During the December 1997 general strike, some claimed that deep changes in the Histadrut (traditionally a hybrid between the TUC and a multi-national company) would have implications for its social and political activities. It is still too early to assess whether the Histadrut will organise itself as a classic trade union or preserve the structure which helped it, for 70 years, mediate between capital and labour for the greater glory of the state and Zionist “Labor Movement”.
From its beginning the trade union was only one of the Histadrut’s departments, alongside the sports departments, General Sick Fund, and so on. Pre-establishment of the state, the Histadrut promoted the model of an autonomous settler society disconnected from indigenous Palestinian society. One of it’s first struggles was persuading Jewish employers to hire (better paid) Jewish workers over Arab-Palestinians. This forced the Zionist Labor Movement to establish autonomous production and retailing for the Jewish community, alongside and opposed to the Palestinians’. The Histadrut established a network of industrial and construction companies and agricultural enterprises.
When the state was founded, and for many years since, the Histadrut was the second largest employer (after the state) and a considerable source of power for the ruling party, Mapa’i (predecessor of Labor).
The structure of rule, over both capital and labor, achieved through the Histadrut turned Israel into a welfare state, with extensive social guarantees for Jewish citizens. This was almost a necessity for a society in permanent confrontation with its environment and absorbing mass immigration. Mapa’i transferred some of the Histadrut’s pre-state functions, like education and the military, to the state; other functions, like construction and the General Sick Fund, remained under the Histadrut.
Histadrut internal elections, in pre-state days, were conducted with the notion of a “state-in-the-making” not as in a trade union. [For instance] for voting rights in the general assembly which elected the chair and executive it was not necessary to work in a certain branch of industry, only to pay dues. This continued after the state was established.
Ever since the June 1967 War, private capital’s role in the economy has grown, destroying a pillar of Mapa’i’s traditional hegemony. Since the mid-’70s, the centre of gravity of the settlement project shifted from the Zionist Labor Movement to the far Right Gush Emunim. During the 1980s economic crisis, the Histadrut had to sell much of its economic assets. More recently, the Rabin government removed the General Sick Fund from the Histadrut, making health insurance a quasi-state function, the first step to privatisation.
The trade union department and kibbutz movement are now the sole remnants of the Histadrut empire. It is obviously more difficult to privatise the trade union department, but not impossible. In 1994 a coalition of centre and right groups tried to establish a trade union. The Histadrut was able to successfully block this but there is nothing to stop it happening again. The Histadrut must function as a serious trade union if it wants to survive.
Knesset member Shlomo Ben Ami, a leader of the social-democratic wing of Labor still resisting total capitulation to neo-liberalism, wrote: “Netanyahu’s neo-liberal economy is unleashing destructive Social Darwinism and eliminating the welfare state, attacking workers and small business.” It is also, he wrote, hurting Likud’s own social base, leading Netanyahu to, “cultivate and bribe various sectors and their political representatives: ultra-orthodox groups, Shas, new immigrants, settlers...” Those who do not belong to the leadership of these sectors, particularly Arabs and poor Jews, find themselves increasingly confronted by the police: destroying a house built without a permit, or during a demonstration against mounting unemployment.
Netanyahu’s aggressive sectoral politics divides Israeli society into sectors which want a place within the political system and to act as pressure groups for their own interests. Intra working-class connections are disintegrating and the big, powerful trade unions are growing, and organising in the Histadrut as separate sectors.
The power of December’s general strike (over pensions) derived from the prevailing atmosphere of economic-social crisis. The Histadrut took advantage. The trade unions in big industries, in private and public sectors, hitched a ride on the atmosphere of crisis in the labour-intensive industries, the weakest among the working-class, and forced the government to accept their demands, but not those of the weaker workers who played such a key role.
Among the weakest, most hurt groups are Palestinian workers from the ‘67 occupied territories and foreign migrant workers. Their situation is deteriorating, with help of the Histadrut, for example permitting employers to sign individual work contracts (not collective agreements) for immigrant workers. Illegal, this sets a precedent that will extend to Israeli workers in the future. In one factory facing lay-offs the Histadrut called on the employer only to lay off “foreign workers”.
Meretz, an urban “yuppy” and largely true “liberal” party, and Gesher, a faction which broke from Likud and claims to represent the Mizrahim (the majority of the working-class) will run together in the upcoming Histadrut elections against the Labor-Likud bloc. Many commentators see this a new political camp emerging, oriented to the Mizrahim, abandoned by Likud and by Shas itself, which is becoming increasingly identified with Likud’s social-economic policies.
A fruitful struggle may arise from the attempt by that part of Meretz with a more social-economic orientation (especially former Mapam members, the “socialist-Zionist” party based in the left-wing of the Kibbutz movement and urban intellectuals) and Gesher to run together on a common platform, and puts even more pressure on the Labor-Likud bloc to demonstrate more radicalism in order to attract votes from Histadrut members most hurt by the government’s policies.
The main problem with the Histadrut is not, ultimately, the degree of militancy adopted in this or that struggle but its target population, workers in big industry. Only if the big workers’ committees help the weaker sectors will they win their confidence in the next struggles. Thorough structural changes are needed: the general assembly must operate on a trade union, not party-faction basis. There must also be direct discussions between representatives of the big workers’ committees and of the weaker sectors of workers, on a pure trade union basis. The Histadrut must recognise the union rights of immigrant workers. Such a general assembly could create more trust between workers and the Histadrut.
In the meantime, however, the Gesher-Meretz coalition in the Histadrut has not demanded structural changes, only a slice of the Histadrut’s power.
This may lead (without structural changes) to workers again being used as a means in various coalition struggles, instead of becoming an independent force against neo-liberalism.
Abridged from News From Within. Available by post: POB 31417, Jerusalem, Israel.