A strike in their favor?

As they return to work, social workers have mixed feelings about having left the country’s largest and poorest city without their services.

Sunday's Social Worker's Protest _311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sunday's Social Worker's Protest _311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When Tzippi Lefler, head of the emergency social services department at the Jerusalem Municipality, heard about the explosion opposite Binyenei Ha’uma on March 23, she didn’t hesitate for a second. Years of confronting some of the most horrendous scenes during the intifada have trained her, like most of her colleagues, all too well.
Lefler, as well as the 478 other municipal social workers (not including the hundreds employed by nonprofit organizations) who reported immediately to the blast scene and spent hours with the families of the wounded, was not supposed to be there because, like all social workers, she was on strike. “But how can I think about my rights when such a terrible thing happens?” asks Lefler. “This is exactly where our power lies, and it is also exactly what makes us so vulnerable,” she says with a sigh.
Lefler and her colleagues returned to work last week after their representatives signed an agreement with the Treasury. As a result of the 25-day strike, social workers in the public sector will receive a NIS 1,000 salary increase over four years and a 2% addition to their pension funds. Those employed by non-profit organizations who have five years’ experience will be paid NIS 7,100 (instead of the current NIS 4,800).
“The damage in Jerusalem is terrible, because of the very high percentage of the needy, children at risk, and people who have been traumatized by the intifada,” says a veteran social worker at Kikar Safra “while most of us are coming back to work frustrated.”
So why was the capital particularly affected by the strike, and why is the need for social workers so urgent? In the municipality’s social services department there was strong concern that in Jerusalem, which is the country’s poorest major city, the strike would have serious effects. “We have all the problems experienced by the rest of the as a result of our strike, in addition to specific local issues, such as security problems and particular communities like haredim, Arabs, new immigrants, especially elderly and lonely immigrants.”
Added to this is the huge number of needy and underprivileged children – half of all children are below the poverty line.
“Not to mention the increasing number of teenagers who are disconnected from their families – whether abroad or as a result of tensions at home. And all this in a city that is always at the center of attention locally and internationally,” explains Lefler.
At the Jerusalem Municipality, the feeling is that, surprisingly, the administration was supportive of the social workers’ struggle: Usually more identified with success, financial achievement and hi-tech than with the poor and underprivileged, Mayor Nir Barkat nevertheless expressed his support. Even though the mayor was not part of the conflict between the Treasury and the strikers, his support was highly appreciated by the social workers, say sources at Kikar Safra.
“The fact that so many bombings and terror attacks occurred here, that so many residents are still traumatized and in our care has perhaps helped to clarify how sensitive the situation is here.
Social workers are also needed by healthy, working people who suddenly, because of a bomb blast, cannot go on with their life as they did in the past,” explains Lefler.
Indeed, whether it is connected to that understanding or not, Barkat has increased – though by a very low sum – the budget of the social services, though he did draw attention to the fact when he presented the new budget a few weeks ago.
Social workers at the municipality say they are relieved to be back at work. Off the record, many of them feel they have obtained very little compared to the heavy price paid by the residents who need them, “although most of them have expressed a lot of support for our struggle,” concludes Lefler.