Aftermath of wildcat at Israel Railways

Israel Railways train station.

Using an inside source, an Israeli libertarian communist constructs an analysis of the picture behind the scenes at the recent wildcat of Israel Railways workers. For context, see the original news update.

“We couldn't even walk around a train station without workers eating at us!” – One of the six union representatives accused of being responsible for the wildcat, at the disciplinary hearing.
“What you saw today was a distress signal from workers without a leadership... what they needed was a bear hug, an open ear...” – advocate for same, at the disciplinary hearing.

I believe that these sound-bytes capture the essence of this wildcat strike: harried by the rank-and-file, getting no succor from their leaders in Histadrut, the local union reps were pushed into a move that they subsequently told a disciplinary hearing they firmly regretted.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, the same union bureaucrats who had ignored requests for a formal work dispute to be declared – a requirement under Israeli labor law in order for a strike to be legal – are complaining that they had heard nothing about this, that it is news to them, that they should have been talked to, argued with, put into the loop. They are now angry and hurt. They feel left out.

But lower-ranking union reps have feelings, too. They also feel left out: in the cold. Their legs are being nipped by legitimately angry workers – indeed, even a disciplinary committee member was convinced of the fact that their grievances were sound; meanwhile, their heads, acknowledgedly experienced union leaders, have been severed by corruption charges – in fact, Histadrut accuses the latter's machinations in creating this strike in the first place. The poor reps were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They had to do something. If they hadn't acted and then recanted, the workers themselves might have done something even more grave.

Histadrut's fear
Regardless of what initiated this wildcat – whether it was the workers` real anger against the terror enacted by a company management unfettered by a strong union presence, or an attempt by the severed heads to demand contributions from the workers for their defense in order to be reattached – the underlying feeling among both lowly union reps and high-ranking union bosses is fear. The former were fearful of the situation before the strike, and of the personal cost they may have to pay for their actions; the latter of what might happen next.

One of those union higher-ups justifies his call to remove the disorderly reps by citing his concern with the possible ensuing chaos. “The other unions are watching,” he implores of the committee, he berates the reps. “They want to see what Histadrut will do with a union that strikes without its permission.” Mere anarchy is just behind the door.

Of course, it's not the other union reps they are worried about, really, but the workers, those used to accepting excuses and compromises from their reps, those acclimated to set-piece selective strikes initiated by the central Histadrut leadership around budget talks, or whenever it wishes to further its causes. Will these same workers be as malleable if Histadrut does not mete out punishment for the transgressors` sins?

Histadrut as parent
The strikers` attorney pleads with the disciplinary committee, with Histadrut, to forgive the children, for they knew not what they were doing. He implores upon them to be responsive and responsible parents, to understand their children's motivation and thereby help them correct their actions. “Now that they know who to turn to, they will,” he promises.

The prosecutor – in this case that same attorney supposed to represent rail workers against their employers – demands a harsh sentence, for a good parent must also be strict in his discipline lest his children leave the righteous path.

There is, of course, a very real danger guiding Histadrut's actions, and perhaps leading them to believe, ultimately, that they are acting in the workers` best interests: since the workers made an unlawful strike, they are subject by law to damages claims by their employer, and anyone else who can prove they had suffered financially from this strike. Histadrut would jeopardize its position with employers if it pursued the alternative, which is a special deal with the employer that precludes such litigation. Moreover, they would have to continue and support this illegal strike, which puts it under further burdens. This, too, could only be made to pass if a sacrifice is made to appease Israel Railways: the heads of the strike leaders.

I do not know what the final decision was of the disciplinary committee, or if it has already made one. I suppose that if this decision turns out to be too lenient, we will be hearing of more unofficial strike action in other sectors, and further instability. If, on the contrary, it is too harsh, and if the grievances of Israel Railways workers are not addressed, there may well be further measures enacted upon them, which might throw them back into the kind of more atomized work-slow and work-to-rule that we have become accustomed to from time to time. But that, in itself, is not important.

What is important is to ask: was this an expression of the class working for itself? The answer, I believe, is a qualified no. The sleeping giant of the Israeli working class has stirred in its sleep, but it has not yet awakened. The workers are still somewhat ashamed and close-mouthed about their actions, instead of loud and clear. Those 30-odd workers who came to the hearing with their union reps raised no argument to the designation of Histadrut as merely a negligent parent. Led by their reps even whilst goading them on, they continue to try and limit their struggles as much as possible. They have avoided direct contact with the media. They have not tried to include buses or taxis, for example. Finally, they obeyed the Labor Court and their union reps` orders to return to work without making sure that their demands were met.

On the other hand, this does seem like an expression of a survival instinct by the unions, of those who are fetters on the working class trying to stay attached to the stirring giant. Their power will be the first to go if the workers start acting unadvised, uncontrolled, if they break loose. And yet, they cannot help but loosen when worrying the knots.

Let us hope that their fear drives them to their own graves.

Posted By

Feb 6 2009 23:53


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Feb 7 2009 20:00

Thanks for the.. more pertinent photo, I guess, mystery editor! smile Feedback is more than welcome. Scathing criticism, come on down!

Feb 14 2009 14:41