Roaming the Halls of the Histadrut / Where Are the Women?

Ostensibly, it seems the social workers' struggle for fair wages is doomed to failure; women lack both power and influence.

At the dusty entrance to the Histadrut labor federation building in Tel Aviv, where the social workers and Finance Ministry officials were negotiating yesterday on an upper floor, the glass door is a bit cracked. The statue of early labor leader Berl Katznelson, which has a green stain on its collar, looks wearily at the time clock the employees must punch.

The chairman of the trade unions division, Avi Nissenkorn, is sitting next to the guard. He turns to answer a question from an Israel Radio correspondent and is immediately scolded by the photographers, who tell him to look at their cameras.

Arab and Jewish social workers - Yaron Kaminsky
Yaron Kaminsky

Reporters are stuck on the ground floor, where nothing much is happening. I decide to take a stroll upstairs. The first floor is full of action. Women with funny hats are walking down the hallways; somebody says they're getting ready for a Purim pageant.

On the second floor, the heads of the various departments are meeting ahead of their encounter with the treasury officials. They laugh loudly at something, involving the word "treasury." Maybe a joke at the expense of the other side. The don't see me.

I continue going upstairs. The higher I go, the more empty and lifeless the building. I hurry to the Amir Peretz Hall for a photo-op; it's full of croissants, chopped red pepper and bottles of diet sodas. The photographers ask the Histadrut officials to shake hands with the treasury officials. "At the end of the day," they say.

"But don't say what time," Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen says jokingly, but they finally accede.

Although it is mainly the fate of women that is being decided here, almost everyone sitting around the table is male, with two exceptions.

"Svetlana, get rid of the photographers," the spokesman says. But some of the media have not arrived yet. "They're stuck in the elevator," someone says.

Meanwhile, the pensioners who were supposed to have used this room for a lecture in Yiddish about the Bund movement are miffed. "The elderly are losing out here, not the social workers. Nobody ever interviews the elderly," one pensioner said.

Two female social workers come in with handwritten signs expressing support of the labor union. One of them, Michal, who has a megaphone over her shoulder, describes life when you have a half-time salary of NIS 2,300 a month.

Ostensibly, it seems the social workers' struggle for fair wages is doomed to failure. On the one hand, women lack power and influence. On the other hand is the treasury, whose officials have to be nice to shipping magnates like the Ofer brothers or industrialists like Yitzhak Tshuva, who own their next place of work. The treasury officials don't want to become social workers all of a sudden.

But this particular struggle shows the absurdity of measuring everything according to the standard of the market economy. And the social workers' strike has garnered the support of the media, which usually stabs any strike in the back. As if we journalists aren't closer to the social workers than to the treasury officials or the tycoons.

Rachel Wallner enters the building in a whirlwind. She is a member of the Tel Aviv City Council and a social worker herself, and wants to help her colleagues. Wallner sneaks me into a meeting of the strikers' committees to see how a successful campaign works. In one room sit some 20 female social workers and one man. Everyone is worried about the disinformation out there.

"The treasury boys tell lies. They say we make NIS 20,000." Everybody bursts out laughing. "Let them give us what they say we get and well stop striking," someone else says, still laughing. Aviva from Modi'in chimes in: "The most important thing is not to sit complaining. I was skeptical about the strike, but not anymore."