Last Thursday (February 5), almost the entire railway traffic in Israel came to a halt due to a sudden strike that was carried out by the railway workers' unofficial union. Although this strike did not last much longer than 24 hours, there are several reasons why it is noteworthy.
On the morning after the strike was initiated, the media rushed to accuse the workers of striking in protest at the arrest of the their official union leaders due to corruption charges. The truth, however, is markedly different. The arrested heads of the official union had nothing to do with the recent strike. The strike was carried out by an unofficial union that emerged under the nose of the bureaucracy of Israel's trade union federation – the Histadrut. The actual reason for the strike was the recent dismissal of dozens of railway workers and the replacement of some of them by cronies of the management; most of them with an army background, like the management itself.
The railway management and the Histadrut bureaucracy were caught off guard: the Israeli workforce is usually considered docile and obedient. Strikes are almost always carried out under the Histadrut's orders. The chairman of the Histadrut, Ofer Einy, was hysterical in his response. He called the strike a "criminal act", a "wildcat strike" and advised the railway bosses to fire the union's leaders immediately. This hysteria is clearly related to Einy's failure in keeping the Israeli workers in check – which is his main duty as the man of the bourgeoisie inside the worker's movement.
Obviously, a strike that paralysed the train system of an entire country is anything but a wildcat strike. It is a complex enterprise, taken over by a union that managed, under the nose of the bosses, to sweep away the support of almost all the railway workers in Israel. This is the first time that one of the unofficial unions that grew out of the Histadrut's consistent betrayals, has had such an overwhelming effect on the country. And almost certainly won't be the last time.
The workers finally backed down as a court order outlawed the strike officially. However, none of the workers’ representatives agreed to show up at the trial as a protest, which indicated their progressive understanding that the courts in a bourgeois society are far from impartial.
The strike may show that Israel's ultimate solution to keep workers under control – the "national security" pretext – is beginning to exhaust itself. During times of "security threats", the state has always used the opportunity to further weaken and disenfranchise the Israeli proletariat. The first Palestinian uprising was used to put a halt to the strike waves that characterized Israel in the 1970s and 1980s and started a wave of de-unionisation carried out by the Labor Party. During the 2000 uprisings, it was a perfect time for the then Treasury Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to implement his radical neo-liberal scheme which nullified decades of workers’ achievements. Any protest that began was silenced under the pretext of weakening the nation in times of "security threats". The new trade unions are much less susceptible than the old ones to state deception of this sort.
The ultimate failure of the workers to ignore the court order and to continue striking should not be attributed to the workers’ respect for the majesty of the courts: their representatives refused to show up at the trial and the workers continued with the strike for hours after the court order. The reason for the eventual compliance with the court order was the isolation of the strike throughout the country. The railway workers were not supported by any other trade union. There is a lesson to be drawn from this: the progressive workers in Israel should not isolate themselves from the rest of the Israeli working class. The advanced layers of the Israeli proletariat still need the support of the mass of the workers for their battles to be successful.