Massive public sector general strike rocks Israel

A major strike took place in Israel yesterday, called by the Histadrut, over the issue of unpaid wages and siphoning off of workers' pension funds. The strike affected 200,000 public sector workers, uniting secular Jews, religious Jews, and Muslim and Christian Arabs all striking together against their exploiters. As the Marxists have always explained, the class struggle cuts across ethnic division, and offers the only path to a real solution of the problem.

Yesterday the Histadrut, the Israeli federation of trade unions, organised a general strike of public sector workers. The reasons for the strike were on the one hand a holdover of pay in the local councils, religious councils, and the firemen's urban unions, and on the other hand, the theft of workers' money by the councils themselves, by transferring partial sums of money to the pension funds, which is estimated will cost the workers around a billion shekels.

The workers and the Histadrut leadership for months had been warning that they would strike, but the Ministry of Finance was too busy with far more important things, for example, how to keep stealing from the poor in order to give more money to the capitalists. Israel is practically a robber state: it has huge sums of money, but this money is used to line the pockets of the capitalists and the banks, and those of the corrupt heads of the military. It is used to create new millionaires and billionaires, not for the workers.

It is not only the council workers that are suffering; the entire working class is also suffering. Some working class families in which both parents work live below the poverty line. Today, for example, we heard Faraj Marai, head of the collection and tourism department of Horfesh council, explaining that he hasn't received his paycheck for six months. He is not on his own; another 37 workers are in the same situation. He and his fellow workers rightfully doubt that the strike, in the form it took, could solve the problem.

"We're already in a state of despair, and we believe that the Histadrut started its actions too late", says Marai. "The local council of Horfesh has many economic troubles, and even if money is found in the end we're not at all certain that we will receive it. All the bureaucratic procedures are burdensome... delaying. We believe that if the government wants to, it is possible to find a way to give all the workers their money."

He is right of course. This strike, although a positive step, did not bring out the full strength of the working class, and was not enough to win the fight. It is very good that the leadership of the Histadrut called the strike, but in order for it to win it should have been transformed into a general strike of all workers that would stop all economic activities in the country. A full strike would bring the bosses and corrupt politicians, who wage war on the workers, to their knees.

The Bourgeoisie Unites Against the Workers...

It did not take long for the capitalists to start their counter-offensive. The same day the strike started, the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce and the Manufacturers' Association requested the National Labour Court issue an injunction ending the strike. Association economists claim that the strike would cost the country ‑ meaning the bourgeois of course ‑ 350 million NIS on just the first day. It is also said that within two days, gas [petrol] might have run out in gas stations, as it would not be delivered during the strike. Unfortunately the Court granted the injunction and the Histadrut called the strike off after one day. This however, does not remove the underlying problems that provoked the strike.

The capitalists and some of the extreme right did not waste any time in shedding crocodile tears over the plight of the poor workers. The president of the Manufacturers' Association, Shraga Brosh, said that holding back wages and the failure to transfer full sums to the pension funds are intolerable crimes. MK Nisan Slumianski (National Union-Mafdal) attacked the government on its economic policy. This is clearly no more than demagogy. Where has the Association been since 2004, when the last general strike took place, and the government promised to pay workers their salaries? And what about the two parties that form Slumianski's party, who were both part of Ariel Sharon's right-wing coalition several years ago? The radical right is trying to use the impotence of the workers' leadership in order to gain political influence at their expense, and this is the fault of this leadership, which entered the Olmert coalition despite the fact that the miserable outcome of this act was obvious to everyone, apart from the leaders themselves.

The president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, Uriel Lin, expressed the capitalists' fear of the strike, when he said that, "the planned strike is an example of the misuse of the power to strike and the right to strike. We must break [!] the tradition of local councils where they gain a large deficit and demand the government to pay their bills, at the expense of the tax payers. This is an unconscionable offense to all citizens of Israel, and to Israel's business sector in particular."

Lin and his cohorts have good reasons to be afraid. Considering its extraordinary class contradictions, Israel is a ticking time bomb from the perspective of the class struggle. Last year, the number of poor people in Israel stood at around 1.5 million. This year there a further 100,000 have joined them. Depression is rampant, and along with the brutal occupation of Palestine, this has made Israeli society alienating and violent. So far the capitalists have been able to divert attention from the social problems by using wars and ethnic conflicts, but this no longer works. The failed war against the Lebanese people has only increased the rage and frustration of the people, and the slaughter in Beit Hanoun has been condemned by most Israelis for its intolerable cruelty. The capitalists did not only fear the immediate economic damage that this strike would cause: they saw Jewish and Arab workers striking against them in concert, and they understand the possible political repercussions of this. A united class struggle is what the capitalists fear the most. This is why they wanted so desperately to stop the strike, despite the fact that it targeted mainly the government (of course from a practical point of view, this dichotomy is meaningless: the government represents the capitalists and carries out their policies in their interest).

In this context, it is worth quoting form a story that has been published in Walla, an Israeli internet portal:

"...passengers at the airport tried to push through a British Airways flight. The company requested the airport to allow the aircraft to leave the country, since the crew did not wake up on time and couldn't leave on time. The employees' committee allowed the flight to depart without the passengers, but British Airways tried to sneak the passengers in, as opposed to the conditions set by the committee. However, the committee found out about this, and the flight was cancelled - the crew itself stayed in Israel."

This teaches the workers' that not only were the Israeli capitalists trying to break the strike, but also those of other countries. Therefore what was needed was an appeal to the worldwide working class to support the strike, so that they would not be used to break it. This in fact has happened before, when during the dockworkers' strike the Israeli government asked the corrupt Arab regimes to help them by letting them use their ports to break the strike.

...and the Workers Unite Against the Bourgeoisie

About 12,000 workers are being hurt directly by the holding back of wages, and about a further 40,000 by the theft of pension money, most of them Arab and religious workers. Despite this fact, 200,000 workers came out on strike yesterday in protest at these crimes. Secular Jews, religious Jews, and Muslim and Christian Arabs were all striking together against their exploiters. This has been a marvellous example of working class solidarity, and the best weapon of the workers against the bourgeois.

According to clerks in the Histadrut situation room, most callers supported the strike, and the phones didn't stop ringing. Jihad Aqel, chairman of the situation room and a member of Hadash [the Communist party's electoral front], said that, "as one who has had experience in many strikes, I feel that the public supports us, even more than in the strike in 2004. The public is aware of the fact that this is about people who haven't received their wages or pension and that the problem wasn't solved in 2004, so apparently we must struggle." Also workers were calling in saying that their employers had threatened them to get them back to work. This shows that there is a need to set up militant action committees that will defend the rights of striking workers.

These are not minor details. Among left-wingers, in Israel as well, there is a notion that all Israeli Jews are a single reactionary social bloc. However, the Marxists have always emphasized the fact that in Israel there are workers and capitalists, exploited and exploiters. We have been anticipating the breaking out of the class struggle in Israel for many months now, since the capitalists are forced to attack the gains of the workers in order to increase their profits. Yesterday's strike shows that there are contradictory class interests in Israel, and that they transcend the national divide which is promoted by the capitalists in order to break the unity of the workers and prevent mass struggle. We have written before that the coming struggles will make short work of this infantile theory, and this strike is but the beginning.

Criticism and A Strategy for Victory

It is very kind of Peretz ‑ who promised to raise the minimum wage to a 1000$, but instead took part in a filthy war in Bush's service ‑ to say that he supported the strike. But if he supported the strike, what are the Labour leaders doing in the bourgeois Olmert government? Olmert did not immediately state his position on the strike, but the actions of Finance Minister Hirchson leave no doubt as to Kadima's position. On the other hand, we must say that although a general strike of 200,000 was a correct step, a positive one, which expressed the pressure of the working class rank and file of the Histadrut, we must remember that there are an additional 500,000 members in the trade union federation. Why did they not call them out on strike as well? The dichotomy between public sector and private sector workers is artificial, and serves only the capitalists by weakening the strike. The Histadrut should have extend the strike to include these workers, as well as encouraging unorganized workers to strike. This way the Histadrut could have strengthened the strike and itself for future battles.

A general strike, with a political character, whose aim it is to remove the government from power, would receive the support of many of Israel's two and a half million strong working class, and from their family members as well. But in order for this to happen, it is necessary to take militant strike action, under a democratic leadership elected in every workplace, and not just a partial strike controlled by the Histadrut bureaucracy. Where the committee is corrupt or non-existent, it is necessary to set up an elected committee, and to organize all striking workers in a mass organization of workers, to which the Histadrut leadership will have to answer, making it unable to act on its own.

This kind of strike would unite all workers, Jews and Arabs. The successful struggle of the workers against the capitalists sand their governments is the only way to make real peace between the people of this land, for wars, nationalism and racism are the weapons of the bosses and their corrupt servants, which allow them to create ethnic conflict between workers of different nationalities. A general strike, beginning with a full 24-hour strike, would teach the workers that no force on earth can defeat the workers fighting as a united class.

For the victory of the public sector workers!

For a real, full, 24-hour strike of the entire workforce as a first step!

Labour Party out of the government!

Down with the corrupt government, yes to a government of the working class!

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