Opinion

Nobody in Israel Is Asking: What About the Workers?

A global problem comes home: Some 1,500 Haifa Chemicals workers are about to lose their jobs, and neither the government, nor the Histadrut, nor the left has an answer for them

A worker near flames at a demonstration at Haifa Chemicals, August 2017.
Gil Eliahu

Did the groups that waged such an impressive public campaign for shutting down the ammonia storage facility in Haifa – which is indeed a serious hazard to the area’s residents – stop to consider the 1,500 people working in the north and south of Israel whose livelihood will be taken from them? And the government: Did it devote even five minutes to the future of the people facing dismissal? Did Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn, now threatening to embark on absurd strikes, plan any alternate job opportunities for people about to be thrown out on the street?

The challenge of employing the masses is undoubtedly the most serious problem facing Western democracies these days, and its consequences could bring about an extensive political disaster, the first signs of which were seen in the Brexit referendum and in the U.S. election results. Most people in the West do not have the professional or technological skills to successfully contend with the new economy, which depends on globalization and new technologies. Hundreds of millions of people whose workplaces are shrinking or closing down remain without sufficient capacity to make a living. In the post-industrial age they will also be the natural candidates for earning lower wages and being unemployed.

The real societal question is how to contend with this problem. Young people with vision and initiative are capable of acquiring new and updated skills. But most people with an average education who used to be able to support themselves with dignity now discover that their skills are outdated, and often find themselves superfluous to society, humiliated and at risk of being unemployed. They have to make do with low-paying and unstable service jobs. If that weren’t enough, they also have to compete with migrants and manual laborers lacking advanced skills and education for the same miserable jobs. Thus, the massive middle class is gradually being pushed downwards, greatly threatening the economic and political stability of democracies. People lose their jobs or have to make do with menial work, becoming not only financially vulnerable but accumulating a deep resentment toward state institutions and the national order. They can thus be tempted by extreme political and social solutions.

It’s true that Israel has its unique problems of the occupation and the conflict with the Palestinians, the resolution of which is even more urgent than the addressing of the economic and social crisis. The inability to find a long-term solution for breadwinners whose jobs will be lost as a result of the ammonia tank’s closure, for justified ecological reasons, and the expected shutdown of Haifa Chemicals makes it clear that Israel, like the West, is facing a ticking bomb.

One can’t expect the current government – or the Histadrut labor federation – to provide a solution to this problem since their political interests are based, for many reasons, on a huge public of workers who lack a sophisticated education. The big problem is that even those who hold dear the leftist heritage of social justice and equality have no solutions for contemporary economic problems. The longer an appropriate response is not found, the larger will be the failure, hurting mainly parties on the left. Today it’s not only socialist and communist parties that cannot attain power, but also the social-democratic ones. It is not the left’s role today to wallow in nostalgia for the old Marxist discourse, which is no longer relevant, but to think anew about practical solutions for the current situation – and fast.