The Mistake Near the Lake

The workers at Pri Hagalil, the Galilee factory that has come to symbolize Israel's distress, really are hurting.

Ora Matan-Torah doesn't remember when she last visited Tel Aviv. It was a long time ago, she says quietly, with a shy smile. She does remember the last time she went out to have a good time: seven months ago - a latte with her husband at Cafe Cafe in Rosh Pina.

This sad and impressive woman, 46, was born in Hatzor Haglilit. She has always lived in the town and has worked at the Pri Hagalil food factory for her entire adult life. Her shift lasts from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M., and now she's sorry she listened to her mother and married so young without getting an education. She's sorry she wasn't home all those mornings when her three children woke up in a house without their mother.

Pri Galil - Miki Kratsman - 21082011
Miki Kratsman

About two months ago Matan-Torah was elected to the Pri Hagalil workers' committee. Recently management threatened to lay off about 120 workers, almost half the total, in two phases. At nearly the last moment an agreement was reached and most of the dismissals were canceled.

Michel Malka doesn't remember which college his son went to to study cinema. He has to check his credit card records. Nor does he know the subject of his son's first film. His son hates his hometown. "He hates it at a level that's impossible to explain. He says it's an inferior place," and he hardly ever comes back, Malka says.

Malka is angry at his son's hatred of Hatzor. He knows that his son works at a restaurant at the Tel Aviv Port. He has no idea what it's called, he only remembers that the number 23 is written on the wall. His son earns NIS 13,000 a month on tips alone, a sum Malka can only dream about after decades of work at Pri Hagalil.

Malka has been visiting the center of the country recently, but only for treatments at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer. His wife visited the tent city on Rothschild Boulevard and "was amazed." She has also spent her entire life at Pri Hagalil and is a member of the workers' committee.

The third member, chairman Motti Haziza, fought against the layoffs. His clothes threaten to burst on his round body; on his head a white skullcap peers out from under a white baseball cap with the factory logo. And he fires out his battle cries like "It's the roar of the lion" in the run-up to the big demonstration that took place last Sunday, attended by about 300 people. Who will get water for the demonstrators, who will draw the protest signs, and above all, who will get the batteries for the megaphone?

Luckily Yona Partuk, the local secretary of the Histadrut labor federation, enters the committee room, at the beautifully renovated offices for the factory's administration. He's promising to find 500 whole shekels for water for the demonstrators. He's the brother of Hillel Partuk, the former spokesman of the Tel Aviv municipality and the Israel Police, and a resident of Kiryat Shmona.

Talal Heib has also been working at Pri Hagalil since he was a boy. A resident of neighboring Tuba, home to about a third of the employees, Heib is their unofficial representative. There is no Arab on the committee, that's the way it worked out.

"It's the dynamics of life," says Malka. But Heib is Haziza's assistant. At the beginning of the week he was urgently dispatched to get used tires from the nearby car repair shop and a can of diesel fuel before the demonstration. He hid them under the table so the police wouldn't notice them.

Haziza tells the assistant of MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ) over the phone that he will close Highway 90; "the entire north will be blocked." MK Zion Pinyan (Likud ) just left, accompanied by the head of the local council, Shimon Suissa, who until about three weeks ago was in Kadima and now is in Likud.

Last week Haziza prevented Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon from visiting because management threatened, he says, not to allow him to enter the plant. He didn't want the minister he admires so much to be embarrassed, even though the three members of the workers' committee are in the Labor Party.

Far from Rothschild, committee head Manuel Trajtenberg and protest leader Daphni Leef, the workers at the factory that has come to symbolize Israel's social distress have embarked on a cyclical war of survival. The town of about 10,000 people has never risen above its hardships. About 250 of them work at Pri Hagalil, whose management has threatened to transfer production lines to the Western Galilee, to the Mateh Asher Regional Council, mainly because of the high price of water here.

Hatzor promises a "bonus show" for subscribers to the theater season at the town's cultural center. Hatzor is always called "Haglilit" to distinguish it from the kibbutz and the air force base in the south.

The Mercedes stands out

The corn season ended last week, the pea season and carrot season have ended, and now the entire plant is making french fries. In the parking lot, between the old Mitsubishis and Subarus, a shiny black car, a Mercedes luxury model, stands out. It belongs to the chairman and CEO of Vita Pri Hagalil, Oshik Efraim.

The new owners, Zaki Shalom of the Hatzi Hinam supermarket chain and his partners, saved the factory from closure, renovated its buildings beautifully and opened new production lines for tuna and soup. But the employees feel that suspicion and fear prevail, the committee members say.

"Everything that moves they think is being stolen," one of them says, noting with pain that the new owners closed the employees' store, which stood for years at the entrance of the plant.

Only secretly am I able to enter the production floors, which are closed to outsiders. I'm dressed in a smock and hat, and the committee members are afraid to accompany me.

I hear a great noise and see workers in white smocks and hats next to huge trembling machines. And they don't budge from them for hours. The french-fry production line begins with work in the yard, exposed to the cold, rain or heat. That's nothing compared to the corn production line. Many employees have been working here for decades. What choice do they have in Hatzor? They're also very proud of their company's products - sweet corn without sugar and excellent soups, not to mention the wonderful new tuna.

The walls of the committee room are covered with pictures of rabbis and kabbalists, a picture of President Shimon Peres receiving the Pri Hagalil Worthy Citizen Award, Haziza's graduation certificate from the Course for Developing Excellence, and sacred Jewish texts alongside work regulations on Haziza's bookshelf.

He is 56 years old and a father of four, all with higher education, except for the youngest who is about to enter the army. A native of Hatzor, Haziza's father was a leading hairdresser in Morocco, who according to legend shaved the head of the great Winston Churchill in Casablanca. But in the Hatzor transit camp he worked at removing stones from the soil.

Haziza says you won't catch him not wearing cologne; he always has a bottle with him. Now he's sweating. "If you ask me a minute before I die what hurts me, I'll tell you about what happened to me in the yeshiva." The rabbi at the Sde Hemed Yeshiva ordered three students to remain in the room at the "tractate conclusion" celebration: Haziza, Kesalsi and Buskila - their parents hadn't paid tuition. Haziza doesn't forgive or forget. He's been at Pri Hagalil since December 1970. Forty-one years.

The Histadrut man Partuk, who enters the room, says that for the price of one stealth fighter all the social problems could be solved. "If it were defense, everything would have worked out already."

And what about the water for the demonstration?

"Do you have any connection with that guy from Neviot mineral water?

"No, he's from the national Histadrut.

"He won't help with the water?"

'Bibi is a capitalist'

Yaffa, Haziza's sister, phones. She's phoned 20 times, but he doesn't have time for family conversations now. Four security guards for the demonstration have been recruited voluntarily, Heib has brought tires and diesel fuel, and the residents of the Young Meretz protest encampment that went up last week at the factory's entrance have promised to take care of signs. "If we don't cry out today on the highway, we'll cry later at home," says Haziza.

Malka, who has been at the plant for 24 years, is now a shift manager who earns a relatively good salary, about NIS 10,000 gross. But his shift also lasts 12 hours. "I told the politicians who came here: People aren't as stupid as they used to be. They know that Bibi is a capitalist," he says, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Capitalism is a system so greedy it's frightening. Bibi thinks that people are stupid. Notice how he anesthetizes us. How do all those committees end up? Turkel, Shmurkel, Trajtenberg."

Matan-Torah works in quality control, checking whether air has entered a can; 360 cans a minute emerge from Pri Hagalil. In her best month she earned NIS 6,000 gross, after all those long shifts. When she was elected to the committee she wanted to organize a ladies' day at the factory, a beach day and even a holiday package. "The people here want a holiday so badly." And then she fell straight into the chaos of the dismissals, so ladies' day, beach day and the holiday were forgotten.

"Life took me to another place," she says. "Somewhere my life was messed up. My mother only pushed me into a wedding, without studies, and then there was nobody to push me. It won't happen to my children. I forced them to work here during their vacations so they would experience how bad the place is and wouldn't come back. My older daughter said she's definitely not coming back. The younger one said it's bearable ....

"In Tel Aviv they have far more opportunities. Take my son, he's 14. Compare him with a child from Haifa or Tel Aviv and see the difference. See how my son talks and how they talk. That's what my daughters are now discovering in the army. They're discovering that there's another world. My daughter went to college after completing high school with excellence, and in college she's breaking her tongue? How can you explain that? The difference between Haifa and Tel Aviv on the one hand and Hatzor on the other is intelligence. It's like the difference between Ziv Hospital [in Safed] and Sheba Medical Center."

When I ask her where she and her husband go to have a good time, she replies: "What does 'to have a good time' mean?" She says she's middle class. "I don't see myself as less than middle class. If I manage on my own, I think I'm middle class. But if I get thrown out now, I'll be somewhere else."

In the yard the products are placed under the Galilee skies. The labels: "Vita delicious soup," crushed tomatoes, salad croutons. There's also "vegetable soup, 400 grams. Expiation date: 2012" (yes, there's a spelling mistake ). The mistake, like all the mistakes in this place, is in the original.