Editorial: Striking out

We cannot afford to throw caution to the wind, especially when Eini’s grandstanding, rather than the collective good, becomes the be-all and the end-all.

Demonstration in front of Labor Court 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Demonstration in front of Labor Court 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
At first glance, the general strike that began on Wednesday is driven by genuine altruism on behalf of society’s have-nots – contract workers.
That, in itself, goes against the grain of the Histadrut labor federation, dominated as it is by the most powerful unions of the most powerful employee groups – the ones who earn most and who wield the greatest clout to extract more.
But appearances, more often than not, are misleading – foremost because they can be cynically manipulated.
Contract workers have been with us for decades and the Histadrut exploited them more egregiously than most employers. So what makes their plight at this particular juncture more pressing than it had been for years? What acute decline in their circumstances has there been that mandated a general strike just now, with the enormous losses (NIS 2.3 billion daily) it inflicts on the economy of all of us? And why opt for a bare-knuckle confrontation when almost all differences with the government have been ironed out? And while we’re at it, what about other employees denied the security of collective agreements? Why isn’t the Histadrut taking up the plight of freelancers or those forced to sign demeaning personal contracts for fear of losing their livelihoods? More employees than ever in Israel’s history lack the protection of collective agreements, yet the Histadrut has never rallied behind them.
Why? It’s all about expedience and timing.
The cause of contract workers makes for better public relations. It’s easier to decry the lot of cleaners and security guards than of hi-tech technicians on exploitative personal contracts.
And why now? Because the Histadrut is in the throes of an election campaign and its chairman Ofer Eini is standing for reelection. That makes it advantageous for him to don the mantle of a no-holds-barred class-warrior and determined defender of society’s underdogs.
High-minded rhetoric aside, Histadrut power struggles are the overriding motivation behind declaring the first general strike in five years. 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 to confer tenure upon each and every watchman. That would, to begin with, interfere with the flexibility of all employers to decide when more workforce is needed and how it should be engaged.
If Eini’s way were adopted, Israel would become unique in the global business-scape. It would enable local trade unions to dictate how any employer – public or private – would employ his staff or take on extra 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 own union representatives. Crucial to the disintegration of the Histadrut empire was padding of the payrolls and the granting of tenures that undermined any flexibility and economic sense.
We don’t want that to happen again.
There are of course more current eye-openers to what an inflated, tax-guzzling public sector and overreaching unions can lead to. Eini’s general strike coincided with a general strike in Greece. Israel and Greece are in very different places. Greece is falling off the brink of bankruptcy.
Israel has weathered the recessions of recent years better than most countries, primarily because of prudent management.
But Israel isn’t immune to contagion from abroad. The entire euro zone is in the grips of a momentous crisis and the US has not entirely emerged from its epic slowdown, quasi-encouraging indicators notwithstanding.
The frailty of our export markets makes us vulnerable too.
We cannot afford to throw caution to the wind, especially when Eini’s grandstanding, rather than the collective good, becomes the be-all and the end-all.
Sadly, there’s no avoiding the conclusion that the smaller the Histadrut has become, the more extreme and demagogic its positions. Its priority isn’t plight but might.