Unions are the answer to COVID unemployment and work disputes - opinion

Worker power is essential to building our economy from the COVID-19 crisis better than before and developing the economy from the bottom up and the middle out. 

 HISTADRUT CHAIRMAN Arnon Bar David in a meeting with Inbal Hermoni, chairman of the Union of Social Workers at Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
HISTADRUT CHAIRMAN Arnon Bar David in a meeting with Inbal Hermoni, chairman of the Union of Social Workers at Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

On Labor Day, President Joe Biden announced, “When unions win, workers across the board win.” Although Biden outlined the achievements of the US labor movement over history, he could’ve well been drawing the same picture about the Histadrut, The General Federation of Labor in Israel.

Indeed, the Histadrut, and the workers of Israel, more than 100 years ago, laid the foundations for the state yet to be born. Medical services, education, finance, construction, culture, sport, and much more.

The organized workers, under the union, ensured that when David Ben-Gurion, the Histadrut’s first chairman, wanted to declare independence, the state systems and apparatus required already existed. 

The Histadrut and the workers of Israel have played a critical role in advancing workers’ rights, national insurance, hours of work, annual vacation, sick pay, maternity leave, protection of young workers, equality in the workplace, wage protection, minimum wages and safer workplaces. The workers and the representative union give people a decent and respectable safety net, preventing exploitation and standing up for the abused.

As Biden spoke, he also rightly pointed out, “Union members get higher wages, better benefits, like health insurance and paid leave, protections against discrimination and harassment, and a safer and healthier workplace.” Today, the Histadrut is working to increase the minimum wage to NIS 6000, from 5300, not just dues-paying members, but for the workforce in its entirety. In Israel, many feel overworked and underpaid. The Histadrut maintains that 42 hours of work per week is way too much. Therefore, we are appealing to government and employer organizations to reduce the hours – 40 hours per week is still a long workweek but is around the average of the OECD. This reduction, we believe, will increase productivity and improve life/work balance for all workers. 

Despite the relatively decent manging of the health pandemic, Israel has yet to overcome the economic crisis. There are mounting workplace disputes, in places like El Al, the Alpha telecommunications company and Israel Railways. Thousands of daycare staff are striking and protesting and the self-employed are scrambling out of the crisis but still without a safety net for the next wave of national emergency. 

Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David addresses a press conference, March 10, 2020  (credit: HISTADRUT SPOKESPERSON)Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David addresses a press conference, March 10, 2020 (credit: HISTADRUT SPOKESPERSON)

There are some 70,000 unemployed over the age of 45, expected to stop receiving benefits and with very few employment prospects. In September, 338,000 people were unemployed, and the unemployment rate was 7.9%. There is no denying that the health and economic crisis of the past 18 months has led to an unprecedented loss of jobs and workers’ livelihoods.

For Israel to achieve a more robust, balanced and inclusive recovery, we need a people-led approach. This approach would improve the quantity of jobs available to Israelis and the quality of decent, secure, and safe jobs with fair pay and conditions.

Decent work is the vital element that ensures all of our economic progress. As we move forward to the recovery phase, we need a robust, resilient and inclusive economic rehabilitation. We have an opportunity to strengthen, improve and make the structure of our workforce fairer, and reconsider which jobs we value. First, we need secure jobs that don’t leave a large section of the workforce not sharing in our national economic recovery. Second, we need inclusive jobs, as the vast majority of the burden of COVID-19 is carried by women working from home, juggling distance learning, housekeeping, and their professional roles – roles that are consistently underpaid and undervalued. Finally, as we consider the changing world of work, Israel needs jobs that incorporate the essence of the Startup Nation, eco-friendly jobs, preserving and sustaining our environment. 

Biden is right. Worker power is essential to building our economy from the COVID-19 crisis better than before and developing the economy from the bottom up and the middle out. 

Israel can achieve this by institutionalizing and empowering the workers’ and unions’ place at the decision-making table. The tripartite model, the round table in Israel, must be institutionalized, incorporating government, employers, and employees’ voices at the decision-making junction, presenting better, fairer and more equal decisions for everyone. We need a new social contract, not as an ad-hoc solution in crisis but a strategic tool from which Israel as a society can benefit. 

The writer is the director-general of the international relations division of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labor in Israel.