The Economy in 2013 / Organized Labor

Red-letter Year: 90% Jump in Newly Unionized Workers

From kashrut inspectors to Burger King workers, they’re signing up.

2013 has been a record year for new members joining the ranks of organized labor in Israel, as many of the leading companies in the private sector, from cell phone operators and media companies to insurance and credit card firms, found themselves facing workers committees for the first time ever. Many of these companies even signed collective bargaining agreements.

No fewer than 25,182 workers in 63 large organizations and dozens of smaller organizations joined unions in 2013, a 90% increase over 2012 in the number of new union members, and a 60% increase over the number of organizing drives at large organization in that year. The Histadrut labor federation alone reported 100 different organizing drives. The change compared to 2011 was even more drastic, with 100% more new union members and 186% more organizing drives in 2013 compared to 2011.

In recent decades in the public sector, as well as in a few veteran private-sector companies like Teva Pharmaceuticals, unions have been gaining new ground as job security became more and more precarious in the wake of the global finanical crisis of 2008 and 2009. The Histadrut set up a new unit to organize workers, in part due to growing competition from a rival labor organization, Koach L’Ovdim (Labor Power), while unions have grown more militant.

The snowball of unionization drives got rolling in 2011 when the Histadrut began pressuring private sector companies that were never unionized in the past, such as credit card companies Visa-CAL and Isracard. In 2012, things picked up steam as the first unionization drive at an Israeli cell phone operator was launched at Pelephone. That same year a long list of newspapers and other media outlets unionized, including Yedioth Ahronoth’s news website ynet and financial paper Calcalist, along with Channel 2 News and Channel 10 News. Employees of Clal Insurance also set up a union in 2012 and, like at Pelephone, fought a management adamantly opposed to organized labor.

‘Getting courage’

“Its a spiral effect: When workers in one place organize and set up a workers committee, workers in other companies get the courage,” says Ami Vitori, one of the founders of Koach L’Ovdim. “That’s what happened at Cellcom, where employees saw their colleagues at Pelephone organizing, and at Migdal, who saw how successful workers were at Clal Insurance.”

The crescendo in union organizing came this year, starting with workers at cable company Hot Communications (where the matter will be decided in court) to cellular phone operator Cellcom Israel, to companies like Leumi Capital Market Services and Migdal Insurance.

In 2013, some additional groups of workers that never unionized before joined organized labor. They included Knesset parliamentary assistants, temporary contract teachers at Tel Aviv-Yaffo Academic College, teachers at Democratic schools, kosher ritual slaughterers, kashrut inspectors, employees of Israeli embassies abroad, and after-school daycare employees in Jerusalem. Young workers were not left out of the trend, either, as employees at Burger Ranch unionized. McDonald’s workers, meanwhile, failed to form a union but reached new work agreements with management.

Daniel Bar-On