Even amid the recent political turmoil in Israel, telecom workers have been making headlines. Just last week, Pelephone union reached an eye-watering deal to improve employee's contracts. The new collective agreement includes a seven percent pay raise, a commitment to share profits with employees in the form of bonuses, and the creation of a fund to finance future higher education for employees. To put this into perspective, average wage rises in Israel amounted to just over 3 percent last year, and inflation rates were even lower – just under 1 percent.

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From left, Pelephone workers assembly and Cellcom workers assembly (courtesy of The Histadrut press office / uncredited)

Employment conditions are becoming increasingly precarious for tech and telecoms workers around the world, with employers cracking down aggressively against unionization efforts. This week. news came out of of Google spying on "troublemakers" at the workplace and denying workers the right to form a union. In contrast to recent developments, Israel has been the sole exception: Since 2012, 17,000 tech and telecom workers have unionized, bringing about huge improvements in conditions across the industry. Their success has got many asking: How did they do it?

Pelephone Pioneers

The improvements in salary and working conditions across the tech and telecom industries can be traced back to 2012 – the year the first telecom union was formed by workers at Pelephone Telecom Ltd. The union, which was the first ever to be formed in the Israeli telecom industry, was already in the making just one year after Israel had experienced its deepest civil unrest in decades, with hundreds of thousands protesting rising levels of inequality and inadequate government policy for tackling economic hardship. Having failed to secure significant commitments from the government, many Israelis turned to forming unions at the workplace in an attempt to improve economic conditions on the ground.

Israelis hold up signs as they march against rising cost of living in Jerusalem, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But tech and telecom companies proved a considerable challenge for Israel's unions. Tech companies, a relatively new feature of the Israeli workforce, were overwhelmingly founded after the major decline in union power during the 1980s and '90s. An immediate consequence of this, as opposed to more traditional industries which have managed to maintain a certain extent of worker representation, is that unions were never formed in the tech and telecom industries. These newer industries, in Israel and around the world, are often considered by union officials as "out of bounds," with managements actively opposing any form of collective bargaining and frequently engaging in union busting activities.

Although tech and telecom workers enjoy some of the highest paying personal contracts in the labor market, this is not the case for all workers in the industry. In Israel, the tech and telecom industries are riddled with low-paying jobs, often on short-term contracts with no benefits or employment security.  This has tended to work to the advantage of anti-union managements, who could easily threaten to replace any employee they deemed troublesome.

Pelephone workers picketing, 2017 (Dani Vazana)

This changed in 2012, following a court ruling involving the newly-founded Pelephone union. When low-paid workers at the company tried to organize that year, management openly opposed their efforts, using well known union-busting tactics. The owner of Pelephone, Shaul Alovitch, declared total war against the newly-founded union, threatening to fire any worker involved. Members of management said that “there will be no union at our company, because workers here don’t need a union.”

The Histadrut, Israel's General Federation of Labor, took Pelephone to court, suing the company for illegally blocking workers' unionization efforts. Israeli labor laws dictate a 200,000 shekel ($57,000) fine for attempting to prevent unionization efforts.

Abandoned Pelephone workers’ cubicles after sanctions, 2017 (Photograph: Pelephone union press office)

In 2013, after the court fined Pelephone, finding the company guilty of illegal interference, the union was officially recognized. But what was particularly significant was one additional ruling: The Israeli High Court set a precedent, stating that any kind of negative reference made by the company regarding the efforts to unionize constituted illegal interference and would be fined by the court. In essence, the ruling has made companies speaking out against unionization illegal.

"Don't fool yourselves, no employer is ever glad to see his workers unionize. They always resist, even if they say otherwise. They always do say otherwise, with their company's reputation in mind,” said Gad Ravid, chair of the workers committee at SAP – an Israeli Tech company whose workers unionized in 2016. "But since the court ruling in 2012, bosses are much more careful than they used to be. They're far more restricted, they can't even express the slightest sentiment of resistance," he added.

Pelephone workers’ protest, 2013 (Archive)

A Wave of Unionization in Tech and Telecom

What followed the 2013 ruling was a massive spike in union membership, particularly in the tech and telecom industries. In fact, the number of new members was so large, that the Histadrut was forced to create a new department specifically designed to cater to the needs of new tech and telecom unions.

17,000 workers have joined labor unions in the tech and telecom industries since 2012 (Graphics: Idea)

In this sense, Israel has been a global forerunner: unions around the world have been struggling to unionize tech workers, with limited success. As opposed to that trend, Israel has seen a growth in unionization recent years, with new sectors joining the fold.

This has had a major influence on union membership growth as a whole. Union membership numbers are rising in Israel, with 105,000 new members between 2012 and 2016. Apart from the Scandinavian countries, where union membership still accounts for over half of the total workforce, Israel has the third largest share of union members.­­

The telecom workers' union is just one example of an impressive wave of worker mobilization that Israel hasseen in recent years. Since the 2011 protest movement, a large number of new unions have been formed. Much of this has happened in industries that are usually not regarded as working class. Among the new unions formed since 2011 are many white-collar industries, including accounting, insurance, athletics and the media.