The social and democratic revolutions that have been sweeping the Middle East have redrawn the political map and rewritten the regional rules, writes Assaf Adiv*, National Coordinator of WAC-Maan. Antagonisms between Israel, the Arab world and the Palestinians have taken on a new dimension, in light of the movement for change in Arab states. Revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt have brought down the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak, shifting the center of power back to the street. The order that has prevailed in the region for more than 30 years is being shaken to the core.

In Israel, a social protest movement has been gaining momentum. Influenced by the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to express their lack of faith in the Netanyahu-Lieberman government and two decades of neo-liberal economics.

The Workers’ Advice Center WAC-Maan (WAC) was established in the mid-1990s. It was set up outside the framework of Israel’s largest trade union federation — the Histadrut — and was openly opposed to neo-liberalism. WAC has sought to combine social struggle with the struggle for peace and against the occupation, together with the fight against discrimination on a national basis.

While capitalism in the ’90s was promising growth for all, WAC defended workers who were being pushed to the margins. Confronting insular Jewish and Arab nationalistic and religious trends, which developed after the second intifada (in 2000), WAC argued for a new model of partnership on a class basis between Jewish and Arab workers.

The workers in Al-Mahala al-Kubra in Egypt and the mines of Gafsa in southern Tunisia rose up in 2008, and were joined by the youth and the rest of their nations in December 2010 and January/February 2011. It was a clear illustration of WAC’s argument that workers in the Middle East are no different to workers elsewhere in the world. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have put social justice and democracy back on the agenda. Instead of the nationalistic and religious slogans which have enjoyed complete control in recent years, demands for democracy and social justice are serving to unite the nations.

The protest movement that arose in Israel in the summer of 2011 is without doubt a reflection on the enormous influence of the Arab uprisings. Predatory capitalism, which had trampled over human dignity and basic rights in Egypt and Tunisia, is also deeply felt by many Israelis. The protests in Israel are still predominantly a middle-class phenomenon, rather than an open challenge to the regime, however they are laying the groundwork for a more comprehensive movement for social change.

The destruction of the social safety net

In Israel, the official trade union (the Histadrut) was once an incredibly powerful body. At times it served almost as a second state within the state. Until the mid-1980s, the Histadrut was also a leading player in the economy, employing hundreds of thousands in the firms it owned. It controlled the main health service, the General Sick Fund, and other organizations including pension funds, cultural bodies and sports organizations. Some 85% of the workforce was organized within the Histadrut framework.

However, with the severe economic crisis of the 1980s, which featured inflation of hundreds of percent, Israel adopted the Emergency Economic Stabilization Plan (1985). With this came a rapid march towards privatization and the dismantling of the welfare state. Since then, Israel has been dominated by the view that market forces are the solution to every problem. The state’s role is to deliver its citizens to the market. Israel now boasts the widest socioeconomic disparities and one of the highest rates of poverty in the western world.

There have been cuts to disability and old-age benefits, child allowances and unemployment benefits, along with a dramatic reduction in investment in social services like health, education and housing. The withdrawal of the state from housing, job creation and training have created a new economic situation. Workers are being pushed into poverty even where they work in full-time employment. Even middle-class workers with academic credentials are finding themselves ground under.

The Histadrut has retained a pragmatic position as production lines are being moved to poorer countries; state-owned (and Histadrut-owned) companies have been privatized; workers have been transferred to manpower agencies; and migrant labor has been imported without any social protection. Thatcherite neo-liberalism has continued to sweep Israel, while the number of workers organized by the federation has fallen to just 26% of the workforce. Taking all unions into account, less than one third of Israeli workers today are organized.

This is the background to the social protests in Israel. After two gratuitous and blood-soaked wars (in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-9), Netanyahu’s government launched a series of anti-Arab legislative changes, while continuing with privatizations and transfering more assets and influence into the hands of a small number of wealthy families.

However, in 2011 Israel revealed its Achilles’ heel. The protest movement is the explosion of an undercurrent that has been gathering pace for a decade. It has found its voice in the establishment of hundreds of organizations, NGOs and unions. These have begun to demand real social change. In the same way that WAC was established to assist Arab workers on the periphery, other organizations such as Kav Laoved, Hotline for Migrant Workers and Physicians for Human Rights have concentrated on marginalized groups, working to support those excluded from the established framework of the labour movement. It is not relevant whether they are migrant laborers, Palestinian workers or Israeli employees of manpower agencies.

A new union is launched

Initially, WAC was a workers’ advice center. The transition to a representative workers’ organization came with the struggle against unemployment among Arab Israeli workers in construction and agriculture. Since 2002, the organization has been involved in campaigning against the importation of migrant labor under semi-slavery conditions. At the same time, the union has established itself as an organization able to assist employers in recruiting workers in construction and agriculture in the Arab sector, on condition that their employment is within the framework of an industry-wide collective agreement.

This work has led to the employment of thousands from Arab towns in Israel. It has extended the social base and enabled the organization to build its public status vis-à-vis government ministries, employers and the courts. This new form of organizing was aimed at fighting unemployment and resisting discrimination against Arab workers. However, in addition to this, the work has enabled WAC to develop solid experience in the recruitment and organization of workers, along with the negotiation of collective agreements. In 2006-7, the leadership of WAC decided to become a representative organization — a recognized trade union.

WAC is open to Jews and Arabs alike. Branches in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem now attract workers from many fields, such as art teachers and truck drivers. A new branch has been opened in Haifa, aiming to organize truck drivers (see below). In addition, the organization has made changes to its own internal regulations to enable it to establish a democratic organizational structure and set up workers’ committees and handle labor disputes, as is required by law of representative trade unions in Israel.

To illustrate WAC’s work, here are three examples from different fields in which it is active. What characterizes these campaigns is the targeting of workers who lack of union representation, and building from the ground up.

1) Targeting truckers – Jews and Arabs in equal conditions of exploitation

At the end of 2009 WAC began a campaign to unionize truck drivers. The decision to target this group, which includes some 15,000 heavy-vehicle drivers, was taken after contact by drivers through whom WAC learned about conditions in the sector. This is a central economic sector (only 5% of goods for import and export or for the internal market are transported by rail) in which both Jews and Arabs are employed in equal conditions of exploitation. This sector, entirely privately-owned by large and small firms (an estimated 470 companies), is characterised by long working long hours (some 70 hours per week) and no effective protection.

To build up a presence and gain familiarity with the drivers, intensive activity was initiated at the entrance to Israel’s main ports of Haifa and Ashdod. A new WAC branch was opened in Haifa, in order to be more accessible for the drivers. Leaflets were produced in Hebrew, Arabic and Russian (many drivers of former USSR origin do not read Hebrew or Arabic), exposing the deceit behind the current system of payments. WAC’s legal department formulated a new wage scale and presented it as an alternative to the existing collective agreement.

A legal team helped drivers assert their rights after dismissal or leaving work. Each success was advertised and became a talking point among the drivers. At the same time research and articles were published, and various government and public bodies were informed of breaches of safety. This led to extensive media exposure.

One of the initiatives taken as a result of this work was the unionization of drivers in the haulage firm Hamenia – one of the leading companies in the sector. At the end of November 2010, a workers’ committee was elected. This met strong resistance from the company, which was supported by all the main companies in the sector, and a number of drivers were intimidated. However, in the end a court ruling established WAC in the haulage industry, giving the first official confirmation that the organization constitutes a workers’ union.

Special efforts were made to create unity between Jewish and Arab drivers during this campaign. Truck drivers in Israel are often considered to be conservative and nationalist. Arab drivers are portrayed as insular within their religion (they are mostly Moslem), while veteran Jewish drivers are considered mostly to be Likud voters. Russian immigrants are portrayed as (right wing Israel Beitenu Party led by the bigot A. Lieberman) Lieberman supporters. WAC experience in this sector shows that despite such stereotypes, there is clear common ground for unity.

2) The Salit quarry workers’ strike

Another case that illustrates WAC’s work is the organization of workers at Salit Quarries. The workers are Palestinian, mostly residents of areas under Palestinian Authority control and some from East Jerusalem (annexed by Israel). They are employed by Israelis in Israeli-occupied territory east of Jerusalem. This area is a kind of “no-man’s land”, in which there is no enforcement of workers’ rights or basic health and safety measures. The Palestinian union is prevented from representing them in Israeli courts or in negotiations with Israeli employers.

This is not an isolated case. In East Jerusalem some 50,000-70,000 Palestinian residents employed by Israeli companies find themselves in the same situation. The 30,000-50,000 Palestinian workers employed in industrial zones of Israeli settlements in the West Bank are also lacking union protection. To assist these workers, WAC have been operating an office in East Jerusalem for over a decade.

At Salit, WAC has worked for four years to improve conditions, implement safety protocols, raise wages, and ensure pension fund contributions from the employer. During efforts to unionize, they compelled the management to provide dining and washing facilities. Likewise, the workers have been issued with wage slips for the first time, and basic insurance contributions have been paid (national insurance and basic pension payments). Management has agreed to elections for a workers’ committee and has begun negotiations towards a collective agreement. In 2010, the workers declared a four-day strike to compel the management to start negotiations. Later, when a draft agreement had been reached and the management backed down from signing, another strike of nearly three months was declared. At the end of this the quarry declared bankruptcy. Despite the complex situation in which the workers find themselves due to the bankruptcy, they continue to view their struggle as a success, and believe victory will be achieved in the legal arena too.

WAC has established itself as a responsible and determined workers’ organization, ready to fight relentlessly for Palestinian workers’ rights.

3) Organizing teachers in private art colleges

Various private art schools have opened in Israel during the last 30 years, due to an increase in the number of artists and craftspeople working in fields such as painting, music, alternative therapy etc. These establishments, which demand high fees from students, employ thousands of teachers. Many of these are well-known artists – in conditions of poor wages via subcontracting agencies and without peripheral benefits or employment security.

This stratum of teachers (a great majority of whom are Israeli Jews) is not unionized. WAC’s links with artists via solidarity initiatives with Arab workers led to a number of opportunities to organize these teachers.

At Tel Aviv’s Minshar School of Art WAC reached an agreement with management in 2008, according to which teachers would be employed directly (instead of by the hour via agencies) with all peripheral benefits. In 2010, organizers began a process of unionization at the Musrara School of Photography (70 teachers), and a collective agreement was signed in October 2010. The teachers’ committee was a partner in the process, which included a general assembly outside the premises due to the management’s initial opposition. WAC won the management’s cooperation only after presenting a sufficient number of signatures and demonstrating that the teachers were determined to reach an agreement. An agreement was reached within four months.

At the Jerusalem School of Visual Theatre a similar process was begun in 2011, and negotiations began in June towards a collective agreement. Here, too, WAC encountered difficulties, but the teachers were determined to unionize, and rejected all attempts to deter or scare them. When it was said that WAC was a small, new organization with a radical character (“supports the Arabs”), the teachers said that was exactly why they chose WAC, whose leaders and activists believe in social justice.

A new type of union

WAC is becoming a significant player in the industrial relations arena in Israel. It gives a voice to young people, women and men, both Jews and Arabs, people who have lost their dignity as well as their rights in a state that worships capital and neglects labor. Furthermore, the organization’s position is gaining ground in central media channels.

WAC’s members have played an active part in the social protest movement that erupted in the the summer of 2011 in Israel; well aware of both its strength and limitations. The movement, irrespective of numbers and ethics, will not be able to change the situation in Israel if it does not translate its influence into political power. The tents currently erected in central squares in cities throughout Israel will not remain there forever. Their place as symbols of protest must be taken by organizations and unions who will unite the workers and political forces, and  give expression to the deep desire for change and an end to destructive, unbridled capitalism.

WAC works to give a voice to the forces currently not represented. It is convinced that the new protest movement in Israel opens opportunities for the working class and Arab workers to rise out of passivity and despair. Within the demonstrations and events and during countless debates, activists spoke of the need to place the issues of social justice and peace together. WAC’s call for bringing down the rightwing government is not just due to the government’s anti-social agenda, but also its extremely militant approach towards the Palestinians.

The deep lack of faith in the economic and political establishment which is being expressed through social protest enables WAC to promote the unionization of workers and encourage workers to defend themselves and act independently on the political level too. Changes throughout the region and in Israel have prepared the ground for the creation of new movements, unions and political parties, within Israel and throughout the whole region.

* About the author

Assaf Adiv is National Co-ordinator of the independent union WAC-Maan. He has been active in the movement against the oppression of Palestinians and the struggle for workers’ rights since the 1970s. During this time he worked as a journalist in the Arabic\Hebrew newspaper Tarik Al-Shararaa, spending 18 months in jail on political charges along with 3 other editors of the paper. He is a leading member of the left Marxist-oriented “Daam – Workers Party” and writes on social and political issues in the local Hebrew and Arabic press and in the e-magazines Etgar (Hebrew) Al-Sabar (Arabic) Challenge (English).