Help social workers do their job

When large swaths of society lack basic social services, polarization between “haves” and “have nots” is further heightened.

March 6, 2011 21:51
3 minute read.
Striking social workers demonstrate in North

Social Workers 311. (photo credit: RUTH EGLASH)


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Karl Marx has been proven wrong about a lot of things. His misguided belief that class conflict would bring about the demise of capitalism comes to mind, as does his weak grasp of human motivations, the fatal flaw of Communism. Yet, socialism’s most famous founding father also had some keen insights that can be helpful in understanding the labor struggle of our nation’s social workers – a classic case study in Marxist conflict theory.

For the past six months some 10,000 public sector social workers have attempted to convince the Treasury to renegotiate a wage agreement last updated 16 years ago. And for six months the Treasury has ignored them.

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In 2008, the last time they picketed for improved working conditions, social workers ended up settling for just a fraction of their demands. (They had requested 1,000 additional state-funded social worker positions, but were granted just 170.) Perhaps part of the reason has to do with their temperament.

These are generally individuals whose idealistic souls rebel against the notion of leaving stranded the weak of mind and body who rely on social services. Savvy Treasury officials are the first to recognize and exploit this altruism to keep wages low.

But no less significant in explaining the social workers’ failure so far to achieve their demands, as any Marxian conflict theorist would be the first to point out, is the blatant fact that 90 percent of social workers are women. The plight of social workers is a poignant example, ahead of International Women’s Day Tuesday, of how fully women continue to be exploited by a male-dominated economy. Lacking the ability of the longshoremen or the air traffic controllers to “shut down” our isolated country’s only two ties to the outside world, social workers’ last resort is to appeal to moral sensibilities.

But to the mind of the Treasury official, trained in the intricacies of fiscal restraint, free market economies and the supposed folly of Keynesian economics, services provided by the social worker are eminently superfluous. Nor do young Treasury officials, many of them prepping for big business, have any particular interest in cementing ties with a bunch of idealistic – and poor – social workers; they do have an interest, by contrast, in “scratching the back” of the corporate world by avoiding a costly strike by longshoremen or airport workers. Similar considerations might impact the decision-making processes of politicians and high-rank union officials as well.

This would explain the decidedly cavalier attitude on the part of the “powers that be.”

The Treasury’s wage department head, Ilan Levin, saw fit to remain overseas as the strike began Sunday. Histadrut labor federation Chairman Ofer Eini, taking a cue from Levin, was on a plane to the US over the weekend to meet with Jewish leaders.

IN SUCH a dismissive atmosphere we tend to believe the social workers when they say that it was from the news media that they first heard details over the weekend of the Treasury’s first realistic compromise proposal.

The Treasury, which claims social workers earn NIS 10,000 a month on average, is now offering a 12.7% wage increase in addition to the 7.25% across-the-board wage increase for public sector workers already agreed upon.

However, this wage hike would be restricted to social workers earning up to NIS 10,000 a month. Higher-paid social workers will only receive the 7.25% salary raise.

For their part, the social workers, who say they earn on average NIS 6,000 and are forced to piece together several part-time gigs to make ends meet, are demanding a wage hike reportedly of 30% to 40%. The social workers’ union is also demanding that about 5,000 social workers working in “privatized” frameworks be included in the wage hike.

There is much to be said for the liberal ethic of freedom from big government, with its tendency to over-tax, regulate markets and inhibit private initiative (another failure of Marxist economists). Nor should we lose sight of the tremendous fiscal demands of running a welfare state.

Nonetheless, there can also be severe consequences to budgetary scale-downs and welfare cuts. When large swaths of society lack basic social services, polarization between “haves” and “have nots” is further heightened.

And this in turn can have negative ramifications for our economy’s overall health and stability. Even if Treasury officials lack social workers’ compassion, there are good economic reasons to make it a little easier for social workers to do their job.

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