Israeli Workers Uniting in Masses? The Numbers Tell a Different Story

Israeli labor unions have embarked on a recruiting drive in recent years and organized workers in new and unlikely sectors - even the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority.

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A protest in front of Histadrut headquarters, February 2017.
A protest in front of Histadrut headquarters, February 2017.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Unless the two sides reach an agreement, some 4,000 employees of Clal Insurance will be going out on strike next Sunday to protest what the union calls management foot-dragging on talks over a collective labor agreement.

A strike by white-collar workers in the financial services industry might have been something unimaginable just a decade or so ago, but Israeli labor unions have embarked on a recruiting drive in recent years and have organized workers not just in the financial services industry but in high-tech, accounting, the telecoms sector – even the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority.

The 2011 social justice protests, the conventional wisdom says, raised the consciousness of Israelis and inspired them to fight for their rights in the workplace. Employees at Clal Insurance formed a workers committee the year afterwards.

Yet for all that, a survey by TheMarker of union membership, based on figures from the unions themselves, found that the rate of unionization in Israel has remained unchanged since 2012 at 24 percent of the workforce. Prof. Guy Mundlak of Tel Aviv University says demographics are working against the Histadrut labor federation and Israel’s other unions.

“For every worker they organize, three Histadrut members are reaching retirement age,” he said. “In addition, it’s hard to organize new workers.”

The Histadrut is by far the biggest labor organization in Israel. With its 700,000 members, it accounts for five-sixths of Israel’s unionized population. The Histadrut Leumi is a distant second with 100,000 members, followed by two newer union groups – Koach L’Ovdim with a membership of 35,000, and WAC-MAAN with 2,300 on its rolls.

All these unions have worked hard to recruit members since 2011, casting their nets outside their strongholds in old-economy industries and the public sector. Among the Histadrut’s big wins were organizing 2,500 employees at Pelephone, the cellular provider; 1,800 at accounting firm Ernst & Young Israel; 2,000 at Menorah Insurance and 5,000 at the high-tech company Amdocs.

The Histadrut Leumi’s big gains over the last five years have been organizing 2,000 employees at the satellite television provider Yes and another 2,000 at Hot Telecom. In retail, it now represents 1,200 Ikea workers and 1,900 others at Home Center.

Koach L’Ovdim counts 900 members of the investment house Psagot and 750 at Yad Vashem.

One reason for the recruiting drive of recent years was the emergence of Koach L’Ovdim in 2007 as a more democratic and open alternative to the more veteran unions. Starting from scratch, the new organization had to send activists out into the field to organize.

The competition prompted the Histadrut to compete by opening an office to help organize workers in new sectors of the economy.

The social justice protests also played a role, although experts say it was not as big a role as people assumed. Hundreds of thousands of middle class Israelis poured into the streets to rallies and thousands lived in tent encampments in city parks to protest the high cost of living and the failure of the government to deliver services and deal with growing income inequality and poverty.

The protests faded out after several weeks, but the Adva Center, a research institute, found that unionization among more educated, higher-income workers was growing.

“The wave of organizing really began before the protest, mainly because of Koach L’Ovdim – which forced the Histadrut to organize workers, too, something it hadn’t done for many years,” said Prof. Lev Luis Grinberg of Ben-Gurion University.

Israeli doctors during a strike in 2011.Credit: Alon Ron

“What the protests did in practice was to give legitimacy to the fight against neoliberalism. It provide social solidarity to exploited workers and inspired union organizing,” he said.

Unionization in Israel is relatively high, compared to other developed economies. According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2012 23% of working Israelis belonged to a union, compared with 17.6% in the Netherlands, 16.2% in Switzerland, 17.7% in Germany and just 7.7% in France.

Still, that is far below the 80% rate of unionization in Israel in the 1980s, when the Histadrut was at the peak of its power.

The reason for that goes back to the earlier days of the labor federation after it was formed in 1920. The Histadrut was more than a union, said Grinberg, it was more like a state within a state, providing health services, pensions and even factory employment to its members. When Israel was created in 1948, it was a partner with the government in developing the economy and formed an integral part of the ruling Labor establishment.

That left the Histadrut unprepared for the sea changes that occurred in the Israeli economy during the 1980s. The government’s economic stabilization program killed hyperinflation but left many Histadrut companies in deep financial trouble, forcing the federation to divest them.

The rise of high-tech and then the shrinking public sector also took its toll. Public services were outsourced to the private sector and more and more workers signed private contracts rather than collective labor agreements.

A big shake-up of the healthcare system in the 1990s forced the Histadrut to cede control of its Clalit health maintenance organization, while pension reforms ended its monopoly on retirement plans. Lots of members had belonged to the Histadrut for health and pension benefits and when they no longer had to get those from the union, they quit.

By 1999, unionization was down to just 41% of Israel’s workforce. But the labor federation was handicapped in its efforts to reverse the trend because of its history as a labor monopoly.

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