Israel: Histadrut unmoved by Arab winds of change

Members of the Workers Democratic Party march through Tahrir Square on May Day, 2011. Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy/ahramonline.

By Assaf Adiv

May 11, 2011 -- Challenge -- Ofer Eini and the Histadrut  [Israel's Zionist, pro-capitalist peak trade union body] are deaf to the voices of change calling from Cairo and the Arab world. Trade unions around the world identify with the new forces, leaving the conservative Histadrut alone in its corner.

Hussein Mugawer was recently arrested in Cairo. Mugawer is the head of the official federation of Egyptian workers, which was affiliated with Mubarak’s regime for many long years. He is accused of being involved in the suppression of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and of corruption. This year the Egyptian workers, whose official union lined up against them and took the side of their employers for years, celebrated International Workers Day in Tahrir Square as they waved the flags of the new independent unions established during the uprising.

The revolutionary jolt has frightened Israel’s prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu, committed to a neoliberal agenda and his alliance with capital, fears not only the Arab nations who demand democracy, but also – and mainly – the fall of the tyrants who were his principal allies. Their fall is certainly to be expected. But the interesting question is, where doesIsrael's “workers’ leader” Ofer Eini position himself in this equation? Does he stand beside the Arab workers who are struggling for social justice and equality, or does he cling to his role as the faithful servant of capital and the corrupt regime?

For his part, Eini doesn’t seem concerned with this question at all. As usual, the Histadrut, under his leadership, chose not to mark May 1 this year. The Histadrut leadership cannot even conceive of rethinking its path in the light of the changes sweeping the region.

New spirit in unions around the world

Eini’s disregard for the events taking place under his nose is in complete contrast to the position taken by the International Trade Union Confederation. The ITUC, which represents millions of workers around the world, and which includes the Histadrut among its members, published a position paper on May 1 (in the form of a declaration) in which it noted the inspiration drawn by workers from the uprisings in the Arab world. The ITUC expressed complete support for the new independent trade unions in Egypt and saluted the courage of the women and men who led the historic struggle for freedom.

This declaration sits well with public opinion around the world, which sees the uprisings as the inevitable response of nations who have lived for a long time under economic, social and cultural oppression, and who want to be part of society in the 21st century.

But in the historic Histadrut building on Tel Aviv’s Arlozorov Street, the voices of change remain unheard. Workers in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Bahrain and neighbouring Arab states are rising up and demanding democracy and social justice, but the Histadrut turns a deaf ear.

From the Cold War to globalisation

The support of unions around the world for the new workers’ movement in Egypt is not self-evident. During the Cold War, these unions tended – like the Histadrut – to take a conservative position. All revolutionary movements were immediately branded as communist and thus support was withheld from democratic struggles.

The conservative policy of these unions was accompanied by a strong bureaucratic approach which prevented rank and file workers from being involved in decision making and impeded cooperation between unions, social movements, rights organisations and left-wing parties. The worldview at the heart of this policy saw unions as a kind of guild for workers with high wages and fringe benefits, a guild that does not take responsibility for the rest of the working population, and certainly not for weaker groups (the unemployed, minorities or migrant labourers). The Histadrut fitted in well with this approach because of its conservative method of operation and its close ties to the establishment in Israel.

But global capitalism unilaterally put an end to its cooperation with trade unions, and the unions began struggling for their lives. During the same period, capital was freed from all regulation, industries were moved to states offering cheap labour, employment via body hire agencies became the norm, the public sector was privatised and social security was dismantled.

In recent years, various unions have elected a new leadership which has begun cooperating with the movement against globalisation and positioned itself in opposition to privatisation and the reduction of the welfare state. In France and Italy, the unions organised general strikes against violations of pension rights. In Britain, the Trades Union Congress stood at the head of the enormous demonstrations against planned cuts in the public service sector. Already in 2003, unions were central partners in the demonstrations against the war on Iraq. Even though they did not succeed in preventing it, they contributed to the formation of an international public opinion which eventually led to the downfall of the leaders that had supported the war: George W. Bush in the US, Tony Blair in Britain and Jose Maria Aznar in Spain.

Growing criticism of Israel

The support of unions today for the Arab nations’ struggle for democracy and social change is accompanied by deeper involvement in world opinion regarding the Palestinian issue, and thereby pushes the Histadrut into an uncomfortable corner. The Histadrut's allies of yesterday are increasing their criticism of the continued Israeli occupation, of Israel’s refusal to halt settlement in the occupied territories and of its refusal to recognise Palestinian rights to self-determination and an independent state.

Ofer Eini and the Histadrut face tough decisions. If they go on behaving like an official branch of the government, like the unions that were affiliated with the fallen Arab regimes, they’ll lose their credibility among Israeli workers too. We recall Eini’s behaviour during the social workers’ strike: he signed an agreement with the finance ministry that was far from the demands of the social workers. The draft agreement was rejected by the leading council of the Social Workers Union, but Eini managed to manipulate the union into accepting a new version of the same. (See our recent article on the social workers' strike.) Eini insisted on representing the state in opposition to the workers, just like the secretary-general of the official Egyptian union, Hussein Mugawer, who is now in jail.

A time of change

The option of creating a union which concerns itself with the privileged and leaves a growing number of workers in the shadows is dead and buried. Unions which fail to renew their outlook will find themselves irrelevant. Capital no longer needs them, and workers will find other ways of promoting their struggle. Just as unions around the world are supporting democratic uprisings, Palestinian rights and a just peace in the region, Israeli unions will not be able to remain indifferent to the events around them. However, instead of leading a social movement in support of solidarity among workers and opposing the Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman government, Eini serves as a propaganda lackey in the style of Hussein Mugawer.

As the social workers learned to their cost, those who allow Eini to lead them are likely to fall into a trap and lose everything. Sooner or later the workers in Israel will rise up, Arabs and Jews alike, and join the struggle for social justice.

This is the time to act. Social activists, civil society organisations, workers’ leaders, workers' committees both new and old, including committees under Histadrut auspices – all must build a broad coalition for democratic change and social justice, adopting the uprising in Tahrir Square as a symbol of progressive change for the region. 

  • Translated by Yonatan Preminger.
[Challenge is a leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Tel Aviv, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. Its editorial staff includes Jews and Arabs. Challenge is part of a network including Al Sabar (in Arabic) and Etgar (in Hebrew). Challenge is one of the very few sources in English focusing on the problems of Arabs in Israel. We emphasise such issues as the plight of local Arab workers amid the forces of globalisation, gender issues and political discussions taking place in the community. We give space to issues of human rights and the progressive cultural scene in Israel today. You will find a strong bond between Challenge and the Workers Advice Center, as well as Sindyanna of Galilee, a fair-trade organisation led by women.]