Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A pathetic strike

Dan Margalit

Monday's general strike, touted as a "historic day" by its instigator, Histadrut labor federation head Ofer Eini, turned out to be nothing more than a soap bubble, a deflated balloon. Eini had hoped to witness throngs of people marching alongside him on behalf of contract workers, just as hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding social justice flooded city streets this summer. But nothing of the sort occurred. Those workers compelled to strike until 10 a.m. appeared to be watching the hands of the clock until the appointed hour when they could get back to work. It was embarrassing. On Sunday night one could already discern signs of impatience, not just in government representatives and employers, but in Eini's conduct as well. As if possessed by a demon, he announced that there had been no progress in talks with the Finance Ministry and that only the courts could decide. Between the lines you could hear him saying, "To hell with it, let the judges prohibit us from striking and spare us the torment and embarrassment."

But Labor Court Justice Nili Arad and her colleagues prolonged their deliberations, asking questions, arguing and cogitating. They lambasted Eini in colloquial language for his hasty act, but they also sought to salvage the Histadrut's honor to some extent, so they allowed it to hold a mini-strike. Perhaps they did the right thing. In a well-ordered democratic society there is a need for strong labor unions.

But this strike requires an autopsy. It was born in sin. Its initiators in the Histadrut are actually complicit, to a secondary degree, in the crime of perpetuating the phenomenon of contract workers -- the poor, oppressed and defenseless victims of Israeli society. Histadrut politicos are thus suspect of trying to quickly wash their hands of their own misdeeds and omissions, going so far as to declare a general strike in order to do so. Responsible leaders do not pull out their big guns all at once. They do not hasten Judgment Day, which in this case is a general strike.

Israelis need to learn that public battles should progress step by step. First you address your rival. You make a request. Then you negotiate. Next, you issue a threat. You enact a small measure, then a medium-sized one. You open a door. You slam the door shut. The road to a general strike is a long one. Someone who immediately launches a society-wide general strike forces his opponent to pull out all the stops to block it. The result was clearly discernible.

Still, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Contract workers are oppressed. They deserve improved living conditions, job security and a pension, as stipulated by law. What is needed now is for both sides to set aside petty politics, as well as their personal whims and egos, and come to the negotiating table with a willingness to solve the problem and improve the quality of life for those described as "the slaves of the 21st century."

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