Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David: "I don't see leadership. Someone who will say: 'I understand the situation. We will reach into the government’s pocket and help out.'" (Photograph: Jonathan Blum)
"What is a state for, if not to care for its citizens in times of trouble?"

Exclusive interview with the chairman of the Histadrut, Israel’s largest trade union, during the greatest economic crisis Israel has ever seen

From his conversation with the Prime Minister: "I told him I believe things should be handled a little differently," | The role of the Histadrut in the crisis: "Tending to more than just our own affairs," | A conversation with Arnon Bar-David

15.04.2020, 11:29

Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David, if you were the Minister of Finance today, what would you do differently?

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"I would lead through this crisis. I don't see leadership. Someone who will say: 'I understand the situation. There are businesses that are hurt, jobs that are hurt. We will reach into the government’s pocket and help out.' "Out of 90 billion shekels, 10 are supposed to go to business loan funds. Almost nothing came out of it. This plan isn't serious action. If you look at what came out of the 90 billion shekels, the majority is Bituach Leumi [social security], while the rest of the plan isn’t really happening."

Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David, in his office (Photograph: Jonathan Blum)

These days, the office of the Histadrut chairman resembles a wartime situation room. When we met, the negotiations for the second collective agreement for public sector workers had almost ended. "Hopefully, in the next few hours, we will sign the agreement," says Bar-David. "The idea is to extend the validity of the previous public sector agreement, which we signed at the beginning of the crisis, which allowed public sector workers to share the load in this crisis. We expect that sectors of the economy including the public sector will return to work on April 19. There will also be those who will stay home for an additional period. For their benefit, we extended the previous agreement, whereby payment for vacation days will be divided between employers and employees. "

What is the purpose of the agreement?

"Our goal was to regulate wage conditions for the near term, and assure employees that their wages will be paid, and on the other hand, to enable the government to continue to address the COVID-19 crisis and support sectors experiencing dire circumstances. It's important to say that even those who have not accrued vacation days will get paid. In the previous agreement, we reduced half a day off from all employees to create a fund to help those who have not accumulated enough vacation days. And we divided that number between the employee and the employer. "

How does such an agreement come about in times of crisis? How do these kinds of discussions take place with the Ministry of Finance?

"Over the last year, I have had ongoing conversations with Kobi Bar Natan (the Wage Commissioner), and this has had an influence on this crisis as well. We finalized the general direction of the agreement, and then I shared the proposal with relevant union heads over Zoom and Skype. And finally, the proposal I brought to the negotiating table was accepted by the Ministry of Finance. Then there are the finer details. My team has worked very hard in the past few days to tailor every aspect. As in the previous agreement, we had excellent cooperation, reasonable discourse, and a balanced result. A good solution, and in the spirit of solidarity, the workers agreed to share the load and contribute their part."

Chairman of the Histadrut, Arnon Bar David and Civil Service Commissioner Kobi Bar Natan

When you make such negotiations, what is playing on your mind the moment before entering the room?

"During routine times, what drives me in negotiations is the status of organized labor and the fate of the workers. But now, in the crisis, my guiding principle is the welfare of the economy and recovering from the crisis. How the economy emerges from the crisis, how the workers emerge from the crisis. I don't want to see unemployed people physically knocking on the doors of Bituach Leumi [social security]. There are more than a million people unemployed, some of whom are members of the Histadrut, and some of whom are not members of the Histadrut: the self-employed. The agreement we signed also affects other parts of the economy.

"We said we could keep the economy going until after Passover. Now we have extended it a little bit, but if we reach May, we will have to introduce other solutions from other directions. We hope we won’t get there, but we are also making preparations for such a situation. I have some ideas. I don't want to get into it right now, but we're also watching the situation in other countries and trying to learn from them. In any case, I support getting the economy back to normal as soon as possible. I am optimistic and am pushing decision-makers to act. "

You mentioned the responsibility you feel over the economy that you bring with you to the negotiating table, does the other side also show goodwill and an understanding of the situation of the workers?

"It may surprise you to hear, but, yes, definitely. What we have been doing for the past year is creating a more advanced and more intelligent Histadrut. Some of that helped us in this crisis and assisted the collaborations we have made with the finance staff. There are no battles between us here. The only battle that must be fought, together, is the battle for the future of the economy and the future of the State of Israel."

Is the Prime Minister involved with the details of the agreement, does he see the workers on the ground?

"The Prime Minister's Office is updated on the details of the agreement. We have met once since the beginning of the crisis, and we spoke several times. We send messages between the bureaus. When we met, the conversation focused on the El Al crisis and how we would financially handle the whole crisis. I believe we need to do things a little differently. I also made public statements about it, about the need to, in one way or another, inject money into the economy on a much larger scale, as other countries have done. There are many examples."

El Al plains freighting eggs to Israel, a commodity in need during the COVID-19 crisis, April 7 2020 (Photograph: El Al)

"Even with all they said about the 80 billion shekels, or the 90 billion shekels… it's a numbers game. I said that the day after the agreement, and I'm still saying it now. If out of the 90 billion, 30-to-40 finds its way back into the economy to encourage growth, to businesses, to self-employed people, that would be enough. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen."

The self-employed are a group we need to look after

"From the very beginning, the self-employed should have received the same amount of money that was given out to workers. In the end, the difference is not so huge – between the 6,000 – 8,000 shekel grants they received, and unemployment benefits which go up to a maximum of 10,500 shekels. The difference is not astronomical, but the money was given out via a system that did not consider self-employed people. "I witnessed their demonstrations, and they are right."

"In fact, as the crisis was unfolding, I decided to open a Histadrut-affiliated union for self-employed people. This cannot not happen within the Histadrut, because I cannot legally do so, but we can open a separate body that sits alongside the Histadrut and receives the support and legal wisdom accumulated here, and the assistance they need to have a voice and representation."

"You asked me earlier, if I was Finance Minister, what would I do? So, first of all, I would look after the most affected industries — airlines and tourism. El Al is on the verge of collapse. Arkia and Israir are also in dire straits. In El Al, we are talking about 6,500 employees in the inner circle and thousands of additional workers. The coronavirus has brought this company into a very dangerous situation. It will not take much for it to collapse. The solution in the end will be restructuring of the company with the assistance of a government loan to keep the company afloat long enough to weather the crisis.

Collective agreement in Israir (Photograph: Eran Kauphman)

"We are dealing with this crisis around the clock. Morning and night, weekends and holidays. With the government, with El Al’s management, with the banks. I am personally exerting a great deal of pressure on all the relevant parties. This crisis must end with El Al on its feet.

Throughout the crisis, we have heard you repeatedly bring up the self-employed. Why is this issue so important to you? After all, they are not members of the Histadrut.

"When I assumed this position, I said that we should build the Histadrut so that it be open to the public. Not closed-off in our own affairs, but watching over the entire the Israeli economy. The economy has changed in recent years, and as part of my worldview, the Histadrut, with all its history and great legacy, needs to be renewed continuously, raising new banners that will speak to the changing realities of the Israeli economy. One of the new fronts in this regard is self-employed workers. So it's not a classic employer-employee relationship, but it's a layer of the economy to protect."

Self-employed workers protesting in front of the Knesset, March 30 (Photograph: Jonathan Zindel/Flash90)

"In this crisis, the Histadrut has proved that it is changing direction. The steps we have taken and our bipartisan and pluralistic vision have brought new groups towards us and constitute a catalyst for a change that I see taking place in public perception of the Histadrut."

How are workers reacting to this perspective which requires them to personally share the load and take responsibility for the economy and the self-employed as well?

"There is a very fine line between a salaried worker and a self-employed person. People see what is happening in other sectors that are collapsing one after the other. I am hugely critical of the inaction of the state. What good is a state if it doesn't care for its citizens in times of trouble? It is clear that in an epidemic, in a flood, in a disaster, there must be a mutual guarantee here, a state that will provide its people with solutions. Unfortunately, the solutions that the government has offered the various sectors of the economy are unsatisfactory and wrong. I am very disturbed by what might take place the minute the epidemic is over.

"I'm afraid that there will be a lot of unemployed people here. Many businesses will not open their doors again. I worry about how entire worlds will look after this – the world of recreation and culture, and the world of sports are all in grave danger."

What do you have to say about whispers of cuts that will be made in the public sector?

"They're always looking at cuts to the public sector as the solution. Let's see what the actual plan will be, if it helps get the economy out of the crisis, then talk to us about cuts."

What is it like to be Chairman of the Histadrut at such a time?

"I have six children. I am a son, father, grandfather, and the Chairman of the Histadrut. But the truth is that this job takes up most of my time. This crisis is not stopping me from spending time with my family. I sleep very little, but that's the job. All of my professional life, I've seen myself as a representative of the workers."

"The Histadrut is facing a test. It's not an easy time for the people of Israel, and at the end of the day, I understand the weight of the responsibility that lies on my shoulders. I think that the experience I bring with me and the path I set out on when I accepted this office will lead the Histadrut to where we want and need to be. Eventually, this crisis will come to an end, and the Histadrut will continue to work for and be a home to the workers of Israel. So I'm always at it, with my fantastic team that makes our ideas come to life."

"One example is the issue of the loan fund we established for Histadrut members. We recognized that there was a problem. People needed credit and took high-cost loans. In two days, my team engineered a solution with the banks. Today any member of the Histadrut can apply via call center and get a loan with the best terms in the economy. Hundreds of workers have already received this loan, and thousands more will receive it after the holidays. Also, the projects we undertook to strengthen the workers on front lines: we sent out food trucks to feed hospital and MDA workers."

"We sent out food trucks to feed hospital and MDA workers." A food truck delivering nourishment to frontliners in Hadasa Ein Kerem (Photograph: Histadrut)

What is it like running a huge organization like the Histadrut via Zoom?

"I’ve grown quite fond of it. I think these remote video-conferencing tools are excellent. We do Zoom board meetings. People are managing to be more patient and attentive. I think that this is a considerable lesson that we have learnt from this crisis: There is no need to have people run across the country for meetings. In the end, doing remote sessions is effective, both in terms of time and money. In general, I think coronavirus has taught us many things."

What have we learnt?

"Suddenly, we are realizing that we can dial things back a little – the consumerist and wasteful culture we live in, the narcissism: all about where you’re flying to and what you’re eating. People are suddenly at home with their families and are putting things back into perspective in terms of what's important in life."

How is your father?

"My dad is at home. He has a caregiver. He is a very strong person. We chat on Zoom. He has learned how to use it. The fact that we cannot meet in person is painful, but we are dealing with it. I understand that it will take some time before we can sit together. First, we will get the economy back in action because we are already running out of time on this issue."

What gives you the strength to navigate this?

"I have to say that what gives me strength is our workers' committees, the heads of the committees, and the unions. It's a very morally fueled system – people who work with exceptional synergy. On the one hand, I'm alone on the frontier. I feel alone here. But I see extraordinary people who have joined the cause with all their hearts. In the end, we look forward to life after corona."

Do you feel the organization was prepared for the crisis?

"Absolutely. We were cohesive and unified. Headed in the right direction. I sense the people, and I am in touch with the workers and their committee leaders. I am very proud of our Histadrut. A determined and cohesive organization. Our slogan: 'The Home for the Workers in Israel' has proven itself excellently.

"I hope we get through this, and everyone comes out OK. I wish a happy holiday to all the workers. I believe that they can be proud of their workplaces with their committee representatives in the Histadrut. After the crisis is over, whose speedy resolve we wish to see, I hope the Histadrut keeps going from strength to strength."

What do you think of the political campaigning that is occurring in parallel to the crisis?

"I think we need a functioning government at this time. A unity government is the only solution right now. There is no possibility of a government on the right or on the left. Anyone who talks about a fourth election in this crisis is irresponsible. That is why disputes need to be put aside, and a unity government established as quickly as possible. We will have plenty of time to fight afterward, over everything, but now there is a crisis that needs to be dealt with. We are lucky to have entered the crisis with a strong economy. We have a strong country and excellent people. We can get everything back up to speed in two years. Beyond that, I can say that I know Avi Nissenkorn personally, and I sincerely hope that he will accept the post of Minister of Justice. He would make an excellent Justice Minister."

I draw a lot of support from my wife, Hila, who also has a background in the world of organized labor, from my children, and close friends who help me (Photograph: Jonathan Blum)

Could you possibly share something personal about the man behind the title of Histadrut chairman?

"The truth is, I come home late every evening, even before the coronavirus struck. I draw a lot of support from my wife, Hila, who also has a background in the world of organized labor, understands what's going on here in the Histadrut, from my children, and close friends who help me. I, like all the people of Israel, like to watch TV to clear my mind. This crisis caught me in the middle of 'Shtisel,' I was a little late to the party, but I have since developed a soft spot for Yiddish. I also loved ‘Homeland’ and ‘Unorthodox.’”


Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut