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Without fanfare, a labor court issued an order this week referring the dispute between Haifa Chemicals' management and its striking workers to mediation. It's hard to believe that management, which just two months ago said that nothing of the sort would happen, would have sought mediation if it weren't for the upcoming hearing on a NIS 3 million damage claim that the employees filed against the company. One can understand management's apprehension over mediation both then and now.

The strike is perhaps the most symbolic of all the strikes of the past few years, not only because it's one of the longest industrial strikes (so far 72 days ) since the last strike at Haifa Chemicals, which lasted six months. It is symbolic, however, because it has the potential to decide the most important principle relating to organized labor, human dignity and the privatization of the workforce.

It is not by chance that this strike is off the media's radar. Everyone involved other than the workers want to hush things up. Its organizers, particularly longtime workers subject to a collective labor agreement, are paying a heavy price for their insistence on fighting for what is being portrayed publicly as a lost cause. For its part, the Histadrut labor federation, which in 1996 abandoned the workers and entered into an agreement with the employers behind their backs, fell into line with industry.

The workers took the tough and courageous decision to turn to another trade union, Koach La Ovdim, known in English as the Democratic Workers' Organization, to represent them. From then on they were labeled as violent rejectionists, even though all they've been doing is exercising their fundamental right to strike after a deadlock in negotiations.

It's not just the fact that 250 employees would dare leave the Histadrut that sows fear in the stewards of the economy. It's mainly that they are demanding that the unfortunate labor-relations model that took shape after the failed strike in 1996 be scrapped. That model was designed to "tranquilize" a relatively small group of veteran workers by leaving the collective agreement with them in place while forging inferior agreements with all the other workers and dividing them into several groups.

The first group, which is about to disappear in any event because its members are approaching retirement, is called the Generation A group. Then comes the Generation B group, whose employment terms are far worse. (These shift workers, the ones most subject to burnout and risk, earn half of what their counterparts in the first group take home. ) Next come the workers with individual wage contracts, and finally, at the very bottom, are outsourced manpower-agency workers. This model has become highly popular in industry and other workplaces.

The system in industry is simple - basically dividing plants and production facilities into various locations and subsidiaries, thereby obliterating the concept of "the workplace" and dispersing management's responsibility. As part of the sweeping privatization of labor in Israel, which has been euphemistically called the injection of flexibility into the labor market, only about 20 percent of the workforce is unionized, compared with about 80 percent in the 1980s. Neoliberal logic, which is at work at every level, from the workplace to the television show "Survivor," has taken root.

Israel is in second place after Japan in the number of hours worked. Every year, people work more, earn less and are able to buy less with their shrinking paychecks. In the face of such pressure, the effect of the strike at Haifa Chemicals takes on added force due to the impressive solidarity shown by the Generation A workers. Though they are the main losers from the strike, they are refusing to repeat the mistake they made in 1996 and are demanding equal work conditions for everyone, along with a commitment on environmental issues.

That's what scares management, the Histadrut, the manufacturers and the government most, because the strikers are not waging a financial battle but rather one of principle over their dignity as workers and human beings. They understand that a democracy that ends at the factory gate, clearing the way for a dictatorship of capital, is not really democracy at all. They also understand that if they are successful, their success will spread throughout industry, and the bond between industry and the Histadrut will be broken. And if they fail, nothing will stand in the way of big business, and the undemocratic process will be complete, turning citizens who purportedly have rights into slaves.