For those of you who think that the Histadrut is a bunch of rich, lazy Electric Corp. workers making NIS 30,000 a month, and that the public sector workers went on strike yesterday because, as always, they only want to protect their cushy, overpaid jobs, there are a couple of facts you should know. One is that the average salary of the 700,000 striking public employees is NIS 6,400 a month. The other is that the average salary of all Israeli employees, public and private together, is NIS 7,750 a month. So who are these workers whose strike is making life miserable for Israelis, piling up the garbage on the streets and closing all the government offices; who, if a settlement isn't reached by this morning, will likely shut down Ben-Gurion Airport? Since there really are Histadrut employees making NIS 30,000 and even more a month, such as the most senior employees at Israel Aircraft Industries, Mekorot water utility, Bezeq phone company and the notorious Electric Corp., how does the average monthly wage among Israeli public employees come to only NIS 6,400? Because the bulk of public employees are not Electric Corp. fat cats. Instead, the bulk of public employees in this country are government office workers making NIS 4,000-NIS 5,000 a month. AND YOU know what? They have families who need to eat, too. But the government has no intention of ever paying them a living wage because for the last decade, Israeli governments have been devotees of the "Washington consensus." This is the Made in America economic approach that says governments should keep taxes and expenses as low as possible, and that a great way to cut expenses is to fire or privatize lots and lots of public employees and pay the remaining ones peanuts. And this is where Histadrut public employees stand today. But, then, they're much better off than the hundreds of thousands of janitors, typists and security guards who are hired by private manpower companies to work at government offices. These employees' jobs used to be covered by the Histadrut too, but the government privatized them. The manpower companies do not pay them NIS 4,000-NIS 5,000 a month, but rather, if they're lucky, the legal minimum wage of NIS 3,800; or, if they're not lucky, even less. If the Histadrut acts "responsibly" like the government and most of the public want it to, if it puts away its one and only weapon, the public sector strike, and instead depends on the good will of the Finance Ministry, these 700,000 striking public employees will end up like those non-union janitors, typists and security guards - as the working poor. LABOR UNIONS didn't come into existence in the free world a century ago to let that sort of thing happen. No, they came into existence to raise working people out of poverty, which is how workers for large employers tended to live in the free world until well into 20th century. Today labor unions are dying in the private sector, in Israel especially. To have stable labor unions, you need stable employers - big companies that offer long-term employment to large numbers of people, that stay in business in the same place and produce more or less the same kinds of goods and services over decades. In countries with a high standard of living, including Israel, a generation of globalization and hi-tech have all but put an end to those kinds of unionized companies. The classic Histadrut manufacturing jobs have gone to the Third World, where employers can pay a small fraction of the wages they'd have to pay here. The only sector of the Israeli economy that remains stable enough for the Histadrut to operate in is the public sector; after all, the National Insurance Institute, for example, has to serve millions of people so it needs a lot of workers, it can't suddenly decide to stop handling pension claims and start selling real estate, and it can't relocate its Ramle branch to Bangalore. THE PUBLIC sector - state-run services like government offices, ports and utilities - are all the once-mighty Histadrut has left. And striking is the only way it can protect its members, who are mainly low-wage office workers, from the tender mercies of the Finance Ministry. But Israeli governments and the Israeli middle class, not to mention the upper class, have joined the Washington consensus, and they have no more patience or sympathy for the Histadrut, its complaints, its demands or its strikes. Modern-thinking Israelis say they believe, of course, in the right of labor unions to exist, and even in the right of unions to strike. But in practice they don't believe in it. In practice, they oppose every Histadrut strike as a public nuisance, which means they believe the public sector workers are duty-bound to accept whatever the Finance Ministry wants to pay them. In practice, what the government and the Israeli middle-to-upper class wants is for the Histadrut to become a "company union" - one whose leaders pretend to represent the employees, but who in fact represent the employer, and whose job is to convince the employees never to strike, but rather to always settle quickly and obediently for what the employer offers them. This is the sort of "workers' rights" that Israel stands for today. In practice, this is not modern thinking, but pre-modern thinking. WITH THE exception of a privileged minority at the Electric Corp. and a few other heavyweight Histadrut locals, the 700,000 public sector employees, many if not most of whom earn some hundreds of shekels above the minimum wage, are victims of the new economy. In response, they can either take the Israeli public into consideration and accept the Finance Ministry's 1% raise, or they can take their families and their self-esteem into consideration and go on strike. In their place, you'd do the same thing they did yesterday, and so would I. All the accusations being made against them come from either right-wing bad temper, or nouveau-riche smugness and hypocrisy.