Fruits of Their Labors

The workers at the Pri Hagalil factory who fought its closure are overjoyed to be back on the job, but know the roller-coaster ride isn't over yet.

We had met and talked for a long time only two days earlier. Now it took me a moment to recognize him. On Sunday his face had been downcast and his voice had been emotional and faint. By Tuesday, he looked completely different. It wasn't just his black work uniform and the hat he wore, which replaced his white skullcap: Yisrael Sarousi was no longer slouching.

On Sunday he sat slumped on a stool in his friend Reuven Ben Haim's rundown yard. Both were on unpaid leave from Pri Hagalil's shuttered Hatzor Haglilit factory. Ben Haim said he felt sick being out of work; Sarousi merely nodded in agreement. But by Tuesday, Sarousi was sitting behind his noisy olive machine, and Ben Haim gave me a tour of his cooling department. The men were back at work.

Pri Hagalil - Levac - 2.3.12
Alex Levac

The parking lot, deserted on Sunday, was full of workers' cars by Tuesday. The factory had reopened after two days, despite the threats that it would be shut permanently.

On Monday evening Ben Haim's and Sarousi's mobile phones chirped: "Tomorrow morning we return to work," the warehouse guy texted them. They showed up at 6 A.M. the following morning.

Five hours later they and the other employees gathered in the dining hall to celebrate - but this time they did not pop open Champagne bottles, as they did on previous occasions when they learned the factory wouldn't be closing. Everyone here knows the Pri Hagalil roller-coaster ride isn't over.

The dining hall was teeming with people. Eleven o'clock is lunchtime for those who start their shifts early. Schnitzel, meatballs, salads - relative plenty; however, not all the workers eat here. There is another dining hall for those who cannot afford to buy this subsidized meal and pack their own lunches. But now it's time to celebrate; even the local council head, Shimon Suissa, is there.

More than 200 people in uniforms - yellow for the soup department, white for assembly line and lab workers, and black for maintenance - were eating with gusto. The journalists milling around the dining hall added to the festive air. This may be the last place in Israel where journalists are still liked. Indeed, workers I had met on my previous visits, whose sad stories of poverty I have recounted, patted me on the back. When union chairman Motti Haziza thanked them in his address, all the Pri Hagalil workers burst out cheering. They know the media turned them into a symbol and may have saved them from unemployment.

Haziza delivered an emotional speech as forks clinked: "This is a happy day for all of us. I don't believe a single Israeli didn't feel Pri Hagalil's pain. If Lake Kinneret has risen in the past few days, it is from the tears of Pri Hagalil. I hope this will be the last time. Amen," he said.

Haziza, who wears a skullcap, thanked half the world - from the prime minister to MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen to God. "Our blessed lord accompanied us and accompanies us forever, and I thank him," he said.

Most workers showed no emotion, perhaps because they were busy eating, perhaps because they were exhausted from the emotional roller coaster and still fearful of what lies ahead.

On Sunday, a ministerial committee will be asked to approve a bill to allow the plant to receive a grant. To be on the safe side, the workers will head to Jerusalem by bus that day, to "look the ministers straight in the eye," as Haziza told them.

The factory's owners were not at the celebration, but the plant manager, Shachar Aharonson - "I'm an employee like you" - warned the workers: "Watch your mouths. Remember where your salaries come from. Don't spit in the well you drink from. Tomorrow morning is a new day. We are entering the production season, starting to manufacture peas and corn, and it behooves you to respect this plant, because it enables you to eat."

The people who appeared on television in recent days were back in their work clothes. They finished lunch and rushed back to the assembly lines. We followed them.

Pri Hagalil is a sophisticated factory. Nevertheless, the working conditions there are tough. Parts of the plant are freezing cold or horribly loud; workers in the potato department are exposed to wind, rain, heat and cold. But it's been a long time since the noise of the machines sounded this pleasant. It's been a long time since I met people who take so much pride in their work.

Ben Haim presented his work station with evident pride: "This is the control room for the entire cooling system. I control the whole system. I know every light that turns on. It's not simple. Every component has to be synchronized."

On Ben Haim's computer screen flickered information related to the functioning of the cooling compressor. Earlier, he had fixed a malfunction that another factory would have needed an external repairman to fix: "We go the extra mile," he declared.

It was freezing cold in the machine room, and icicles covered the iron pipes; in the icy warehouse workers in ski masks operated forklifts. A sign warned: "Danger, extreme cold. No entry without a snowsuit and training."

The manager of the frozen goods department, Tiran al-Mualem, from Hatzor, is named after the Straits of Tiran. Terrifying machines swallowed potatoes and spit out French fries. The noise was deafening.

It is hard to believe what a potato goes through on its way to becoming fries. Yitzhak Amar, 57, sorted the rejects.

"Anything I don't want on my plate won't get through here," he said. He had worked in the tuna department until he injured his leg; now he was sitting in front of the potato stream. When he recovers, he hopes to return to tuna. He had previously worked as a cook and a butcher in Hatzor.

In the jam department, Ziad Har of nearby Tuba-Zangariya was hunched over slow-moving jars of apricot jam. The concentrate arrives in enormous containers from Chile. In the olive department two women in headscarves - one a factory employee and the other a subcontracted worker - were sorting the olives, pulling out ones that "are hopeless," as one puts it. No, she does not like to eat them.

At the end of the olive hall, next to a machine that punches out the pits, sat our old friend Sarousi. He was troubled: A piston had malfunctioned on one of the machines.

"The pits go to one conveyor belt and the pitted olives go to another belt," he explained. Sarousi doesn't like olives either.

Under the smokers' awning outside sat a couple, Olga and Yossi Cohen. She is from Birobidzhan, Russia; he is from Morocco. They met at Pri Hagalil. They were celebrating their return to the factory over a cigarette. Yossi, who works in soups, sucked smoke into his mouth. Olga was silent.

The green Galilee vistas peeked out from the surrounding hills. Sunday's horrible silence had been replaced by the din of machines and the announcement over the loudspeaker calling the workers back to their work stations.