Histadrut’s expedience

Historically, the Histadrut has paid abysmally low wages to its own employees in low-ranking positions or in low-prestige occupations.

July 9, 2015 08:40
3 minute read.
Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Eight months ago, Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn declared a labor dispute that threatened to ripen into a general strike, but that threat was left in abeyance. Now it has been renewed.

The average citizen may be forgiven for wondering why now.

The last time the Histadrut labor federation resorted to this weapon was in early 2012. By all empirical indications, no dreadful downturn in working conditions had suddenly afflicted the country, despite Nissenkorn’s keen efforts to make it appear otherwise.

To hear him, putting the entire economy on strike alert – with the colossal cost entailed – springs from altruism on behalf of contract workers, purportedly society’s most exploited employees.

That, in itself, goes against the grain of the Histadrut, dominated as it is by the most powerful unions of the most powerful employee groups – the ones who earn most and who wield the most clout to extort more.

Historically, the Histadrut has paid abysmally low wages to its own employees in low-ranking positions or in low-prestige occupations.

And while we are at it, what about all the employees denied the security of collective agreements? Why isn’t the Histadrut taking up the plight of freelancers or of those forced to sign demeaning personal agreements for fear of losing their livelihoods? More employees than ever in the state’s history lack the protection of collective agreements, yet the Histadrut rarely rallies behind them.

Contract workers have been with us for decades and the Histadrut exploited them more egregiously than most.

So what makes their plight pressing enough to justify a general strike precisely at this juncture? What acute decline in their circumstances has occurred that mandates a general strike “perhaps tomorrow,” as Nissenkorn warns, with losses of billions of shekels daily inflicted on the economy of all of us? Indeed, why opt for a bare-knuckle confrontation when almost all the differences with the government and employers are at most minor? Nissenkorn’s latest narrative is that the Treasury’s intransigence in ongoing negotiations makes a general strike inevitable. The bone of contention is unyielding Histadrut opposition to any managerial flexibility in the public sector that would allow employee task-reassignments, much less actual dismissals.

Odds are that Nissenkorn’s ardor is all about expedience. The cause of contract workers makes for excellent public relations. It is easier to decry the lot of cleaners and security guards than of hi-tech service providers working on exploitative personal agreements.

Nissenkorn’s motives must be sought outside the sphere of labor relations.

Already gaining steam is the annual state budget hullabaloo, when any player with vested interests to promote does his darndest to throw his weight around.

This presents Nissenkorn with an unmissable opportunity to earn his stripes by reviving a convenient old cause and resorting to a primed weapon. It is advantageous for Nissenkorn to don the mantle of a no-holds-barred class warrior and determined defender of society’s underdogs.

To be sure, contract workers deserve equal pay for equal work and they most assuredly deserve full social benefits.

That said, it is patently absurd to force both the public and private sectors to hire under collective agreements every last sanitation staffer and confer tenure upon each and every watchman. That would, to begin with, interfere with the flexibility of employers to decide when extra workforce is needed and how it should be engaged.

If Nissenkorn’s way were adopted, Israel would become unique, enabling trade unions to dictate how any employer – public or private – may deploy his staff or take on additional help.

For reminders of what that would trigger we need only look back to the Israel of the 1980s, when the mammoth Histadrut empire collapsed and its flagship enterprises (such as Solel Boneh and Koor Industries) had to be sold off, inter alia rendering many thousands of workers jobless and let down by the machinations of their purported union representatives.

Crucial to the disintegration of the Histadrut empire was the no-account padding of its payrolls and tenures that undermined any labor flexibility and economic sense.

We do not want to return to those days.

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