A tempest in a coffee cup

A 20-year-old member of the Communist Party sparks a revolution in the Israeli workplace.

By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
May 22, 2008 09:37
A tempest in a coffee cup

bakery 224. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

History books don't offer any clues as to whether Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ever shared a latte or cappuccino. But it stands to reason that the authors of The Communist Manifesto would've been tremendously proud of Alon-Lee Green, a shift manager at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café on Tel Aviv's Rehov Ibn Gvirol, whose battle for social justice has planted the seeds of a revolution in the Israeli workplace. After all, it was Green, a 20-year-old member of the Israeli Communist Party, who decided enough was enough, and that his fellow café workers needed to unite in a struggle that has resulted in an incredible victory over an international conglomerate and a sea change in conditions for Green, his Coffee Bean chain colleagues, and potentially thousands across the country. Increasingly, they are taking Green's lead in fighting for better conditions at low-paying jobs, with the aid of the Histadrut, potentially changing the face of employee-worker relations. From airline stewardesses to security guards, they've been inspired by Green, who never doubted it could be done. Green's battle against the chain's alleged exploitation of himself and his fellow workers included clandestine meetings, threats of dismissal, sidewalk confrontations with management and dreary demonstrations in the rain. But when he joined the Communist Party youth group at 16, "they taught us to stick up for your rights, to know what your rights are," and he never wavered. Once almost everyone here belonged to a union, and May Day parades were an occasion for Histadrut leaders to flex their muscles. Those days ended a while ago, however. According to National Labor Court President Stephen Adler, "Union density in the Western world has on the whole been decreasing. In Israel, about 30 percent of the workforce is organized, compared to about 75% 40 years ago. This is part of a worldwide phenomenon but also was accelerated by the National Health Law, which allowed workers to obtain health services without being members of the Histadrut." Adler also explained that "since the mid-'80s, there has been a blossoming of new industries, especially hi-tech, most of which are not organized. In Israel today, most of the organized workers are in the public sector, and the union power concentrated in certain parts of the public sector, such as the ports and airports." In the private sector, organized labor is the exception rather than the norm. When the lanky, fast-talking Green, who definitely remembers "having a sense of social justice as a kid," left high school in August 2006 at 18 and went looking for a job, he headed into the lion's den of the non-unionized private sector: the highly-exploited, low-paying world of the café trade. The manager of the Ibn Gvirol branch of Coffee Bean offered NIS 20 an hour, a share of the tips, money back for transportation, etc. Green started as a barman. Within a month he was promoted to shift manager, but quickly noticed "there were a few things that weren't quite right." "The reason I'd been advanced so quickly was because there was a lack of shift managers," he recalled recently after work. Suddenly he was doing overtime and not getting paid for it, and he noticed staff members who lived in Ramat Aviv had to pay their own way home late at night, costing them a third of their nightly wages. What upset him even more was that he and his fellow workers were not getting their gratuities. "Metaphorically, that was money that I had already earned, because the customer had given it to me, but they [the owners[ were taking it for themselves... it was right in front of me on the table. It made me very angry." The real tipping point came on New Year's Eve, however. No one else wanted to work, but Green and four others volunteered to do so. "We had a huge amount of tips that night because it was crazy. We finished our shift and we talked about how we wouldn't see an agora of it. We could've doubled our income for the shift, but we weren't going to get it. I quickly said: 'This just isn't right,' and we decided that we needed to form a union." Not everyone was keen at first, but Green used his Communist Party connections to approach the Histadrut about organizing. They advised him he needed to sign up a third of the workers. "I told them there were 300-350 workers in the chain, how could I get them all to join?" Green recalled. "He said: You'll have to convince them." DESPITE HIS political zeal, even Green was momentarily stumped. "At first I was very wary of the whole thing - I had no idea how I could get a third of the signatures. I didn't even know if I could get all the people at my own branch to sign; I should get a third of the workers at 14 branches to sign? I had no idea what to do." He turned to former MK Tamar Gozansky for help, who advised using e-mail explaining to the workers how they were being ripped off. Meanwhile he told colleagues he could trust, like Zoe Rose, who would become one of his two most trusted lieutenants, what he was up to. "It seemed like the exactly right path to take to change things in this whole sector. Because thousands of waiters and waitresses in Israel are shockingly exploited," says Rose. "I didn't know if management would find out," says Green of those scary first days. The interested workers then held what added up to their own version of the Continental Congress, meeting at one woman's home to draw up a document to present to management. "Later it even became a legal document, which made us proud," he says. "We wrote: 'The undersigned declare our coming together as a union aimed at representing the workers before management.'" They outlined their requests, focusing on what they were entitled to by law, like the tips, overtime, taxis at night, chairs at the bar, etc. Meanwhile the more serious among them joined the Histadrut, which agreed to lend its assistance. "We made a strategic decision to make this a priority, and in the past year we have been making a major effort in this regard, particularly anyplace which contacts us and says they want to be organized, and Coffee Bean is a perfect example," says Shay Teken, head of the Professional Union Division's Legal Department, which came to Green's assistance. "Any struggle that leads to the creation of a union and which people see and hear about, and which ends successfully, leads to other workers considering such a move." The determined framers of "the Coffee Bean Declaration" gradually persuaded other workers at the branch to meet in March 2007 to discuss what to do next, gathering clandestinely at a nearby competitor or under the tree in Kikar Rabin. "It was quite near our cafe, and managers and workers from our place would pass by all the time, and we'd suddenly get quiet and wait for them to pass," recalls Rose with a laugh. The decision was made to expand to other branches in the chain "so that we could build a system where we could all look out for each other, and it didn't seem right that we improve our conditions, but the others continue to suffer," says Green. The Ibn Gvirol rebels divided up into pairs, each traveling to another Coffee Bean branch, choosing hours when they knew management would not be around. "Do you think it's fair that you aren't getting what you are entitled to? Do you know why?" they'd ask their colleagues. Their ranks swelled from the 18-20 at the Ibn Gvirol branch to more than 50. With numbers like that, however, fear grew someone might squeal. They decided to tell their manager about their plans; he threatened to fire Green. "We won't fire you because of the union, we'll fire you because your nametag is a little crooked," his manager warned, according to Green. A week later he was canned, told he hadn't been working properly for the past 10 months. What the management representatives at the meeting with Green didn't take into account was that he was recording their whole conversation, knowing it was legal so long as he was a party to it. "I told my boss that I didn't accept my dismissal, that it was because of our attempt to organize and was illegal," Green remembers. He demanded a detailed letter of why he was being dismissed. "They wrote me one saying: 'To Mr. Alon-Lee Green. Re: Cessation of Employment for Coffee Bean. We want to inform you that as of 29/6/2007 you are no longer a worker at Coffee Bean." I explained it was not detailed, etc., but they told me to go." He did go - straight back to the Histadrut, who told him he had a case for illegal dismissal because it was clear the reason was his organizing. The Histadrut also got involved as a party in the suit, lending more strength to the legal efforts. While admittedly leading the fight for better conditions had provided a rush, Green now faced a serious decision. "I had three options: Go home and forget about it and get on with my life, sue them for NIS 70,000 compensation or seek an order preventing my dismissal and go back to work. I decided to seek my reinstatement. I thought that if I took the money, I would be sending a signal to all my friends who were waiting to see the outcome that I had given up on the union, so why shouldn't they? Also, I thought that if I gave up, there might not be enough other people to lead the fight." Ultimately, he says, the principle was more important, joking that "today I could use the money," but adding: "I can definitely sleep at night." Just over a month after his dismissal, the Tel Aviv Labor Court reinstated him, but while he'd won a personal battle, the larger campaign remained ahead. In his absence, management had offered café workers perks to drop the fight "and suddenly they were all getting tips - which was thanks to us, the union." Green and his friends at Ibn Gvirol were threatened with replacement because management claimed they were "a rebellious branch," he says. Some thought the battle was over and considered leaving. "But the more veteran workers pushed on," he recalls. "I said that if I have accomplished anything until now we must keep up the fight, and we held elections for a union committee. It was very important, even if it cost us our own jobs, and we might not be able to find other work because we'd be branded as troublemakers... What really counted was to create a new situation in this field of employment so that other workers would also be able to succeed in this struggle." Determined to keep the fight going, Green pored over the law on his computer and found a loophole allowing the group to declare a work dispute on January 8, at their own branch only, telling the other branches' workers that if the Ibn Gvirol fight succeeded, they should follow their example. "I felt like we were making a difference. That we are a branch of the economy that previously did not have an organized labor force... among the most exploited workers in the economy, receiving some of the worst salaries... who were now standing up for themselves," says Green. "We felt we were going beyond our work, we had a common cause, becoming better friends, improving our conditions and looking after ourselves at the most basic level." That certainly proved necessary. On January 22, the work dispute ended, with Coffee Bean management saying what the workers were doing was illegal. The workers sought talks, and when management refused, went on strike. Demonstrations followed outside the Ibn Gvirol branch and others. The Histadrut lent its support, sending youth group members and others to bolster the ranks, but, Green says, "instead of management seeing we were serious, it just deepened the dispute," which occasionally turned ugly. "They brought in two thugs who stood by the entrance and wouldn't let us in. When we tried to enter, they pushed us and used violence," he remembers. "They cursed us and prepared their own flyers in which they claimed that the workers were getting all the rights they deserved and we were just provocateurs." Winter also chilled their spirits. "As the days went by and it got cold and rainy and the winds started whipping away our signs and owners and management would come out and harass us," spirits fell, Rose remembers. "They said we'd never be able to get work anyplace else or get ahead in life. I personally was physically attacked by one of the chain owners who started pushing me in the chest, pushing me back, screaming at me and scaring me to death." Passersby who recognized her from TV coverage said they admired her, but "wouldn't want to be my boss," further bumming her out. NONETHELESS, things were happening. The International Union of Food Workers wrote to local and world Coffee Bean management condemning the situation and threatening a boycott. Media coverage increased. After six weeks of the strike, two of the Israeli owners met with Histadrut leader Ofer Eini. The pressure had paid off. They told Eini the chain had been badly hurt, with income at the Ibn Gvirol branch down 95 percent and the chain suffered a 65% slump. "They asked what they had to do to make the strike stop," says Green. "There were two days of incredible happiness, we were sure we'd done it," Rose remembers. "But that was followed by a month and a half of difficult talks, during which we often said: 'It's not working, let's call the whole thing off.' Our morale was broken a few times." Owner Jacques Weizman flew in to meet Eini and agreed to a collective arrangement covering the whole chain. The Histadrut, representing the workers, asked what the chain was willing to give in return. "We asked about raises; he said no," Green says. "We asked for larger holiday gifts; he said no. What was he prepared to give? Ten percent of the profits! They actually asked if he was ready to give a percentage of the profits, expecting to agree on 2.5% to 5%. Suddenly he said 10 percent once a year. That means that if there is NIS 4 million in profit, the employees get NIS 400,000. We also got overtime, night rate, refund of taxi money at night, longer breaks, a 13th salary per year and tips are completely controlled by us." According to press reports, as part of the agreement, the Histadrut agreed to buy NIS 250,000 worth of food and drink from Coffee Bean and would urge its unions to do likewise. As for Coffee Bean, its spokesman said that "Coffee Bean's customers and workers know today more than ever that the chain's employees have some of the best conditions ever made available in the Israeli coffee shop sector. "Today the chain's workers are partners to its success and in the competition in the sector in Israel. "The agreement reflects Coffee Bean's business needs in a competitive market. Since the signing of the agreement, there have been requests from many workers who want to be part of this success and by businessmen who are interested in buying franchises and expanding the chain's operations in Israel." Teken has nothing but praise for Green, who Rose says "was a rock" throughout the battle, keeping up their morale when they thought all was lost. "You have to understand that the initial organizing is very difficult," says Teken. "And with all the help we're willing to offer, in the end it's all up to the workers themselves. They are the anchor of the struggle... they behaved like soldiers on a mission." Rose still doesn't believe the group's David vs Goliath-type triumph. "The real turning point was when I finally got the phone call saying they'd signed. It was incredible. It was also actually on my birthday, so it was a fantastic day; I got a great birthday present... I thought we'd succeed but not to this extent. I thought maybe we'd be able to sign an agreement relating to our branch or we'd get some of demands, but I never thought we'd gain something for all the workers throughout the chain here. This struggle showed me that when something is important enough, and just enough, when you know that justice is on your side, you can accomplish anything." Other cafes took up the fight, the Coffee to Go at Tel Aviv University just one of them. Exploited young workers in other sectors, like catering halls, rallied round the shot heard at Ibn Gvirol, which makes Rose happy. "Now I think they understand that even if they are not going to be at this workplace in a week, month or year, there will be someone else like them working instead, and it's important for managers to understand that they can't unilaterally decide which parts of the law they will abide by and which not, or say, they're young kids, so let's screw them," she says. "We set a precedent, the first agreement of its kind," says Green, who hopes to pursue a career in politics and believes he "grew up a lot" during the Coffee Bean campaign. His message would make his mentors Marx and Engels bubble: "I think every worker or person who is facing a situation they are uncomfortable with or is unfair should know that they do have a way of changing it... You can learn from our case that if you want to, you can make things better and you need not be afraid."


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