargain-basement prices and the drastic reduction of the productive public sector, was the decrease in the number of protected production workers. In the wake of privatization, there are now very few production workers who are organized in labor committees that are linked to a trade union movement and which fight to protect their social and economic rights, such as the guaranteeing of decent working conditions and protection from abuse by bosses and from arbitrary firing practices.
Theoretically, at least, the ideal solution to this problem would be government regulation of the labor market. However, the ability to enforce important rights such as minimum wages, sick leave and vacation pay – rights that are apparently guaranteed by law – becomes highly problematic when the persons responsible for protecting these rights for workers are part of the weak-kneed, dormant enforcement mechanism of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor.
It is no mere coincidence that the Ministry of Labor, that highly influential ministry which in the past was responsible for the enforcement of Israel's labor laws, has been merged with the Ministry of Industry and Trade, which, of all the various government ministries, has the closest ties with the country's industrialists and merchants. Not even the recent ballooning of the government and its ministries was able to revive the Ministry of Labor, which was formerly assigned to politicians on their way to the apex of the political pyramid and which worked hand in glove with the Histadrut Labor Federation.
A Chain Reaction
In the absence of labor committees and in the absence of a government committed to workers' rights, the job market has become a jungle. There has been a steady increase in the scale of commerce in, and banishment of, foreign workers, for the purpose of bringing in new foreign workers – who, because they are novices, are very subservient – and ensuring an additional flow of money into the pockets of brokers who specialize in commerce in human resources. There are more and more cases of Israeli citizens who are subject to the unconstrained rule of their employers. We can sadly look forward to an upsurge in the number of instances of abusive employers, such as Haifa Chemicals South, which has earned itself a bad reputation; SuperPharm; and the Weizmann Institute of Science. The effect is a chain reaction: Once the large committees of organized workers at Koor Industries (which was owned by the Histadrut) and at ICL (Israel Chemicals Ltd., which was owned by the state) became a thing of the past, there was a drastic erosion in the clout of organized production workers in the private sector and especially in the clout of non-organized production or service workers and the clout of workers in the public sector. The position of their representatives, if they could really be called representatives, has weakened considerably. In new production or service workplaces, it is today almost impossible to organize workers. For instance, there is no labor committee representing Cellcom employees, while the government is delighted to use the services of human resources companies and its ministries are full of contract workers who have few rights. All this has happened because the ability of workers to choose between, on the one hand, organized – and thus protected – labor and, on the other, work under the employer's aegis and control has been sharply reduced. In general, the pendulum of power relations in the Israeli labor market is clearly swinging more and more in the direction of the employers.
The labor committees' bad name
The struggle between labor and capital has been a constant part of Israeli society. From the standpoint of labor's supporters (including the undersigned), it is clear who are the rivals on the other end of this tug of war. They are the employers and their supporters among the politicians and the bureaucrats. One of the most prominent of these supporters is Ori Yogev, who is today a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yogev helped draft the emergency economic program that Netanyahu implemented during his term of office as finance minister. Between 2002 and 2004, Yogev headed the Finance Ministry's budgets division and during that period he came out with the enthusiastic declaration, “We have defeated organized labor.” This was a very rare Jabotinskian proclamation in its candor concerning the manipulative public relations campaign that accompanied privatization.
However, these people were not the only ones who hurt organized labor in Israel. In order to understand the victory that Netanyahu and his assistants achieved in their struggle, the defeated side should be looked at very closely. The Finance Ministry encountered little opposition when it began to weaken the protective shield that workers had in the Israeli job market. There are two interrelated reasons for the lack of resistance: the Histadrut's weakness and the sharp opposition that the large labor committees aroused. After years of protracted degeneration under Yeruham Meshel and Israel Kessar, after Haim Ramon's brief but destructive term of office as leader of the Histadrut and after privatization's blows, which severed most of Israel's production workers from the Histadrut Labor Federation, the setting in which the Histadrut's next leader Amir Peretz was forced to operate in was already very problematic. The bad reputation assigned to the large labor committees, such as the committees representing the employees of Israel Railways, the Israel Electric Corporation and the seaports did not help the rearguard action that he mounted against Netanyahu in the early part of this century.
These two reasons are intertwined, and it is important to examine this connection, which is, on the one hand, political and power-oriented and, on the other, political and ideological. Ever since the 1970s, Israel's Histadrut Labor Federation has increasingly identified itself with the socioeconomic approach of the large labor committees. From the standpoint of the objective interests of most of its members, the general public should have supported organized labor and should have filled Peretz' sagging sails; instead, it had a knee-jerk hostile reaction at any mention of the term “labor committee.” This antagonistic attitude was generated by such negative phenomena as nepotism in Israel Railways and in the seaports, astronomical salaries that were inevitably at the consumers' expense, a corrupt symbiosis between management and the labor committees, and the impossibility of firing employees who had broken company rules or who simply were not doing any work. Netanyahu and Yogev did not have to work very hard to promote this knee-jerk reaction. They publicized slogans about a free market, the lowering of the prices of consumer products and the reduction of the fees for many services; however, their success was not in the fields of propaganda, public relations or lobbying. The trade unions played into their rivals' hands and were themselves responsible for turning public opinion against them.
Organized labor's opponents could argue – and with a certain degree of justification – that the present situation is simply a result of the necessary developments that are built into organized labor's logic.
In point of fact, labor committees do have a strong tendency to avoid the dismissal of workers, even if the continued employment of these workers hurts their colleagues' workplace. When the labor committee represents workers in vital services, such as the Israel Electric Corporation, there is a strong temptation to exploit this powerful position in order to obtain excessive material rights at the expense of the public and the consumers. Furthermore, the mutual relationship between labor and management has the potential of turning into a corrupting symbiosis, which is sometimes at the workers' expense (in such situations, we see labor committee members displaying excessive devotion to the employer's interests) and sometimes at the expense of the company or service (in such situations, the symbiosis can cause members of management to forget what their primary function is). In the world of industry in general, and in Israel's world of industry, there are even cases of labor committees that have been taken over by organized crime syndicates.
The Israel Labor Movement's Responsibility
All the above are typical phenomena of corruption in organized labor – just as there are typical phenomena of corruption in commerce, financial commerce and public administration. Generally speaking, social, economic or political structures have typical patterns of deterioration. However, the argument that, because of these phenomena, it would be better to live without organized labor is like an argument against the existence of commercial banks for the reason that banks can sometimes fall prey to the acts of embezzlement carried out by their own clerks or to exposure to unmonitored risks or to corrupt links with the regime.
Just as it is possible to see how organized labor can degenerate to the point of encouraging indolence and exploitation, similarly there are ways of protecting organized labor from such degeneration. According to the experience of industrialized nations and according to Israel's own experience, the most successful ways of protection are organizational, political and ideological. First, in order to avoid such phenomena, the specific labor committee or trade union should be part of a national trade union movement that has strong local branches. This kind of safety belt was absent, for example, in the United States but was present in Europe and in Israel. Its presence prevented almost totally any phenomena of the penetration of trade unions by crime syndicates, as has too frequently happened in the U.S. Today, in an era when Israel has crime bosses like Amir Mulner and crime families like the Abergils, the “New Histadrut” is more exposed to this danger than its “older” predecessor.
However, the dismal development of our “old” Histadrut Labor Federation, with its centralized national structure and its superb network of unions and local leaderships (that were once called moatzot hapoalim, workers' councils), teaches us that such an organizational safety belt is not enough. The Histadrut's entire organization has a built-in tendency to betrayal of its fundamental functions; this tendency is manifested primarily by the decision to take the easy way out and to depend on the large labor committees while turning a blind eye to such phenomena as over-protectiveness regarding workers who are not worthy of protection, the cultivation of nepotism, and infuriatingly high salaries. This was the face of the Histadrut during the “leadership” of Meshel and Kessar, which was not leadership but rather the activities of a group of lowbrow politicians who were unable to see the abyss into which they were dragging the important organization they were managing.
However, Meshel and Kessar are an overly simplistic answer to the question as to how a mighty social movement like the Histadrut toppled. The rise of such politicians who have climbed up the trade union ladder is a natural process in such organizations. In the European model on which the Israeli one is based, a social-democratic party and a social-democratic ideology guide the trade union movement and the party is responsible for preventing the unions from deteriorating and for preventing the phenomena that Meshel and Kessar represent in Israel, although they are not the substantive cause. In Israel, the Labor Zionist movement was particularly skilled in cultivating work as a leftist Zionist ideal and thus had the special obligation of fighting indolence and inefficiency sanctioned by the trade union.
For this reason, the senior leadership of the Labor Party during those years – Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, particularly the years of the dual leadership of Rabin and Peres – bear responsibility for what happened. Those years saw the completion of the process by which the Labor Party in Israel became a party of the middle class, whose members began to become disgusted with the idea of organized labor although they did not understand that most of them needed its protection. This process was linked to a gradual but obvious abandonment of social-democratic ideology and thus to a loss of interest in the Histadrut. This is how a party that sent its finest leaders to head that organization – David Ben-Gurion, David Remez, Joseph Sprinzak (and even Pinhas Lavon can be included here) – abandoned it by allowing the Histadrut to be run by mediocre politicians who lacked vision. The Histadrut was abandoned and placed in the hands of politicians who were the “default” choice. The results can plainly be seen by everyone.
Dealing with Destructive Forces
The analysis proposed here also contains the reasons for Peretz' failure at the Histadrut's helm and subsequently at the Labor Party's helm. He failed because he was unwilling to battle the destructive forces in both of these organizations: In the Histadrut he was unwilling to battle the large labor committees that were leaving their infuriating stamp on every struggle for the protection of organized labor, while, in the Labor Party he was unwilling to battle his colleagues, the neoliberal leaders who regarded his election as party leader as a “hostile takeover,” and he entered the government headed by Ehud Olmert as defense minister (and not, heaven forbid, as finance minister) because he feared that his colleagues would revolt. The Labor Party's neoliberalism and the egotistical social conduct of the large labor committees are two sides of the same coin – the fall of a great historical movement.
Thus, there is a need for a social-democratic party that could heal Israel's trade union movement and rescue it from its status as a satellite of the organizations of employers – this is the image that people have of the Histadrut today – under the leadership of Ofer Eini. His political ally, Labor Member of Knesset Shelly Yachimovitz, consistently protects the dubious achievements of the large labor committees, thus exposing the misguided course that Eini has adopted: a reliance on the large labor committees in the public sector and a willingness to make do with what can be obtained for all workers in Israel in an era dominated by the free market and by neoliberal ideology. This is not how organized labor should be protected. Organized labor must be protected by a social-democratic party that has strong ties with a trade union movement. This is a long, steep path but the first steps along that path must be taken now.
Avi Bareli is a lecturer and editor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel & Zionism
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro