A miracle has happened to Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. For years a determined battle against the spread of contract labor in Israel raged all around him, as he remained in a deep slumber. Nearly a decade ago, a small group of teachers and students forced Tel Aviv University to stop a subcontractor from exploiting the women it hired to clean the campus; civil rights organizations and legal clinics represent workers whose rights have been violated by employment agencies; the Histadrut itself employs contract workers - and Eini heard nothing, knew nothing?
In 2009, when the Labor Party joined the Netanyahu-Lieberman government, Eini was key in brokering the coalition agreement. Then-Labor chairman Ehud Barak boasted that Eini prevented the dismissal of thousands of employees of nongovernmental organizations by making it a condition for the party's entry into the coalition. "NGO employees" is nothing but a euphemism for unprotected and unorganized salaried workers employed by private contractors to which the state has farmed out the services it used to provide directly, mainly social services.
The more contract work spread, the more Eini's Histadrut shut its eyes and turned its back to the practice. The new slaves looked elsewhere for support and found Koach La Ovdim Democratic Workers Organization, a relatively new trade union association that was willing to represent the weakest and challenge the strongest, in an era when the labor market swiftly turned into a wild, unsupervised jungle.
Then, suddenly, about a week ago, Eini woke up. "There can be no social justice without addressing the issue of contract workers," he said, and declared a labor dispute that will erupt in a general strike. "A type of slave market has been created here," he added.
The use of the term "social justice" betrayed Eini's real motives. It is exactly what happened to food manufacturing giant Tnuva, which was forced to cut prices, and to Zehavit Cohen, who was forced to step down as the company's chairwoman. Tnuva and the Histadrut, two monumentally significant symbols of the old labor movement, clung happily and of their own accord to the ruthless capitalist system that makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker. Both are now unwillingly being pushed back into their original roles and are being forced to use language that befits the new social dialogue.
This is a hopeful and praiseworthy achievement of the social protest movement. Make no mistake: The leaders of the protest and Koach La Ovdim are intentionally and knowingly cooperating with Eini and the Histadrut and the powerful workplace unions, because only they have the ability to paralyze the economy. Eini could announce dramatically that the workplace unions are acting out of solidarity with the weak, but he too knows that the powerful workplace unions are yesterday's men and that their power is worthless. In the years when they turned their backs on most public and private sector workers and allowed employment agencies to develop and Israel to climb to the top of the shameful ranking of countries with the highest percentage of contract workers, the betrayed workers left them.
The first clear sign of this was in the social workers strike, when a group of young female social workers employed by private NGOs revolted against the union and refused to sign the contract. The same thing is happening now, and to a greater extent, in the Israel Medical Association, with medical residents refusing to accept its authority to negotiate for them. And it is presumably also about to happen with the Israel Teachers Union. The rejectionists challenged the status of the "big ones," who began losing the hegemony that made it possible for them to serve only their own interests.
This challenge has damaged Eini's position. If until a few years ago treasury officials considered him to be the "responsible adult" who could be trusted to dissolve any labor dispute with a conciliatory wage contract, it is now clear that he finds it hard to decipher the spirit of democracy beating in the hearts of the newly organized young professionals and the most exploited workers, and was unable to cope when they bucked his authority and made him superfluous in the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Finance Ministry.
Now, in the same spirit of democracy, the protest is leading him into battle against the same injustice he helped create. No one is better suited to be the general contractor for righting the injustice.
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