Behind the Scenes, Workers at Israeli Cell Phone Operator Ramp Up Battla to Unionize

Management fights to keep itself from becoming the first cell phone company with workers committee.

If you have contact with anyone at Pelephone, whether an efficient service rep or a hard-nosed salesman, you have no way of knowing about the war going on at the cellular operator.

Management is battling with workers trying to establish a union under the auspices of the Histadrut labor federation. Management is taking pains to prevent the "catastrophe" it says is threatening the company.

Since the Histadrut set up a division to organize unions two and a half years ago, 70 workplaces with around 50,000 to 60,000 people have unionized.

So far, only a few hundred of Pelephone's 4,500 employees have signed the forms to join a union. To create a union that represents the entire company, at least one-third of all employees must sign up. So at Pelephone this means 1,500 people. In the meantime, a temporary workers' committee is operating.

Both employees and management say their struggle is crucial. Workers fear layoffs because of the increased competition in the industry, and management is worried that a union will lead to a collective bargaining agreement and higher wages, which would further harm its ability to compete in an industry growing more competitive every day.

If the unionization efforts succeed, Pelephone will be the first cellular firm to have a union. Management would then have to take the union into account in every matter concerning reorganizations, layoffs or shifts of workers between jobs. A previous effort to unionize at Partner failed.

Like party primaries, it's a battle for every vote. The organizing committee is busy searching for workers to sign up, while management is "inviting" workers to "briefings" where managers warn employees that unionization will only hurt the company.

Management took a hit last week when the Tel Aviv Labor Court ruled that Pelephone had tried to intimidate workers who wanted to organize. The court called this inappropriate behavior by an employer against employees - "including the crossing of red lines."

According to Pelephone, "The company has no intention to conduct a wave of mass layoffs. The company laid off the lowest number of workers in the past year of any company in the industry .... The unionization process will only harm the company's ability to compete."

It's the same at Clal

A similar struggle started six months ago at Clal Insurance. Unlike the banks, which have very strong unions, the insurance industry is not organized at all - no unions and no collective bargaining agreements, and the Histadrut has had no presence there at all since 1995.

In the past few months workers at Clal have been trying to organize under the Histadrut's auspices. Clal employees are worried that the firm will be sold soon, something they say will usher in mass layoffs.

As at Pelephone, management and organizers are playing cat and mouse. All workers who sign up and support a union find themselves under pressure from management. Employees who sign the forms are rewarded with a session with executives who advise them to "think twice about the ramifications of your action."

Such meetings are conducted with careful phrasing after consultations with lawyers, but the message is clear and uncompromising. Ronny Raz, the leader of the organizers, even received a visit at home from a company representative who invited him to a pre-dismissal hearing - but this was later canceled.

Clal said it had not put any pressure on employees, it had only held explanatory sessions to show workers "the whole picture."

An industry that had no unions until just three years ago was fuel. In 2009 a gas station worker at Sonol from Dimona, Shimon Sheetrit, tried to organize his colleagues. Management put up a fight and even tried to establish its own "friendly" union, but failed. Workers struck and CEO Tamir Poliker resigned. His replacement, Nir Galili, signed a deal with workers and the Histadrut.