Israeli General Strike Ends in Victory for Workers

This past May I packed my suitcase in preparation for a summer in Israel and was expecting to find a nation filled with tension, protests, and conflict.  In those departments, Israel was far from lacking. The streets and parks were filled with angry citizens. The grumblings of a battle had burst forth and the local population was fighting. Yet, these protests, this conflict, had nothing to do with separation barriers, Gaza, flotillas, Iran, or Palestinians. It was a war for economic equality and labor rights—specifically, a fight against the rising cost of housing that led thousands of Israelis to settle in tent cities from Tel Aviv to Beersheba.

As a country whose political and foreign relations conflicts grip worldwide media attention daily, Israel was not an expected venue for such a display of socio-economic protest. While I had studied domestic Israeli issues I envisioned a nation where such concerns were second fiddle to the overwhelming security and human rights issues that the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflict produces. What I found was a society like all others, comprised of a population with deep concerns regarding their economic health and issues of labor and employment law that coincide with those anxieties.

While many touted the Israeli “tent cities” as an offshoot of the Arab Spring movement that was spreading across the region, the lasting legacy of the movement can be found in Occupy Wall Street. Like OWS, the original rallying cry of the tent cities became a springboard for variant socio-economic justice initiatives. The tent cities may have all but disappeared from Israeli parks, but their message still resonates with the people and the government—as was shown with the recent victory for government contract workers, which ended the first general strike in over five years.

Beginning on February 8, the five-day walkout of Israeli laborers led to a shutdown of government offices, banks, the stock exchange, and for a brief period Israel’s main international transportation artery—Ben Gurion Airport.  While Israel faced the consequences of an angry workforce, the Finance Ministry and Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor union, worked hard at negotiations for five long days—finally reaching a conclusion on February 12.  Under the deal, the minimum wage for government contract workers is to be raised, workers will receive improved benefits, including larger employer participation in pension funds and saving plans.  In return, Histadrut agreed to withhold industrial action for a period of three years on issues dealing with the economic conditions of contract workers employed as cleaners and security guards.

With this recent victory it is clear that the movement, started this summer, still has credibility and widespread public support.  Ofer Eini, the chairperson of Histadrut, recognized the significance of this achievement beyond the boundaries of contract workers rights when, adopting the rhetoric of the tent city movement, said that the agreement “helped [Israel become] a more honest and just society.”

Read more on this dispute resolution here.

Colten Hall is the Commentary Editor with the American University Labor & Employment Law Forum. Colten is a candidate for a JD/MA 2013 at American University Washington College of Law and the American University School of International Service. Colten received a BA in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2010.