Last week we reported on the growing tensions between the Sharon government and the Israeli trade unions. It looked as if a general strike was about to be called, but last minute deals were being made to avert it. In the end the Histadrut leaders climbed down and called off the action, in response to a Ministry of Finance agreement to open negotiations with the unions.
The conflict is over the government’s so-called "economic emergency programme" which includes severe attacks on the Israeli workers, in particular in the public sector. The problem was that the Minister of Finance, Netanyahu, had reached agreements with everyone except the trade unions. He had agreed it with the US administration, who had placed conditions in exchange for aid to Israel mainly on "security" issues. He also agreed the contents of the programme with the Bank of Israel. The Israeli economy is in recession and there is pressure to bring down interest rates, but again the Bank of Israel had posed its conditions before these cuts could be implemented. It wants serious cuts in public spending before it will implement any measures to "stimulate" the economy.
However, in spite of its harsh rhetoric the government revealed its weakness in all this process. Under pressure from the military it decided to increase military spending. It also gave in on salaries for policemen, and on other issues such as university fees and public transport fares. This shows that this is a weak government that is forced to satisfy the different forces that make it up, each with an electoral base to appease.
The only section it was holding firm on was the government workers! His plan is to sack workers and cut wages, as part of an overall target of cutting back the public sector. Netanyahu also added the further provocative measure of deciding to unilaterally rescind any agreement with the Histadrut. Thus a so-called government of the people of Israel (overwhelmingly populated by Jewish people) was seen as giving greater importance to US pressure than to that of the Jewish workers! But the workers were not prepared to stand for this. A series of strikes started among government workers and Amir Peretz, leader of the Histadrut union was forced to threaten a general strike.
And up until the last minute it seemed the strike would go ahead. Under pressure the government backed off and opened negotiations, hoping to reach an agreement with the unions so as to be able to get the whole package passed through the Knesset (Israeli parliament) by the middle of this month.
The government and the bourgeois media in Israel have been mounting up the pressure on the Histadrut leaders, reminding them of their "sense of responsibility". They are saying that the workers, especially the government, must share the burden of sorting out the economic crisis the country is in. It is the same song we have heard so many times. When times are good the capitalists make fat profits and share out the crumbs to the workers. When their own system goes into crisis, who is to pay? The workers of course.
The Histadrut leaders are behaving like typical bureaucrats. They believe they gone avoid a strike by reaching some kind of deal with the government. The point they ignore (or want to hide) is that the government will come back again and again with these attacks. If they are forced this time round to make some concessions, they will keep the rest of their plans for the next budget. It will be a relentless and long term attack on the workers of Israel. The economic situation dictates this road.
If this government fails to provide the programme the Israeli capitalists, and their US backers, want, then what will be the purpose of this government? It could lead to another government crisis, another reshuffle of the cabinet, a remixing of the coalition members and possible even early elections at some point. This has happened before, and we are back to another anti-working class budget.
As the Jerusalem Post recently commented, "if the policy package (however it turns out) is delayed too long, the guaranteed further deterioration of the economy will dictate even harsher measures than the current ones." The onslaught is inexorable, and it will be the workers of Israel who will be made to pay.
The Histradut leaders will not be able to avoid this scenario. They may get away with it this time, but the pressure will continue to build up. For the time being the strike has been called off, but the conflict between the unions on the one side and the bosses and their government on the other will not go away. Over the coming period the class struggle will heat up in Israel and in the process the workers will draw the conclusion that they need trade union leaders who genuinely represent the interests of the workers of Israel. The task is to build an opposition inside the unions around which can be organised a struggle to transform the Israeli unions into genuine fighting organs of the working class.