Union busting won’t help – Israeli workers are organizing in unprecedented numbers

Rami Hod’s article about the revival of organized labor in Israel and the challenges in faces

Union busting won’t help – Israeli workers are organizing in unprecedented numbers

Rami Hod’s article on TheMarker, published on 11.8.2015

In recent days many of Israel’s workers will celebrate the two year anniversary of the landmark ruling by Israel’s Labor Court, led by Chief Justice Nili Arad, that decreed that a company’s management is strictly forbidden from intervening or even voicing its opinion about any attempt by workers to unionize. The ruling was promptly followed by a surge in the number of workers’ union.

The last five years witnessed over 120,000 workers join labor unions in Israel. These workers include outsourced teachers, hi-tech workers, cleaning staff, fast food workers, college lecturers, bus drivers, mobile providers’ workers and more. This number is unprecedented, and is the clearest expression and most significant manifestation of the social awakening which began to take over Israel in the protest movement of the summer of 2011.

But this wave of unionization has also sparked a backlash by managements, using new direct and indirect tactics to circumnavigate the labor court’s ruling and sabotage workers’ attempts to organize. One of the most common of such tactics is setting up an in-house or internal union (one not linked to any labor union). These are usually set up by management and is presented outwardly as an authentic workers’ organization.

The labor court is now called to address a suit filed by the works at Menora Mivtachim Holdings (one of Israel’s largest insurance suppliers), that unionized under the auspices of the Histadrut labor federation, and are calling for the court to instruct the company’s management to desist from undermining the union and stop all attempts to set up an internal workers’ union of its own. The question the court now faces will have dramatic implications for the status of Israel’s workers – should the internal union be recognized it would thus grant legimty to the the practice of union busting, a move which would render the initial ruling obsolete.

Unsurprisingly, some have gladly greeted this ‘new’ tactic: Oriel Lynn, the owner of Lynn-Bichler Human Resources and a well known objector to any form of labor unions, recently dubbed the appearance of internal unions a “new ray of light in labor relations in Israel,” adding a recommendation: “Many employers would do well to look into this organizational model, for internal unions free of external power are a positive thing in the field of labor relations.” Lynn was joined by the author Irit Linur, who wrote a tongue-in-cheek post on her popular Facebook page that the internal labor union would be a “shame for the Histadrut to lose 7 million NIS of annual members’ fees, think of all the prime time advertising minutes they could have bought.” The joking being that the internal unions only constitute an economic loss for the allegedly greedy and press-driven labor federations.

The formation of in-house unions are depicted by Lynn and Linur as a struggle for freedom against the stifling and terrible unions. But nothing could be farther from the truth. To understand why a workers’ organization is not possible without the support of a union, we should ask the workers attempting to unionize how their struggle would look without their backing. There is logic behind the Israeli law’s decision to permit only general labor unions, those consolidating workers from different sectors, to sight collective bargaining agreements. They are the only ones that have the experience and ability to do so, giving workers organizational and legal aid against abuse by managements.

The primetime campaign ad that was the butt of Linur’s joke – assumably the “You’re Stronger When You’re Unionized,” actually helped create dozens of new labor unions. Those defamed ‘membership wages’ she quipped about are the only way a union can free itself of big money’s control, give aid to the diverse groups of workers that knock on its door and lead powerful and influential social struggles of solidarity for a higher minimum wage – a struggle that an internal union could not allow itself to participate in.

Organized labor in Israel must be strengthened by the formation of more and more unions, independent of their respective managements and bolstered by labor federations. These are the most important bulwark democratic societies have against the shift of wealth from the many to the few and the most important mechanism to reducing inequality.

Rami Hod is the Director of the Social Economic Academy