Shas Looking to Gain Ground With Largest Trade Unions

Shas is reaching out to members of the largest trade unions in a bid to broaden its voter base. In the past month party chairman and Minister of Industry, Trade, and Labor Eli Yishai has held a number of meetings with shop stewards to drum up support for the party in next month's election. He promised to fight against the privatization of state companies in the event he joins a cabinet headed by Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The sword of privatization will be held to the necks of all the unions," Yishai said at a closed meeting of about 25 workers' committee heads in Haifa early last week. "In most cases the privatization is not just," he said.

Referring to the plan to dismiss 2,500 Israel Electric Corporation employees he said, "Look at how they delegitimized you, talking about free electricity [given as a perk to IEC employees]. It's not just and it's not fair."

The meeting was attended by union heads representing employees from IEC, the Income Tax Authority, Oil Refineries, Fire and Rescue Services and various local authorities, among others. Shas held similar meetings in the past month in Hadera and Ashdod.

Party officials say the meetings are part of Shas' appeal to the middle class in a time of economic crisis.

At the recent Haifa meeting, a few of the local union representatives said they plan to vote for Shas, which traditional identifies with the ultra-Orthodox population.

Pini Solomon, the head of the union that represents Income Tax Authority employees, told Yishai he hoped, "you get a lot of Knesset seats. I'm voting for you, and I'm not religious."

Shas recently established a "secularists' headquarters," some of whose main activists are union members. Dudi Shaked, a member of the IEC workers union, is featured on the group's Web site saying, "Shas today is a warm home for organized labor."

At the Haifa meeting, the northern regional representative for IEC workers, Ya'akov Davida, also said that he would vote for the party.

In an interview with Haaretz he said that while the Shas initiated meet was not a union endorsement of the party, the response among the union locals is positive.

"In the past the Labor Party genuinely supported us, but today everyone has turned into swinish capitalists. I don't trust a single one of them, only Shas," Davida said.