||Issue No. 134||03 May 2002|
The Hijacking of May Day
Interview: Youth Group
History: Back To The Future
Industrial: On the Street
Unions: The New Deal
Legal: The Police State Road
Women: What Women Want
Politics: Street Party
International: The Costs of War
Review: Songs of Solidarity
Satire: Bono Satisfies World Hunger for Preachy Rockstars
The Locker Room
Week in Review
M1 Open Letter
May Day Debacle
Mothers Day Musings
Greetings From Canada
The Costs of War
The trade union movement in Israel is threatening to call a general strike to protest the government's plans to make working families pay for Sharon's war against the Palestinians.
The Sharon Government released a Budget, which called for an 18-month national wage freeze, the cutting of a whole range of social welfare benefits and the raising of taxes.
The Histadrut - the national trade union centre - has given legal notice that a general strike will be called within a fortnight to protest the Budget.
The focus of the general strike will be opposition to the push to freeze wages, but the protesters will also be attacking the extraordinary social welfare cuts - such as the 25 per cent cut to child allowances, which will hurt the large working class families in both the Orthodox Jewish community and the Israeli-Arab community.
Amir Peretz, the Histadrut chairman, described the proposals as the Sharon government opening up a new war-front to "fight against its citizens."
Since the Histadrut announced its opposition to the wage freeze the government has already begun rolling back plans to legally mandate the pay freeze.
But while the treasury has dropped the idea of imposing a wage freeze in 2002 and 2003 by legislation; it will now try to negotiate such a freeze with the Histadrut trade union federation.
Since the second Palestinian Intifada began, now nearly 20 months ago, the economy of Israel has been stagnating. As the key tourism and hospitality sector has collapsed unemployment has risen sharply among both Israelis and Palestinians.
Almost all of the Palestinian workers who used to go daily to work inside Israel proper have been locked out of their jobs causing massive impoverishment inside Palestine Authority territory.
Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, estimates that some 257,000 Palestinians are unemployed due to the border closures with 64 per cent of the community living below the poverty line.
The construction industry in Israel was dominated by Palestinian workers from the PA territory, while more than 10 per cent of the workers in the Israeli tourism, agriculture, manufacturing and mining industry came from the Gaza strip or the West Bank.
Israeli employers have tried to replace the Palestinian workforce with cheap labour imported from Thailand, the Philippines and large swathes of Africa - at the moment more than 10 per cent of the workforce in Israel is made up of these guest workers.
The guest workers have been used by both employers, and the government, to dampen wage campaigns. Pressures to cut back the guest worker program to employ local Israeli and Palestinian workers have been vocally resisted.
But with unemployment in Israel reaching levels not seen in a decade the pressure to create more jobs for locals - and to cut back the guest worker program will only intensify.
The threat of a general strike has been announced just as the Histadrut leadership is facing rank-and-file elections - which are scheduled for mid-June.
Cynics might say that the legal notice of a general strike might be an election ploy by the group now controlling the trade union movement - to show union members the leadership is prepared to fight Sharon.
Maybe a 'reason' will be found over the next 14 days for the withdrawal of the legal notice of a general strike.
Certainly the social costs of the war and the spiraling levels of unemployment can be expected to be a major agenda issue during the Histadrut elections.
Party lists contest these elections with almost all political groupings putting forward a trade union ticket.
The Israeli media gives these elections a status almost equal to the general elections because the Histadrut is a political and economic power centre that occasionally rivals the government in its influence over the country's public life.
Just under half the union rank-and-file register a vote, and during the union election campaign regular polls are published of union member attitudes to the different tickets .
On the night votes are counted television stations break into programs to update the results.
It is as if Sharan Burrow, Greg Combet, John Robertson, Leigh Hubbard, Grace Grace, Lyn Fitzgerald, et al had to put themselves forward for elections before Australia's two million union members.
And party lists are established to contest the nationwide union election with candidates and tickets drawn from the Socialist Alliance, the Greens, various Trot groups, through to the ALP, even the Liberals and the old-DLP.
Then on the night the result is shown Kerry O'Brien would run an ABC special giving a blow-by-blow account of the voting results from each regional labor council, state labor council and the ACTU.
Israelis refer to Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv as The Kremlin - and until the mid-1990s the Israeli Labor Party had firm control of this institution, which provided finance, logistical support, candidates and policy ideas to Labor.
But a break away Labor Party group, called Am Ehad( One People), whose founders were traditionally more doveish, successfully beat the Labor apparatchiks who controlled the Histadrut in the mid-1990s.
In succeeding elections the Am Ehad group have maintained control of the union movement.
The 'reform' group has radically restructured the Histadrut in a drive to make the Israeli trade union movement a 'pure' labour institution.
Over the last six years the Am Ehad group have got rid of the daily Histadrut controlled newspaper, Davar; they sold off many of the companies and co-ops the union movement owned and, most importantly, they have hived off the union health agency which dominated the Israeli medical establishment.
Relations Between the Histadrut and the PGFTU
Relations between the Israeli and Palestinian trade union centres - the Histadrut and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions - have run hot-and-cold.
The Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions is working hard to get the two national trade union centres to work together.
If there ever was a time for the popular slogans of international working class solidarity to be put into practice this is a crucial moment.
In fact there are strong rumours of meetings being organised, in third-countries, between Shaher Sae'd, General Secretary of the PGFTU and Amir Peretz, the Histadrut chairman - with the hope that these two trade union institutions can act as a 'back channel' for wider national negotiations.
However if they have occurred under the auspices of the ICFTU - neither the Brussels organisation, nor the two trade union groupings, are prepared to openly discuss these meetings.
Since the Oslo Accords a number of national trade union centres have put a lot of time, money and effort into trying to build bridges between the Israeli and Palestinian trade unions.
Though some of the work from the Japanese and Norwegian trade union movements has had some effect, they have always resulted in only small steps towards co-operation.
Certainly Shaher Sae'd of the PGFTU has been darkly critical of the Histadrut for breaking off relationships between the two trade union centres after the outbreak of the intifada.
" The are no relations any more. Since the beginning of the intifada, maintaining links has become an impossibility. Histadrut have not obliged the agreement that we signed together, it was broken off from their side," Shaher Sae'd is quoted as saying in January on the ICFTU website.
The PGFTU has long criticised the Histadrut for not campaigning hard enough to ensure that Palestinian workers are treated equally with Israeli workers - in both pay and working conditions.
The Histadrut responses - about the skills base of the Palestinians and the social wage responsibilities of the union centre for the non-Israeli workforce - can be, at best, characterised as a fig leaf for their inactivity.
The need for solidarity between the Israeli and Palestinian trade union movements ( as well as the unions of Jordan and Egypt ) will dramatically increase as Israeli companies make use of the peace process by moving labour intensive companies - especially from the textile and food sectors - 'off-shore' .
There are already examples of Israeli companies using the weaker labour laws and the lower pay rates in Palestinian Authority areas as well as in Egypt and Jordan to increase their profits.
The well-respected Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem in 1999 documented in a 57-page report the way Israeli bosses have used to their advantage ( and to the disadvantage of both Palestinian and Israeli workers) the loopholes in labour laws. B'tselem criticised the massive human rights violations of Palestinian workers.
In 1995 an agreement was signed between the PGFTU and the Histadrut. The agreement stipulated that the Histadrut collects trade union agency fees for Palestinian workers employed in Israel, and remits half of the sum collected to the PGFTU.
The other half was to funds trade union representation of Palestinian workers employed in Israel. The agreement established a liaison committee made up of senior officers from the two national union structures.
But the agency fee agreement has never been implemented with the Histadrut still holding on to monies collected since 1996.
Questioning the PGFTU as an independent trade union
The relationships between the Palestinian and Israeli trade union centres was always tenuous - in part because the 'trade union' nature of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions ( PGFTU) has been severely questioned - even inside the Palestinian community, especially from the secular Left elements.
There is deep concern that the models being followed by some of the trade union leaders is closer to the ideology of Stalinist trade unionism - where unions and their leaders are not there to represent members but to act as an arm of the State and enforce, and control, on behalf of the State, the work practices of their members.
Most of the PGFTU officials are political appointees from different Palestinian groupings. There has not been trade union elections for about 15 years, though there have been a few exceptions with elections held in local unions and workplaces.
In 1996 Arafat's Palestinian Authority forcibly shut down the PGFTU, because they feared it might establish an independent character and structure, apart from the corrupt patronage system of the Fatah.
The shutdown of the PGFTU was the one of the excuses used by the Histadrut not to implement the 1995 agreement to pass over the trade union agency fees .
And the monies have still not been paid even though the PGFTU has now been re-established, and is accepted by the international trade union movement as part of the ICFTU.
The Palestinian Authority's banning was a clear violation of the basic human right of workers to organise free and independent unions.
However the leadership of the PGFTU was not strong enough to fight for their own rights as representatives of working people in independent trade unions who from time-to-time will, necessarily, confront the Palestinian authorities on behalf of their grass roots membership base.
The revived PGFTU saw the creation of a dozen or so new industry unions representing hospital workers, manufacturing workers, white-collar workers etc.
However the creation of these new unions has again been caught up in the political patronage processes of the PA, with control of each union divided up between a variety of Palestinian political factions.
Arafat's popularity among the Palestinian working class was in steep decline before the Intifada because of anger about corruption inside the PA .
The workers were especially angry about the way the misuse of worker entitlements paid by Israeli bosses to the PA.
Social wage monies paid by employers into health insurance and unemployment insurance for working families regularly 'disappeared', or was not available when families actually needed money for medicine or to pay for periods of unemployment.
Ironically Arafat has been saved by Ariel Sharon from the rising anger of Palestinian workers about these corrupt practices - because the war on the territories has re-ignited his hero status among an increasingly skeptical working class.
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