Major strike wave hits Israel

A general strike in the public sector in Israel has been called in protest against the non-payment of wages and the proposed 2005 budget cuts. The strike is affecting all government ministries, municipal authorities, state-owned companies and transportation, including the national airline El Al. Refuse collection workers, traffic wardens, dockworkers, railway, telecom, electricity and hospital workers are also involved. Once again, it reflects the serious class divide that is opening up in Israeli society.

Editor’s note: We received this article yesterday evening as the public sector strike was unfolding in Israel. Unfortunately what the article predicted would happen has come about very quickly. The National Labour Court ordered an end to the general strike by 8am this morning. The court issued an interim injunction banning the Histadrut from continuing its strike action. In the same injunction it also ordered the state to pay the wages of local authority workers within a week.

The initial reaction of the Histadrut leaders was to say that the strike action would continue until the national leadership could meet. Of course when it did meet Peretz announced the end of the public sector strike by noon today and ordered workers back to work.

A senior Histadrut legal adviser was quoted as describing the court’s order as a “huge victory” for the workers. This is in spite of the fact that although Yuval Rachlevsky, the Finance Ministry's head of wage and labour agreements, had announced that most of the wages would be paid by next week, he also added that some of the payments would be pending “further negotiation”. So it isn’t quite the victory Peretz would like it to seem. This is exactly what the article predicted would happen.

Adding insult to injury, the court ruling states that the payment of back wages will be “nominal”. That means they won't include compensation for non-payment. So workers who have got into debt will receive no compensation for their suffering.

What is even more serious is that the court ruling implies that sympathy strike action is not allowed. The Manufacturers Association and the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, who had requested the injunction, had argued that strike action by the council workers who were directly affected by non-payment was legitimate, but strike action of other sectors in support of their brothers’ and sisters’ demands was not. This is a direct attack on a basic principle of the trade union movement: that workers can come out in support of their comrades in struggle!

Peretz seems to have forgotten that what was involved was not only the unpaid wages. The strike was also against the proposed 2005 budget, which includes cuts and job losses.

The calling off of the strike will not remove the real underlying problems facing the Israeli working class. The bosses will continue to attack and the workers will mobilise again and again. What is needed is a genuine fighting trade union leadership that can represent the real interests of the working class.

September 22, 2004

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As we write these lines the general strike in the public sector in Israel has begun its first day. The Histadrut – the Labour Federation – called a public strike to protest against the failure to pay – in many cases for over a year – the wages of council workers and religious council workers. The strike is also against the proposed 2005 budget cuts, which include firing hundreds of public-sector workers, lowering wages of others and requiring some of the sector’s employees to help fund their own pensions, just as private-sector workers were forced to do.

The latest reports show that the strike has been a huge success. The workers of Israel have paralysed the country. Even a UEFA cup game has had to be postponed because the plane bringing in the Dutch team could not land because of strikes at the airports!

The strength of this strike reflects the growing pressure from below from the workers who want to fight back against the right wing bosses’ government linked in so many ways to the capitalist class.

In a last minute attempt to avert the strike, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Avraham Poraz on Sunday night, and proposed a compromise. He proposed that half the wages owed workers in any particular local authority be paid once it agrees in writing to implement a so-called “recovery plan”, with the rest being paid once the workers sign the same agreement. In other words once the workers agree to be fired and those who remain agree to lower salaries, the government will pay to the workers what it already owes them. The Histadrut under the pressure of the angry workers rejected this offer, saying it would accept nothing less than full and immediate payment of the salaries that are owed.

The strike is affecting all government ministries, municipal authorities, state-owned companies and transportation, including the national airline El Al. As during previous strikes of the municipal workers, refuse has not been collected except in the twenty or so local authorities that hire private refuse collection firms. Traffic wardens are also taking part in the strike, and so far no parking tickets have been issued.

The railway workers have also come out. All rail routes have been affected except for a number of destinations that have been kept running to facilitate the transportation of military personnel. Although the bus services of the Egged and Dan lines have been operating uninterrupted. The seaports have also been affected, with no loading and unloading of ships in the Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat ports.

Partial work has continued in the various military industries, including Israel Aircraft Industries and Israel Military Industries. The Bezeq telephone company has been forced to stop repairs. The same applies to the Israeli Electric Corporation. Mail has not been delivered, and the Mekorot water company has not been able to handle any problems in the supply of water.

Government hospitals and those belonging to the Clalit Health Maintenance Organization have been closed, and only emergency operations and laboratory tests are being carried out. Clalit branches have not been receiving patients, but the doctors have been in attendance and have been providing care for those who turn up.

The government has been trying desperately to delegitimize the strike. Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, the leader of the secular right wing Shinue, demagogically lashed out against the public sector strike at a Justice Ministry conference in Jerusalem today.

“[Histadrut chairman] Amir Peretz is acting on the pretext of ‘murder and inherit’,” Lapid said. “First the Local factions of the Histadrut refuse to sign reform agreements that will allow for funds to be given to the authorities in order to pay the workers’ wages, then the Histadrut launches a countrywide strike because the funds weren’t put through.” This is typical bosses’ logic. For them it is not the government – that has not paid the workers – who are the criminals, but those who have refused to work like slaves without being paid for their work!

Peretz met yesterday with leaders of the Manufacturers’ Association, employing some 400,000 workers, who urged him to cancel the strike. “We’re still licking our wounds from the ports strike,” said Association president Oded Tyrah. “Customers are abandoning us because of the last strike, which lasted a full month. Another strike would cut off the branch on which we all sit.”

“I have no intention of apologizing for the strike,” Peretz retorted. “Israel looks like it is Third World not just because of strikes, but because of the condition of its workers – because of the oppression, the low minimum wage, the employers who pay less than minimum wage and recently also because of the non-payment of wages, about which not one industrialist has opened his mouth.”

These are strong words, but words are not enough to fight the capitalists and their system. It is not a simple matter for workers to go on strike, but once the fight begins we should fight to win. There are many dangers that should be avoided if the strike is to win. To begin we must understand what is our real situation. Why is the government attacking all the past gains of the workers?

The problems workers in Israel are facing cannot be simply explained by the situation inside Israel and by the state of the Israeli economy. That is only part of the story. Israel is also part of the more general world economy and this is also bringing pressure on Israeli society. The Israeli bosses are forced to attack the Israeli workers, because of the changes in the world in the last few years.

In a recent document published on this web site, analysing the world situation today, The molecular process of World Revolution – Part One, we explained the following:

“What is the main characteristic of the world situation? It is precisely the breakdown of the old stability, the violent disruption of the old equilibrium everywhere. Instead, wherever we look we see colossal and unprecedented instability and volatility at all levels. This is the most unstable period since 1945. Instead of boom, full employment and prosperity, there is crisis, growing unemployment and cuts in living standards, even in the most prosperous countries. The gap between rich and poor is constantly increasing and economic power is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

“Gone are the old certainties, the “American dream”, the conviction that tomorrow will be better than today, just as today was better than yesterday. In the advanced capitalist countries the present generation will be the first generation since 1945 whose living standards and working conditions will be worse than those of their parents. The relations between the classes are increasingly tense and unstable. To the degree that the real situation impresses itself on the consciousness of the masses, the stage will be set for an explosion of the class struggle everywhere. It is true that consciousness lags behind events, but it will catch up with a bang. That is the essence of a revolution.”

This applies to Israel as much as any other part of the world. Israel is a class divided society. This may seem obvious to some but we do need to repeat it for the myth is still being spread that in Israel we have one united nation of Jews. What we really have is rich and poor, just like in America or Europe, etc. If we take a closer look at the situation in Israeli society we see that while the profits of the banks in Israel reached 137 % this year, 450,000 people live below the poverty line and the gap between rich and poor is increasing with every passing day.

The other key question is jobs. The real unemployment figure is calculated at more than 12% nationally, however unemployment among Arabs citizens of Israel and the Jews who live in the “developing” towns is much higher.

The third key question is the allocation of money. It is not a secret that while the 15,000 workers in the municipalities have not been paid for over a year, money has been funnelled not only to the Yeshivas, but also to expand the settlements, build the separation wall and in general money has been poured into the oppression of the Palestinian unemployed, poor peasants and the poor in general.

In the same way that this government cannot solve the “peace” question, it cannot solve the economic problems. It is incapable of creating sufficient new jobs. The government attacks the workers in Israel just as it attacks the oppressed Palestinians. These attacks can create more misery but cannot solve any of the problems.

However, this is not all. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of history knows that when the class struggle is on the rise capitalist governments like to divert the masses away from the real problems by engaging in war. Is it, therefore, an accident that all of a sudden we hear that the United States is going to sell Israel 5,000 smart bombs, for $319 million?

The funding will come from US military aid to Israel, and the bombs range from airborne versions, guidance units, training bombs and detonators. We are talking about some extremely sophisticated military hardware here. The bombs are guided by satellite, in a system already part of the Israel Defence Forces arsenal. The guidance unit receives a signal from a satellite, correcting the bomb’s course to the target.

The Pentagon told Congress that the bombs are meant to maintain Israel’s qualitative advantage, and advance US strategic and tactical interests. Among the bombs the air force will get are 500 one-ton bunker busters that can penetrate two-meter-thick cement walls; 2,500 regular one-ton bombs; 1,000 half-ton bombs; and 500 quarter-ton bombs.

Thus we can see an enormous contradiction here that must be apparent to all Israeli workers. There is plenty of money for bombs but no money for workers’ wages.

To effectively fight this government that defends the capitalist system based on the exploitation of labour, it is necessary not only to understand reality, but also to have strategies to defeat the government of the class enemy.

Over the last few years Amir Peretz has made every possible mistake under the sun as a leader of a powerful trade union organization that has a membership of 700,000 members. The main mistake that Perez is repeating now is to isolate the strikers. A leadership seriously committed to the workers’ interests would have organized the public employees together with the workers in the private sector. This could be done by organizing a powerful 24 or 48-hour general strike of the entire labour force. Such a leadership would organize powerful political rallies and demonstrations instead of the passivity that Perez is trying to force onto the working class.

The strike should also be organized around a programme that can unite the Israeli Jewish workers with the Arab workers, the religious workers with the secular workers, the unemployed with the employed, the youth who do not have a future with the old who cannot live on the miserable pensions they are now receiving.

What is required is to organize the working class around a programme of immediate demands such as: 1) the full payment of wages to the council workers, 2) a minimum wage of 1000 dollars a month, 3) public works under democratic control of the workers’ themselves, 4) pensions the elderly can survive on, 5) proper and free medical care.

At the same time such a programme should be linked to transitional demands that lead to one conclusion: the need to replace the government of the capitalist with a workers’ government. Such a government would have the task of transforming the capitalist system to a socialist system based on the nationalisation of the banks and main sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management. Only such a government would be able to solve not only the economic problems but also the national question on the basis of the common interests of all the workers.

Past experience of major strike action in Israel has shown that there is a danger that Peretz will eventually reach a rotten compromise on the backs of the workers and present it as a great achievement. He has done this before. First he makes angry and militant speeches, giving the idea that he will fight. Then he tones his speeches down and agrees to sell out the workers. The government while viciously attacking pretends to make some minor concession and Peretz picks up on this presenting the whole manoeuvre as a “victory” for the workers.

As I write this article, representatives from the Finance Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Union of Local Authorities and the Histadrut labour federation are meeting n Jerusalem with the treasury’s wage director, Yuval Rachlevsky in a further effort to end to the general strike.

At the same time the National Labour Court is meeting to deal with appeals filed by the Manufacturers’ Association and the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce asking for an injunction against the strike. In the past this court has ruled a back to work and Perez has accepted it, using it as an excuse to cover for his own lack of will to fight. All this he has done, in spite of the strong opposition from the workers, and the workers’ committees.

If Peretz organizes the struggle seriously then we should all stand behind him, but if he cannot – or does not want to – do it, he should be replaced! We need genuine working class leaders at the head of the unions; leaders who want to win the war against the capitalists and their government.

To begin with, pressure must be brought to bear on the Histadrut leadership. This needs to be organised. First we need the correct demands, as we have attempted to outline above. But we also need a channel through which the workers of Israel can build up this pressure. What we need are strike committees in all the workplaces, united through regional and national frameworks of democratically elected delegates. The wishes of the workers should be expressed through this structure and the Histadrut leaders should be bound by any decisions taken by the workers. All elected delegates should also be recallable. That way anyone who no longer reflects the wishes of the workers can be easily removed and replaced by a more fighting militant worker.

The present general strike is another confirmation of the fact that the old days are definitely gone in Israel. While the Israeli ruling class wages war against the Palestinians it is also waging a war on the home front against its own workers. The crisis of Israeli capitalism is widening the gap between the classes. The workers need to – and want to – fight back. We must do everything to make this a successful strike. Unfortunately we have the leaders we have. Many workers are already fed up with this leadership. If they sign another rotten deal, it will not be good for the workers. However, the workers will not forget. They will learn from this experience. The more advanced workers will begin to think of how they can achieve a genuinely representative trade union leadership.

Going beyond that, however, there are some more general conclusions to be drawn. While the bosses attack the workers incessantly, none of the major parties have a real alternative to the economic policies of the present government. Therefore the only conclusion we can draw is that the workers need their own party, a genuine mass party of labour, of the working class. Unless such a party is created there will be an endless game of struggles and sell-outs.

No one can imagine that this can go on without any major change within the working class itself. The workers will use every channel possible to defend their interests. Eventually they will reach the conclusion that they need their own socialist party. The Israeli Marxists will play their role in this and offer the workers an alternative perspective. They will tell the workers the truth: either you remove the Israeli capitalists or life will become ever more intolerable. There is no other way.

The present strike is just the beginning of a process.