At a recent conference held in Eilat for hundreds of Israeli municipal council chairs, Histadrut Chairman Arnon Bar-David laid out the Histadrut’s recent successes, including an increase in the minimum wage and a new collective agreement supporting educational aides in preschools and kindergartens.
“In the next collective agreement, we’re going to raise the salary of municipal workers. I promise,” he declared.
The three-day training conference was attended by a wide representation of Israeli society, from Jews to Arabs, religious to secular, and was organized by UCAPSE (the Union of Clerical and Public Service Employees), with 250 thousand workers organized under it. Gil Bar Tal, the chairman of UCAPSE, worked with Bar-David to finalize the collective bargaining agreement with employers and the Finance Ministry.
“The municipal worker seminar is a tradition that dates back years,” he said in his opening remarks. “It is important to meet directly with members in the field, to exchange opinions, to hear other ideas, and to answer questions firsthand.”
Bar-David described the processes that led to the recent agreement, saying how the Histadrut has managed to change the atmosphere around organized labor.
“They tried to pass a Basic Law that would impose mandatory arbitration [in place of court hearings to solve labor disputes]. They tried to take away our right to strike. We wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it had passed,” he explained.
“This was the agenda of most of the political parties that were active in April 2019. Today, does anyone even remember this? No – I shut it down. We managed to explain that the workers are not the enemy, and that they don’t want to mess with us,” Bar-David went on.
The Histadrut chairman said that if the organization had made even one mistake on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could have been at risk of collapse.
“Half of the country was put on unemployment, it was a difficult situation,” Bar-David said. “But we weathered the storm together. We gave the workers organized under the Histadrut a safety net to get through the crisis.”
Bar Tal supported Bar-David’s remarks, adding that the landscape of labor has been deeply changed by the pandemic.
“The labor market is undergoing fundamental changes, and we must understand that we are not returning to the reality before the pandemic,” he said. “We are no longer operating in a geographic region, but rather, a virtual-global field. People are working from abroad, from home, and from cafes.”
“We are leading the way with updated solutions in this field,” Bar Tal continued. “I am working directly and constantly with the Finance Ministry, local municipalities, and employers to find solutions.”
“It’s no small achievement”
In the opening session, Bar-David said that the Histadrut had prevented 45 billion shekels (over $14 billion) of budget cuts in the public sector under the previous Finance Minister.
“They told me ‘let’s lower the salaries of high-wage earners,’ but what did they consider high-wage? 7,500 shekels ($2,400) a month and up,” he said. “They wanted to freeze workers’ seniority benefits, to cut pensions. All of these options were taken off the table.”
“Now the government wants to pass a budget, after 100 billion shekels were spent during COVID-19 with a debt-to-income ratio over 70%,” Bar-David continued. “That was the starting point for negotiations with Finance Minister Lieberman. We agreed to a one-year salary freeze, in return for raising the minimum wage to 6,000 shekels ($1,900) a month.”
Bar-David responded to criticism that the minimum wage increase will be instituted incrementally over several years.
“Some people may shake their heads, but in the meantime, the minimum wage will go up. Young workers here in Eilat, in Be’er Sheva, and in Kiryat Bialik, and everywhere across the country will begin earning 6,000 shekels,” he said. “This puts Israel ahead of most developed countries. It’s no small achievement.”
Coming to the aid of the preschool aides
Bar-David explained that in addition to the minimum wage increase, the Histadrut ensured that the collective agreement would not include any reduction in workers’ salaries.
“We gave the government time to organize its finances after the height of the pandemic, and in 2023 we’ll have a salary agreement,” he said. “In the meantime, low-wage workers have already received several million shekels, and we’ve already signed initial agreements in the healthcare sector.”
Bar-David touched on the shortage of aides in preschools and kindergartens, which he attributes to the low salaries.
“Preschool aides work 35 hours and their employers pay them at a rate of 83% instead of treating it as a full-time job, like they do with preschool and kindergarten teachers,” he explained. “Who would want to work under these conditions?”
“I can tell you that we’re close to an agreement that 35 hours a week will be considered full-time for preschool aides,” continued Bar-David. “The government and the Finance Ministry have begun to understand the problem. We worked hard to make them understand.”
“The Histadrut will also transfer between 100 and 120 million shekels this year to the daycare and kindergarten assistants’ sector, under the framework of the collective agreement.”
“We are working on it day and night,” added Bar Tal, “taking care of the aides at preschools, schools, and with the elderly.”
Nava Mines (59), chair of the local union of municipal employees in Ma’aleh Ephra’im, has been working as a preschool aide for 28 years. She was elected three years ago to head the local union and attended the conference for the first time.
“I was primarily happy to hear the good news for the aides,” Mines said. “This is progress and should have happened already. I think we need to provide aides with ongoing professional training; this is very important work. The foundations of our children crystallize precisely during these years.”
Mines explains that in her municipality, the younger workers are particularly conscious of their membership in the Histadrut.
“They know their rights, fight for them, and ask us questions,” she explained. “UPCAPSE does a lot for us.”
“The Histadrut succeeded in protecting its workers”
During the conference, vice-CFO Adam Bloomberg outlined the wage developments in municipalities of the last four years, and declared the establishment of an independent enforcement team from within the Histadrut, in addition to the governmental enforcement agencies, to prevent employers from failing to meet their obligations under collective bargaining.
Hila Bar-David, CEO of the of the UPCAPSE consumers club, presented their activities which include hundreds of thousands of union members and leaders. The NGO’s operate dozens of seminars, conferences, social events, and trainings annually for employees. Among the activities are trips abroad, seminars for women’s empowerment, advancement of a healthy lifestyle, community volunteering, and more.
Histadrut General Manager, lawyer Ofir Alcalay, told members of UCAPSE that their work is an inspiration to all organized labor.
“We are attempting to replicate the environment here across the rest of the Histadrut,” said Alcalay, specifying the breadth of activities offered to Histadrut members, some of which were inspired by UCAPSE initiatives such as the app “Ovdim Bari” (Working Healthy), designed to develop an active lifestyle.
“The Histadrut has never been forced to cope with the difficulties it faces today,” he said. “The entire economy was shut down in one day and despite it all, workers were not fired. The Histadrut succeeded in protecting its workers during the tsunami that the economy went through.”
“Changing the DNA of the Histadrut”
Bar-David addressed the media’s portrayal of Israel’s largest workers’ organization over the years.
“They treated us as enemies. We’re the enemy? Workers in healthcare, in daycares, in sanitation, in city municipalities, they’re the enemy? Whose enemy?” he questioned. “We put the economy back on track after the first shutdown, taught everyone about the Purple Seal (indicating compliance with COVID-19 guidelines), and kept the infrastructure running.”
Bar-David explained that large-scale strikes are in the Histadrut’s arsenal, but that they haven’t recently used them in the electrical, water or ports industries.
“We’re changing the organizational DNA of the Histadrut,” he said. “We have enormous power, and we’ll use it wisely. We’ll use it only when we are left without a choice.”