Union fight

A strong labor union can be a force for good in a number of areas.

February 6, 2017 21:30
3 minute read.
MK Shelly Yacimovich

MK Shelly Yacimovich. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Competition brings out the best in people and in organizations. That’s why Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich’s decision to challenge Avi Nissenkoren for the leadership of the Histadrut labor federation is a positive development.

It is still too early to say anything intelligent about Yacimovich’s vision for the Histadrut. But the very fact that Nissenkoren will be challenged in the months leading up to the May election in the Histadrut injects life into what is otherwise a colorless organization controlled by a few powerful labor groups, representing big industries and large public sector bodies such as Israel Electric, the seaports and the airports.

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Nissenkorn, who was appointed chairman in 2014 by the 171-member legislative assembly of the Histadrut after his predecessor, Ofer Eini, stepped down, has never won a popular election among the Histadrut’s 535,000 members. He has done everything in his power to prevent Yacimovich or anyone else from challenging him by reaching agreements with all the political factions that make up the Histadrut. (Candidates for the Histadrut chair must receive the backing of one of the factions before they can run.) Eini used a similar method to attempt to prevent MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) from running against him in 2012.

But a court ruling forced the Histadrut to allow Cabel to run. Cabel lost with about a third of the votes.

It will be an uphill battle for Yacimovich, who doesn’t have the support of Labor chairman Isaac Herzog. But without a challenge from Yacimovich, the Histadrut would continue to operate in its predictable way, using occasional strikes to win concessions from the government that benefit primarily the powerful labor groups.

In contrast, a lively debate leading up to election can hopefully raise a number of important issues that are critical to the future health of Israel’s labor force in an age of globalization and advanced technology.

A strong labor union can be a force for good in a number of areas. One of the main challenges facing Israel is deteriorating productivity, particularly in fields in which the local market is not exposed to international competition. Israel could improve its standard of living by 30% if the Israeli worker’s productivity reached the level of the OECD average.

Developing Israel’s occupational training could also contribute to improved productivity by retraining workers who are currently employed in industries that are becoming obsolete due to globalization and technological trends.

Another major issue that Israel faces is the huge gap between rich and poor. Income inequality in Israel is one of the highest among OECD countries.

The gap between the highest paid and lowest paid workers in Israel is similar to the situation in the US, Mexico and Turkey.

Here, too, the Histadrut can be a force for change – provided it works together with the government, employers and the powerful labor groups it represents.

A more controversial issue is the question of labor flexibility, but this must be raised during the campaign as well; because issues such as the difficulty of firing redundant employees (particularly in the public sector) or a rigidity of work hours ultimately has an impact on the ability of Israeli industries to compete on a global scale.

The negative ramifications of higher labor flexibility can be combated by putting in place a stronger welfare net – for example, extended unemployment compensation.

Yacimovich’s challenge to Nissenkorn is a positive development, because it increases the chance that these crucial issues and others facing Israel’s labor market will be debated and will receive public attention.

A strong labor union is essential for a robust democracy that protects the basic rights of its workers. In order for the Histadrut to remain relevant in the 21st century, it must deal with the many challenges facing Israel’s labor market. A robust fight for the leadership of the Histadrut would invigorate Israel’s venerable labor union, regardless who wins.

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