Labor of Love: Israelis Get Organized, Flock to Union in Record Numbers

Pro-labor laws, the social protests, growing economic uncertainty and new labor organizations have combined to give Israeli unions higher profiles and more new members in the past few years.

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Israel has union fever. In the first five months of 2013 alone 60% more workers organized than in all of 2012, and the number of new union locals established between January and May has already surpassed last year.

According to union figures, more than 21,000 newly unionized workers formed around 40 locals or branches. In 2012, itself a record-breaking year, 13,284 workers organized in 39 workplaces. In 2011 national unions organized 12,165 employees into 22 locals.

Mounting concerns over living costs, job security, pension security and growing economic inequality are thought to be behind the upturn in unionizing in Israel. Employees of the Hot cable television provider, represented by the Koach La Ovdim union, recently made headlines in their fight against management's plan to switch them to working for outside contractors. Workers at Paz Oil Company chose to rejoin the Histadrut Labor Federation, 19 years after leaving Israel's umbrella organization for organized labor.

In the past week alone three groups joined unions or began the process: employees of McDonald's, the Knesset's 200 parliamentary aides and the 300 adjunct faculty members of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. One-third of the Knesset aides and the college teachers joined the union, enough to gain union representation.

In the year to date 8,000 workers in 23 organizations have joined the Histadrut, including 6,000 at Cellcom, which is still in the process of forming a local. A new labor federation targeting young workers called Hareshet - Histadrut Hatze'erim B'Israel has signed up 7,400 members since it began operations late last year. Among the "shops" it has organized so far are local burger chains Agadir and Burger Ranch, where a collective bargaining agreement has been signed.

Histadrut labor federation officials attribute the surge in unionizing to the bullying of workers by companies such as like Hot, Pelephone and Clal Insurance. Tactics to prevent workers from organizing, such as towing away their leased cars, monitoring their movements and filming organizing meetings have backfired in many cases, they say, increasing employees' willingness to join unions.

A January ruling by the National Labor Court, presided over by Judge Nili Arad, prohibiting employers from harassing or monitoring employees to dissuade them from organizing has also contributed to the newfound popularity of organized labor. The ruling bars employers from using scare tactics or threatening to fire workers for organizing, and even prohibits management from expressing opinions that are critical of unionizing efforts.

Another possible reason for the union trend is a package of labor laws initiated in April 2009 by the Histadrut as part of the negotiations for the Labor Party, then under Ehud Barak, to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. One law obligates employers to negotiate with any new union local established in their organizations, and carries a NIS 250,000 fine for violators. Another law prohibits employers from barring workplace access to Histadrut representatives.

The Histadrut also points to the 2010 creation of a division dedicated to signing up new workplaces as contributing to the upswing in membership, but this might not be completely accurate. The new unit seems to have been a response to the founding of the rival labor organization Koach La Ovdim, in 2007. This young and energetic union has boosting the number of workers organized under its banner as well as that of the Histadrut.

The socioeconomic crises and the social protests of summer 2011 also made their mark: Workers became more aware of their rights and grasped that collective power can induce change.

"People went out into the streets and were left frustrated," one Histadrut officials says. "Some set up cooperatives and others turned to leading organizing efforts. Many Pelephone employees, for example, participated in the summer 2011 protests and afterwards put their energy into organizing and setting up union locals. The social protest movement changed the way of thinking. 'Quiet' workers, like employees of the Meuhedet Health Maintenance Organization, who organized suddenly found themselves demonstrating and shouting."

By the end of May 2013 a total of 5,030 workers in seven organizations joined Koach La Ovdim: 3,200 at Hot, 750 at Yad Vashem, 300 after-school daycare employees in Jerusalem, 300 faculty members of the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design, 280 adjunct faculty members at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 100 staff members at the democratic schools in Hod Hasharon and Jaffa and 100 absorption center employees.

The total is more than double the number of workplaces organized by the organization in all of 2012 or the five workplaces it organized in 2011. In 2008, a year after its founding, Koach La Ovdim unionized five groups of employees with a combined membership of 4,800.

Koach La Ovdim spokesman Yaniv Bar Ilan attributes the growth partly to the success of several notable and unconventional unionizing efforts in the past year, particularly at Pelephone. The economic slowdown of the past two years and the reform in Israel's cellphone sector put pressure on companies and undermined job security, he says.

2011 marked a turning point for Koach La Ovdim, with strikes and labor disputes by public-sector physicians, social workers and prosecutors. "These protests generated awareness for organized labor and won public support," Bar Ilan says, adding, "Organized labor seemed much less threatening."

WAC-MAAN, the Workers Advice Center, is a small, independent labor organization working mainly with disadvantaged employee groups that the larger federations are not particularly interested in pursuing.

"In the last two years we're getting more requests from workers' groups to organize than in previous years, from Palestinian workers in the territories to factory workers and college teaching staff," the organization reports. Some 245 workers organized under the auspices of WAC-MAAN in 2012 and 229 have done so already in 2013.

"MAAN invests much effort in worker classes that feel weakened, like truck drivers or unskilled Arab women doing farmwork, who have a hard time dealing with threats and intimidation by employers," says WAC-MAAN director Assaf Adiv. "So the National Labor Court ruling on the right to unionize has had less of an influence on them until now."

Nurses strike outside Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, December 9, 2012.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Israel's social protest leaders join the general strike at Ben Gurion International AirportCredit: Moti Milrod

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