Unionized Hostage Taking In Israel


By Ariel Natan Pasko

Did you ever imagine that terrorism could become unionized?

Well in Israel, they've developed economic terrorism into a fine science. Israel's large trade union - the Histadrut - has just carried out the longest-running labor "slowdown" in Israeli history - 100 days. The union took the entire country hostage for over three months. Rather than strike, in which workers would loose income, they simply show up to work, but do virtually nothing. That way they still collect their salaries.

When trying to get a phone number from directory assistance, people were told, "We are only giving out emergency numbers. Is this an emergency?" People haven't been able to re-new passports, get birth and death certificates - the burial societies had only certain hours to bury the dead - people couldn't apply for unemployment benefits - and that during the highest unemployment period in Israel's history - and a host of other government services. They didn't care how much they hurt the average citizen, who couldn't do anything to help them anyways.

Workers at the Electric and Water companies are already the highest paid salaried workers in Israel - about twice the national average and three times the salary of teachers - and they are public regulated utilities. Don't forget that the workers at Israel Electric Corp. also get free, unlimited electricity to boot. Now you know why electricity prices keep rising in Israel.

But hey, they're unionized!

Speaking of unions, the Histadrut had been threatening a general strike for several months, due to the Israeli government's economic reform plan. And what did the government want to do? For one, cut down the number of public sector employees. Israel's civil service is one of the most bloated in the western world. Fully one-third of workers are government employees. Another "hot" issue was pension reform. Well think about this, if they're "striking" about pensions not salaries, that means they're getting paid enough now... 

During the labor actions, Finance Minister Netanyahu proposed introducing legislation that would require any strike action be brought before the union membership for a vote before being initiated, as is standard in the US and elsewhere. Well, Histadrut head Amir Peretz in typical demagogic fashion went on television and screamed how Netanyahu was trying to break the union. It made a lot of news for a couple days. And then, on Israel television's, "Politika," a Likud Knesset member read the Histadrut by-laws that clearly said that any strike action needs to be approved by the membership through a vote. Israel's trade union - for decades connected to the Labor Party - has never been observing its own rules.

Economist Prof. Lester Thurow recently said about Israel, "It sounds ridiculous, but the last Bolsheviks left are here in Israel. In the rest of the world, except maybe for France, things like this just don't happen. In the US, you can go on strike, but only when a contract expires, not in the middle. Were the US airline workers to go on strike in mid-contract, causing me to miss an important meeting, I could sue them for damages. Of course, there are also other damages."

FM Netanyahu is on track when he talks about legislation guaranteeing the democratization of the Histadrut. Imagine if Israel hadn't been shackled with strikes for decades, how much larger the economy would have grown. And Netanyahu's economic reform plan, that includes trimming social welfare benefits and the public sector, in general is surely needed.

Industrial democracy in Israel is a farce. A small clique of oligarchs have run the union from the start, making the decision to strike or not, to accept the terms of a new agreement or not, as if it was their private fiefdom, without the workers, i.e. members permission. A general strike, by the way, would have caused major damage to Israel's economy. Israel for decades has had one of the highest number of annual strike days in the world. It's estimated that the threatened general strike could have cost the economy 2.5 billion shekels/day (that's about $550 million/day). This, during Israel's worst ever recession. Data on how much the "slowdown" cost the economy is not yet in, but don't worry, "Mr. Joe Israeli" will pay the price, not the union.

But whose counting? Certainly not the "Hostage Takers".