Keep on truckin'
Truck drivers must put up with long hours on the road just to make a decent wage. Recent attempts to unionize, though, have been freighted with problems.
At 8:00 A.M. Shimmi (not his real name) arrives at Moshav Paran in the Arava with his semi-trailer. The workers load several tons of beautiful, fleshy, red, orange and yellow peppers for export.
A girl wearing a Jimi Hendrix shirt gives Shimmi a form to fill out and we drink "mud" coffee near the hothouses; plastic cups from previous trucks are buried in the dirt.
A truck driver from Daburiya boasts about friends of his from Maghar, who can do 20 hours a day on the road. "I am no longer 25 years old - I can't work 20 hours a day," Shimmi, 55, tells me. "We veterans can't compete with the Russians and the cousins," a reference to Arabs. "Let them work twice as much and say thank you."
The trucking life isn't what it used to be, many drivers say. Overly-long days and low pay have led a number to pursue unionization. But their efforts have been met with fierce resistance from both firms and drivers, whose sense of solidarity is hampered by long lonely hours at the wheel.
Still, it's the little things that break the driver's back. In Shimmi's company they are having a Hanukkah party and they have asked each driver to put NIS 50 into the kitty.
"They steal from us all year long. What do they have against laying out that small change?" he says, sounding hurt. "The drivers today are at the bottom of the garbage heap. People say to me: 'You have an easy job, you work all day with an air conditioner' - but you have to concentrate the whole time, with your eyes and your brain alert."
Shimmi begins his day at 3:00 A.M. and ends it at 4:00 P.M. at his home in Nesher. The Paran run is ideal because it takes him eight hours and a bit round trip, hardly breaking the law at all.
"I get home, I want to be with my wife some and I fall asleep in front of the television. And then the kid wakes me up so I can go to bed. Even on Saturday I can't fall sleep properly. My body has already got used to sleeping four hours a night."
Anarchy on the highway
One of the leaders in the effort to unionize the truck drivers is Dov Smadja. The law requires signatures of one-third of the workers in order to declare a workers' committee. Smadja had quietly succeeded in unionizing 30 out of the 50 drivers in his company and had been to the court to persuade it that he had a union in hand.
But then the pressure campaign began and only about a dozen workers stuck with him. The company has merged with its subsidiaries and now getting a third of the workers to sign on seems unlikely.
Smadja is nearly in despair. "Drivers are a cowardly race," he says. "They are afraid for their jobs. I no longer know if the union will arise during my term. My son is a student and I will see to it that he gets a semi license. Maybe he will have the brains to form a union better than I have. I say: Be a bully about your rights."
Though the law limits any job to 53 hours a week, truck drivers work on average about 68 hours a week. This status quo has turned trucks into bombs on wheels. Between one-third and one-half of the workers report being forced to work more than 12 hours a day, while the Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel has found that the proportion of accidents in which heavy trucks are involved is 80 times that of passenger cars.
Drivers are paid by the "premium system." The driver receives a minimum wage with additions according to the volume of work, which force the worker to take risks in order to get through the month. Smadja shows me a pay slip for 7 thousand and something shekels, after 34 years on the job and work of 68 hours a week on the highway.
"All the drivers are bawling. Bawling is not the word for it," he says, and tells about a friend who refused to work more than 12 hours and took the train home from Ashdod. In response to his caution he was fired.
"In Europe the premium system is prohibited. Back in 1970 it was proved to be something destructive and it was banned," adds Assaf Adiv from the Ma'an workers organization, which is also trying to unionize the truck drivers.
"Israel has adopted the European standards in all areas of transportation, but not with the trucks. In Europe a digital tachograph is required, which shows how many hours a truck has done on the road. In Israel they use a tachograph that's easy to fake and the Transportation Ministry is delaying the requirement that trucks have a digital tachograph installed. The truck companies' lobby wants to perpetuate the system that is convenient for it and it is not prepared to accept supervision."
The Transportation Ministry says the digital tachograph is flawed and is not widely used abroad.
Smadja spends the day taking empty containers to a kibbutz factory. Drivers do not receive a premium for empty containers - this is considered a "service." "It's a free day - I am doing service tasks," jests Smadja about his bad luck with a driver we met.
Smadja lives in Kiryat Ata, is married and is the father of five children. His voice is husky from cigarettes, his sideburns are thick and his hands are large. The odometer on the dashboard of his truck shows 480,000 kilometers in the past six years. He speaks with passion about the technology of his semi-trailer - he calls it his "horse" and he calls the containers "carts."
He joined the initiative to unionize when he saw the Ma'an people distributing flyers to truck drivers at the Haifa and Ashdod ports.
"It used to be a lot better but for 12 years we've been getting the same salary," he says. "In my opinion there is a wage cartel among some of the companies, so there is also no chance of switching companies. If I leave, I would earn the same at all of them."
Smadja never went to the summer's cost-of-living demonstrations. After a week of working he was two tired to take to the streets on Saturday night.
"The protest movement in the summer did not sweep up those classes, but it did filter out to them anyway," explains Adiv. "The truck drivers are a very weakened and insecure stratum. We are trying to empower them, to explain to them that the whole country is on their shoulders. But the companies are giving them the feeling that they are parasites. In order to stop our union they are telling the veteran Israelis that Ma'an is a leftist organization that supports the Arabs. They tell the Arab drivers that it's a secular organizations and to the Russians they play the tune that they have helped them. They are playing it every which way to keep the worker isolated."
The nature of the trucking beast also hinders unionization.
"Unlike a factory where all the workers meet every morning, there is no contact among the drivers. The driver is a loner, an individual. He likes his steering wheel," explains Adiv. "We are in contact with 2,000 drivers out of about 10,000. We have open initiatives and we have some that are less so. Until we get one-third of the drivers, there is secrecy."
Back near Kibbutz Hatzeva, Shimmi and I eat sandwiches his wife made. He lays his pistol on the table and explains they used to shoot bottles here. "When I started in 1977 there were excellent salaries," he says. "The girls wanted truck drivers - I didn't have a paunch back then and there wasn't AIDS. There was a community among drivers that has vanished. Today all the drivers kill each other. They buy us like a dog with a treat."