The wave of the future?

Coffee Bean's example has certainly inspired others to follow in a similar path.

Coffee Bean's example has certainly inspired others to follow in a similar path, especially among younger workers in the private sector, but is a revolution really in the works? That depends on whom you ask. Histadrut officials like Shay Teken, head of the Professional Union Division's Legal Department, insist such a change is definitely in the works. "There is a process going on of people wanting to organize even in places where workers weren't organized in the past," he says. "We made a strategic decision to make this a priority, and in the past year we have been making a major effort in this regard, particularly anyone who contacts us and says they want to organize, and Coffee Bean is a perfect example. "What's interesting about the current phenomenon is that it really is young workers - people around age 20 - for whom this has become a relevant topic of discussion... I think they simply understand that the best way for them to guard the workers' rights is to organize... Only when they fight for their rights as a group do they really have any power when confronting their employer." Teken also sees the increased workers' awareness as a reaction to economic policies promoted by people like Margaret Thatcher and Binyamin Netanyahu. "Social solidarity has again become a part of people's consciousness, and there is a definite trend here that we did not see two or three years ago... of increasing attempts to organize by workers. Sometimes it succeeds and sometimes it doesn't, but people are increasingly involved with discussing this issue, and are launching struggles that are achieving results." He cited efforts at Haifa Chemicals, where a bitter battle with management that began some five years ago and featured violent confrontations ended recently with an initiative by owners to sign a collective agreement. Teken also noted efforts by workers at the ECI hi-tech plant to organize out of fear of outsourcing, with a similar situation at the Israel Police. "We got them together and already some 300 of the 650 employed via personnel contractors have joined the Histadrut, and we are trying to explain the situation to the police." He also noted increased flexibility and understanding by the Histadrut under Ofer Eini of management's needs in running their businesses as another factor leading to an increase in such agreements. "So in places where in the past people never considered it, we can see it happening and happening fast," says Teken. As for the Coffee Bean deal, Teken says: "We are very optimistic because we see this as a change in the trend, and the mere fact that this issue is gaining more exposure in the public arena only strengthens our cause. And even if I can't count heads that this is affecting, we definitely feel a change in the atmosphere and almost every day someone else contacts us about organizing." However, Prof. Amira Galin of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Management doubts there has been "a serious increase" in organization in the private sector, calling such developments at the Crystal electronics plant or other companies "a drop in the ocean," but at the same time providing reasons for why it just may be the wave of the future. "I think that this phenomenon may become more widespread in the future. I'm not a prophet, but it may very well do so," she says. Noting that organization of workers really only began at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, and mainly after World War II, she sees a return to some of the thinking that led to the unions' development. "Only around the beginning of the 20th century did we get big factories, requiring the workers to organize as a way of standing up to the power of their employers. Now we've done a 180-degree turn and we've returned in the private sector to those days." She cites several factors: the low wages paid, especially to the young, which cause "great bitterness" and a feeling of always being on the verge of potentially being dismissed, leading workers to feel "perhaps it really is worth organizing ourselves." Attempts at dividing the workers also contribute to them wanting to organize, she said. "There are also reasons tied to social norms, to education. For example, people these days are educated to be individualists. They say: 'I count, I'm important, I'm going to do what I want. So I want to organize,' as opposed to the previous times when they were opposed to organizing. Young people also have a tendency to rebel against what currently exists. So while once they were against organized labor that perhaps was seen as corrupt, now it's exactly the opposite - there's no union, so we should organize. "There's also education towards democracy. From the time they're in kindergarten, kids are taught that everyone is equal, so someone must ensure there is democracy in the workplace as well. What does that mean? The ability to organize." She also cites "personal interests" among the organizers who "can use it as a jumping-off point to politics, because suddenly he or she becomes well-known..." Echoing Teken, she adds that "people see they have no standing when they are alone opposite their employer and the employers widely exploit it in the private sector. There are very few fair employers; in most cases they exploit the workers to the end. So we have returned to the beginning of the 20th century, when people set up unions to combat the employers who exploited them." A recent example saw youngsters who had worked at Jerusalem's Big Palace catering hall launch a strike with the help of the Histadrut after reportedly being replaced by other workers when they attempted to organize to protest conditions that they said included receiving just NIS 90 for 5.5 hours work and having their tips withheld. But it's not just the waiters, busboys and others at the bottom of the economic totem pole who are showing new interest in organizing. Galin has also been especially impressed by the number of hi-tech workers she's encountered who agree that organizing could help them, especially after a wave of dismissals that plagued the industry. They told her of being ordered out of their offices within minutes, being forced to grab all their stuff and get out. "So after such experiences," she says, "I know from my students that they are thinking about the whole idea of organizing and that it might help, but I don't see them putting it into practice much." For now, she says, "it's still a drop in the ocean, but it might start to make waves. At the beginning of the 20th century it was also considered a drop in the ocean. People are afraid to organize; it isn't easy to do in the private sector. In the '20s it was also hard - they brought in firing squads to deal with them. But in the end they did organize... It could happen, not just because of the exploitation but because of the norms people are being raised with in Western societies. They are looking for democracy, self-expression - they want to have a voice."