Taking the big step

The abuse and poor conditions affecting the private sector, particularly low-paid workers, is leading more of them to take the bold step to organize.

flight attendent 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
flight attendent 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bellboy: That's all very well, Mr. Hammer, but we haven't been paid in two weeks and we want our wages. Hammer: Wages? Do you want to be wage slaves? Answer me that! Bellboys: No! Hammer: Of course not. Well, what makes wage slaves? Wages. I want you to be free. Remember, there's nothing like Liberty, except Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post. Be free, my friends. One for all and all for me - me for you and three for five and six for a quarter! - Coconuts, starring The Marx Brothers, 1929 Not everyone's boss is as wacky as Mr. Hammer, but the abuse and poor conditions affecting the private sector, particularly low-paid workers who can be easily replaced, is leading more of them to take the bold step to organize. Such a move takes a certain amount of guts and doesn't always guarantee success in forming a union, but based on discussions with several individuals who took the organizing plunge, the sense of justice in even trying to change a seemingly desperate situation provides its own satisfaction. Dan Boneh, 30, a counselor at Makom Aher, an emergency hostel for homeless youth in the Tel Aviv run by the nonprofit Shahal organization, loved his job and the people he worked with, but the burden of working long hours through the night without being properly compensated finally broke him. Working from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m., he found he wasn't getting proper overtime pay, as the hours from midnight to 6 a.m. were considered "on call," with the employers saying that during that time, the counselors would be sleeping. However, Boneh pointed out that there was no way the counselors ever got to sleep before 1:30 a.m. In addition, he says, payslips were kept purposely unclear, with yearly vacation and other payments not based on overall hours. When he raised the issue with his direct bosses or representatives of the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry, "they would roll their eyes and say they knew the situation was bad and that we should be paid more, and that they wanted to pay us more, but there simply wasn't any money." With no one to talk to, Boneh and his colleagues contacted the Histadrut's youth branch, where a representative offered help, but was "very cautious." "The Histadrut representative didn't hide from us the danger of us losing our jobs, but in our eyes, we were doing it for the overall system [working with disadvantaged youth], because under these conditions, no one could continue working there. Everyone knows that they're not going to get rich doing this, but you do it out of a sense of duty and because you love the work, but under such conditions and at this salary, you just can't stay on. We felt that even if we only accomplish a few goals, but it improves things in the future, it was worthwhile." As in the Coffee Bean struggle, Boneh signed up almost all of the counselors as Histadrut members, and the Histadrut rep wrote his employer explaining that they had not been properly informed of their working conditions. Other groups, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, got involved as well. Ultimately, a meeting with the non-profit's directors was held. "It wasn't pleasant, I must say," recalls Boneh. "Overall, we were told there was no way our demands would be met." They announced formation of a union four months ago. Meanwhile management sent them a letter from one of Israel's leading lawyers saying that a check revealed no violation of the law in their conditions. The fact that such a high-priced lawyer got involved "said to me two things: that there is money if they can hire such a top-notch lawyer, and that they're either hiding something or defending themselves against something," Boneh says. "We haven't achieved anything yet, but we're hoping that our work conditions ultimately will improve... But to me it was important to do this... I also hope it will have significance for other places, that they hear about it and organize, without any regard to our situation." FOR RAZ BAHAR of Israir, things worked out a little better. After working as a stewardess since 2003, the time finally came to seek an improvement in the conditions at the airline. According to a Histadrut spokeswoman, these included forcing the stewards and stewardesses to sleep on the floor of the plane during flights; being paid less than the minimum wage, and for air time only; being required to pay NIS 1,750 for training; and being housed at substandard, often "sleazy" hotels during overnight stays. "We understood that if we organized, we'd be stronger, so we decided to do it," says Bahar, 20, of Jerusalem. After contacting the Histadrut, "We started secretly signing people up and at the beginning of the summer we already had about 60 to 75 percent. "We knew they couldn't fire us all, although at first naturally we were concerned. I was afraid, as someone who had initiated this step, that they would harass me, but I then understood they couldn't do that from a legal standpoint, that the Histadrut would protect me. Ultimately we didn't have anything to lose - just gain. I think that people are more aware of the Histadrut, and people understood that their power as a group is much greater than as individuals." A work dispute was launched in November, leading to intensive negotiations that led to the signing of a collective arrangement. "Ultimately we signed a new agreement which improved our conditions, our salaries - it all improved," she says. While she took the lead in the fight,"I don't look at it as a personal achievement - there just needed to be someone who would do something, to take the first step... I learned a lot during the whole process about negotiations and dynamics of how things work, and how one holds such talks. You just need someone to stand up and lead the rest, and once it has a certain social momentum, the rest follow you." AVNER SHEMESH, 27, a bodyguard for government ministers, also took the plunge when conditions for the bodyguards were threatened after a new company took over administration of those who provide this vital protection. The government tender issued by the new firm in mid-2007 offered "our old salary minus 20 percent," says Shemesh. Social benefits were lacking, as were proper overtime payments. "We decided that we weren't going to put up with this situation and organized. I contacted the Histadrut myself and signed the bodyguards on documents so that we could be represented. Of course there's always a certain element of risk, but sometimes you have to stand up for your rights and demand what is rightfully yours." Shemesh pointed out that it was the government itself - responsible for framing laws about proper employment conditions - which often was the worst violator of those laws by its large dependence on manpower agencies and other outside contractors who didn't always provide fair conditions for employees. "We're professionals, and we had to weigh two things: One was protecting our clients, and the other was our rights and our own self-respect," says Shemesh. The bodyguards had one thing in their favor - their expertise. Since very special criteria are required for the position, Shemesh and his colleagues felt confident they would prevail when they declared a work dispute after seven months of negotiations on new conditions. However, he notes, "sadly, in most places it doesn't work that way. The workers don't have any power, and must always give in and suffer bad conditions." He says in Israeli culture, it's not accepted as a norm that workers have rights, and that there is not enough awareness of this crucial idea. He expressed his appreciation for the fact that the Histadrut is working to change this and to help workers like himself get the conditions they deserve. While he and his fellow bodyguards haven't signed a new contract yet, agreement has been reached on meeting most of their demands. Those wondering whether or not to take that big first step toward organizing like the three workers above can at least take solace in knowing that both the Histadrut and the law will come to their aid. "Once I issue a letter to these people stating that they are representing the workers, it makes it easier to claim later on that if the employers do something to them, it's because of the organizing. I also file on behalf of the Histadrut, and that has more strength," says the Histadrut's Shay Teken. "I don't think there is a labor court judge who, if convinced the reason for the firing is organizing workers, or it seems like it was a consideration, wouldn't reinstate them. I also know from my discussions with judges, including those in the labor courts, who are very attentive to this and believe strongly in the right to organize. With proper representation, the decree can be reversed." National Labor Court President Stephen Adler backed up Teken's claim, writing in response to questions: "In a number of important judgments, the National Labor Court has protected workers who attempted to organize and take collective action. In some cases the court declared illegal and void the discharge of workers because they joined a union or participated in a strike. In one case the court declared illegal the employer's forming a 'company union' and compelled the employer to negotiate with the authentic union. In another case, the National Labor Court declared illegal the employers' refusal to bargain collectively." Not all is rosy, however. Adler adds: "The attitude of employers toward union organization is ambivalent. We have heard of many cases involving employers which follow the European model and welcome worker participation at the workplace, on the condition that they do not interfere with the production and are also fair and reasonable. There have been other cases involving employers who oppose unionization as interference with management's right to govern the workplace." Still, if your work conditions are intolerable, it would seem like the courts will back you if you try to organize. As Adler notes, "Israeli law and labor court judgments guarantee the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively. This is the will of the Knesset and is compatible with international human rights law. Freedom of association, including the right to organize is recognized in most countries, including Israel, as a basic right. If younger workers have begun to exercise their legal rights, this is part of Israeli democracy."