The Histadrut: Union and Boss

10 February 1972

in Articles, The Nature of Israel, The Other Israel

This is an edited version of an article written by Haim Hanegbi.

 

Israeli workers might seem to be in an enviable situation, since the Histadrut gives the impression of being a progressive and powerful workers’ union. From a certain viewpoint the Histadrut and its facilities are indeed quite exceptional: It has 1.1 million members out of a total population of nearly 3 million; a quarter of Israeli wage earners work in concerns belonging to the Histadrut; and for many years the Histadrut accounted for around 22-25 per cent of the Israeli Net National Product.

The Histadrut was founded in 1920 during a general congress of Jewish workers and until 1966 was known as the General Federation of Hebrew Workers in the Land of Israel. The number of Jewish workers in Palestine in 1920 was around five thousand, while there were around fifty thousand Arab workers, according to the estimate of a Zionist historian. 1

The founders of this “General Federation,” who were all inspired by Zionist ideology and who mostly were members of Jewish petit-bourgeois parties, limited membership in the Histadrut exclusively to Jews, and to Jews living on the fruits of their labor – workers, artisans, tradesmen and self-employed workers. When the basic principles of the Histadrut were being laid down, the founders made it clear that “national interest” took priority over “economic interest” and “cultural interests.” The internationalist approach to the class nature of society was never brought up at the Histadrut’s founding congress. A year after its foundation, the Histadrut created its first enterprises. These were a large company, Solel Boneh, dealing with public works, and the Workers’ Bank, the latter in association with the World Zionist Organization. (In recent years Solel Boneh has been engaged in construction jobs in several parts of the world; for example, it has built luxury hotels in certain African countries and has constructed roads and military installations in several Asian countries, including US air bases in Turkey.) The fact that from the start the Histadrut made Zionist interests its primary concern, at the expense of its trade-union role, has led to an extremely hierarchal organizational structure. Such bureaucratic machinery was set up that the entire organization of the trade union was subordinated to the management and to the political bosses – who were always from Zionist parties. There has never been the least trade-union independence in the Histadrut. 2

The Histadrut was not merely concerned with its role of maintaining Jews in national isolation while they were living in an essentially Arab milieu. Since its creation it has been at the spearhead of Zionist colonization in Palestine. Its choice position among the country’s Zionist colonizers and its extremely strong organization made it a pioneer in agricultural colonization and in securing jobs for Jewish workers, by evicting and excluding Arab peasants and workers. The Zionist slogans of the twenties and thirties – ”the Conquest of Work” and “the Conquest of the Land” – found their principal realizers in the Histadrut.

In 1960, the general secretary of the Histadrut, Pinhas Lavon, summed up the historical role of the Federation:

“The General Federation of Workers was founded forty years ago by several thousand young people wanting to work in an underdeveloped country where labor was cheap, a country which, rejected its inhabitants and which was inhospitable to newcomers. Under these conditions, the foundation of the Histadrut was a central event in the process of the rebirth of the Hebrew people in its fatherland. Our Histadrut is a general organization to its core. It is not a workers’ trade union, although it copes perfectly well with the real needs of the worker.” 3

Being “general to its core,” the Histadrut has effectively become the central force of the Jewish community in its many aspects. It organized the Zionist armed forces, sometimes in collusion with the British occupation, and sometimes secretly against British wishes; it created a system of social security, the only one in existence in Israel, which has become an important weapon in the domination of the Jewish masses and the organization of the workers under the authority of the Histadrut; it has opened recruitment offices everywhere, thus reinforcing its domination, while at the same time regulating tihe right to work; it possesses its own school network, its own promotion societies and its own production and service co-operatives; as an organization it completely dominates the kibbutzim and collective farms of the whole country. It is not for nothing that the Histadrut was considered the central pillar of the Zionist enterprise from its beginning, or as the Zionists say, “the state in embryo.”

The Histadrut leadership decided the political line of the Jewish community, both in Jewish affairs and in its relations with the British occupiers and the Arab masses. The political leaders of the state of Israel – David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir – have all come from the ranks of the Histadrut

It was not until 1943, the end of the British Mandate period, that the Histadrut established a special department for Arab workers; its aim was to organize them within a paternalistic and puppet framework, so as to divert them from the political struggle – i.e., from the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist struggle. The experiment was summed up at the time by a Zionist historian specializing in Arab questions and a Histadrut member:

As national feeling develops among the [Arab] workers their opposition to those who want to organize them from the outside is becoming stronger. The most intelligent and dynamic among them never had an opportunity to show their talent and initiative. A pamphlet in Arabic [published by the Histadrut] explains that one should only be concerned with the economic interests of the Arab workers to the exclusion of all political activity. This condition is difficult for people who are aware and close to public life to accept. The conception of work and the conquest of work held by the majority of the Histadrut is equally an obstacle, since it is difficult to explain things convincingly to an Arab worker. The discrimination in salaries between Jewish and Arab workers exasperates the Arabs, particularly since working conditions and price levels tend to be equal. In these circumstances it was easy for Arab organizations to send us their members to ask “naive questions” at the time of the May Day demonstration – ”Is proletarian solidarity compatible with a call for the conquest of labor, and for the creation of the Jewish state?” 4

No Zionist has ever been able to answer that question.

After the 1948 war and the nationalization of Arab lands that followed, there was further disintegration of the remaining Arab peasant society. But since it was next to impossible to expel the entire Arab population, what to do with them became one of the major dilemmas of Israeli policy. The problem has become even more pressing since the 1967 war, which greatly increased the number of Arabs under Israel’s jurisdiction. Thus, while hungrily biting into chunks of Arab land, Zionism cut deeply into its own fingers.

In order to survive, the landless Palestinian peasants were compelled to join the lowest ranks of the Israeli urban working class. 5 And since there is no objective way to banish them from these lower echelons, the Histadrut was assigned the role of controlling their penetration into urban labor. The Histadrut did so by assuring employers that the gap between Jewish and Arab wages would not be allowed to widen too much (thus keeping Arabs in direct competition with Jews for the same jobs). 6 For this reason – and by its own admission – the Histadrut changed its name from Federation of Hebrew Workers to Federation of Workers, thereby allowing Arabs to join. The 1969 Histadrut Yearbook commented with reference to the post-1967 situation:

“Many Arab construction workers were absorbed through the Labor Department [of Histadrut] or succeeded in penetrating various places of work for lower wages than the official West Jerusalem wage. Infiltration of the Arab laborer to various branches of the economy is facilitated by the reduction of wages and constitutes a problem which calls for a speedy solution before it becomes uncontrollable …”

Further, the Yearbook noted,

“The feverish activity [strikes, etc.] in which the Arab teachers were engaged … led to a quick organizing effort of the teachers’ federation [part of the Histadrut] …”

Evidently, the Histadrut brought the Arab laborers under its strangle hold in order to stem their infiltration into the Jewish economy and nip in the bud any organizing effort that might be taking place. This was a crucial role for the Histadrut to play in implementing Zionist policies toward the Arab population. In addition to this activity, however, the Histadrut has not ignored its role toward the working class as a whole.

With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the integration of the Histadrut into the ruling Zionist system became more evident. The economic sector of the Histadrut, with its business concerns and its immense wealth, forms part of the public sector, whose development had to accelerate with the arrival of new immigrants, at the same time that capital was flowing into the new state. According to the theory propagated for decades by Histadrut leaders, the Histadrut economic sector was supposed to be the foundation for the building of socialism. Another widespread notion was that the Histadrut economic sector belonged to the workers. Both of these popular notions collapsed with the coming of independence. The Minister of Agriculture Haim Gvati, who is one of the principal leaders of the Histadrut, had to admit during the 1964 conference,

“We have not succeeded in transforming this immense wealth into socialist economic cells. We have not succeeded in maintaining the working-class nature of our economic sector. Actually there are nocharacteristics to differentiate it from the rest of the public sector, and sometimes even from the private sector. The atmosphere, work relations and human relations of our economic sector are in no way different from any other industrial enterprises.”

The attitude of Israeli workers toward the Histadrut complements and illustrates this observation. The 1966 Histadrut Yearbook underscores the point:

“A very considerable number of workers are hardly aware of the Histadrut’s trade union activities, and they believe that nothing would change if there were no union.”

The Yearbook reports the results of a poll taken by the organization which indicates that a growing number of workers feel that the shop sections (called workers’ committees) of the union should be independent of the federation. Twenty per cent of the wage earners said that strikes broke out in their shops despite Histadrut opposition; 47 per cent thought that in some cases it was a good thing for workers to strike without Histadrut authorization. The Yearbook continues,

“The conclusions drawn from the poll concerning the opinion of the action committees [workers’ committees formed in opposition to Histadrut officials to lead wildcat strikes and job actions] are still more serious. While 8 per cent of the workers reported that strikes had occurred in their plants in opposition to the shop section, 29 per cent felt that there were cases in which strikes not authorized by the shop section were justified. In short, the tendency to break with the established order is getting stronger.” (Italics added.)

The same publication discloses that the majority of Histadrut members believe that the rank and file do not have any influence over the central authority. And among the minority who do believe that ordinary members can exercise some influence, there are still many who think this influence is insufficient.

Histadrut leaders, industrialists and members of the government are now openly expressing their concern over what they call the workers’ “crisis of confidence” in the Histadrut This crisis is deepening from year to year. It is, moreover, the reason for the change in the Histadrut top leadership in 1969, when Secretary General Aharon Becker was replaced by Yitzhak Ben-Aharon, who is known for his vigorous rhetorical style and his habit of “talking the workers’ language.” Both the previous secretary general and the new one are members of the ruling Labor Party.

The strike waves throughout 1971 demonstrated to the Labor Party that the workers of Israel will not be contained and their energies not absorbed into the machine which attempts to speak their language. Thus, in October 1971 the ruling Labor Party, ratified a Labor Relations Law establishing the Histadrufs monopoly as the legal representative of the workers. In addition, the law renders all “unauthorized” strikes illegal. As could be expected, Mapam fully co-operated with the Labor Party in agreeing with these measures.

There is at present no party in Israel unburdened by national responsibility and Zionist ideology which could become the political expression of a working-class struggle. There are only two exceptions: Rakah, the pro-Soviet Communist Party, and the ISO. Rakah is in an ossified position concerning the class struggle; it regards the Histadrut as the proper framework for conducting it. Its perspective is one of purifying, improving and changing the confederation from within. The ISO, which has only limited influence, calls for the building and expansion of action committees as the road leading to the creation of militant trade unions – outside the Histadrut framework.

The other parties are entrapped in Zionist loyalties and participation in the existing power structure both at the governmental and trade-union levels. Mapam plays a special role in this context At the outset of many workers’ struggles in the past, Mapam adopted a militant attitude in its attempt to gain support among the workers. Then after negotiations with the Histadrut leadership, Mapam would suddenly call on the workers to return to their jobs, dampening the struggle under the slogan “We must know how to end a strike.” But since the June 1967 war, when national Zionist unity reached new heights, Mapam has gradually ceased to play this safety-valve role, and it has become more and more difficult to differentiate it from the Labor Party.

During the short history of workers’ struggles in Israel, there have been three important series of strikes. The first occurred in 1951, relatively soon after the creation of the state, with the famous seamen’s strike. Then, in 1962, a series of wildcat strikes occurred in the wake of the devaluation of the Israeli pound. The third wave took place in 1969 when the postal workers and dockers struck at the port of Ashdod.

The seamen’s strike was the most violent in Israeli history. The battlefield was immense: from the port of Haifa to all the Israeli ships in foreign ports. The strike was led by young sailors with no trade-union traditions, and the conflict concerned methods of electing union delegates by the sailors. It is not surprising to anyone who understands the nature of the Histadrut that all its resources were immediately mobilized against the strikers. In the strike wave of 1962, the action committees appeared on the scene for the first time in any significant way. The two sides once again were clearly delineated: the Histadrut on one side of the barricades, the workers on the other. During this period the first abortive attempts were also made to bring the action committees together on a national or at least regional level The strikes of 1969 were a clear message to the government and the employers that despite wartime conditions and national unity, strikes were still possible. The postal workers’ strike saw the government, in agreement with the Histadrut, use military induction orders to force the strikers to return to work. The strikers broke the law and were indicted, but the cases have never come to trial The Ashdod dockers’ strike was characterized by another feature. The Histadrut threatened to bring the local trade-union militants before an “internal tribunal,” but the militants resisted and were supported by the dockers. The trial opened in the presence of television cameras, and it was followed with great interest throughout the country. The workers had been denounced as “Fatah agents” and “saboteurs,” and the Histadrut leadership was threatening them with expulsion and consequent loss of social security protection to themselves and their families. Unmoved by the threats, the workers continued the struggle and passed from accused to accusers. The Histadrut leadership received some very bad publicity and hastened to end the spectacle without pronouncing a verdict.

Strike Activity in Israel
No. of Strikes
No. of Strikers
(in 1000’s)
Strike days
(in 100’s)
1949  53  5  57
1950  72  9  55
1951  7610114
1952  9414  58
1953  84  9  35
1954  8212  72
1955  8710  54
1956  7411113
1957  59  4116
1958  48  6  88
1959  51  6  31
196013514  49
196112827141
196214638243
196312787129
196413848102
196528890208
196628287156
196714225  58
1968101
1969114102
1970390
Source: Statistical Yearbooks, 1965, 1967, 1970; Annual Report of the Bank of Israel (1970 and 1971); Jerusalem Post, Mar. 28, 1971.

Note: The figures prior to 1960 include only those strikes lasting one day or longer. Since then, they include strikes lasting for more than two hours. All the figures include lockouts, but these are rare and do not affect the general trend.

Before concluding this brief survey of the situation of the Israeli working class in relation to the Histadrut, the international role of the organization should be mentioned. The fact that it is both an employer and a domestic labor union facilitates Israeli penetration in the Third World, where a single government party and trade union is frequently found. This penetration occurs both in Israel’s own interest and in the service of a collusion of interests between Israel and imperialistic enterprises throughout the world. In 1959, Arthur Rivkin, then director of the Africa Research Project of the CIA-funded Center for International Studies at MIT, wrote:

“It is possible that the Israeli model will serve as a ‘third economic force.’ Israel is an alternative differing from the Western model, but certainly more adapted to the interests of the free world than is the communist model” 7

Later, Rivkin defined Israel’s role in the Western penetration of Africa even more clearly:

“Israel’s role as a Third force could also be reinforced through imaginative use of the Third Country technique. A Free World state wishing to enlarge its assistance flow to Africa might channel some part of it through Israel because of Israel’s special qualifications and demonstrated acceptability to many African nations.” 8

The head of the Histadrut’s political department recently summarized the activities of the organization’s Afro-Asian Institute:

The Institute, which was created by the Histadrut in 1960 … is an important link in its international activity, especially in the underdeveloped countries of Africa and Asia. But its activity and its world renown contribute to reinforcing Histadrut’s ties to other countries and organizations. To date, the Institute has trained 1,848 delegates from trade unions and cooperatives, from institutes of higher learning, as well as high officials from 85 African, Asian and Latin American countries … The Institute has been called upon to organize seminars in various African and Asian countries … It was former students of the Institute, now occupying high positions in their respective countries and organizations, who took the initiative for such seminars. Up to now the Institute has organized such seminars in Nigeria (twice), Dahomey, Togo, The Ivory Coast, Liberia, Singapore, Korea (twice), Ceylon, India and Nepal. Three short seminars will be held next month for trade union militants in Cyprus, and the 1970 program includes Swaziland, Lessoto, Botswana, Zambia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea … others will follow.9

George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, which finances the Afro-Asian Institute, put it this way:

“The Histadrut is a national center which has worked for the cause of democracy and liberty in the free world, particularly in Asia and Africa, through the intermediary of its Afro-Asian Institute.” 10

 

  1. Joseph Washitz, The Arabs in Palestine (in Hebrew), Sifriat Poalim, p.151.
  2. Union dues are collected by special collection offices which the Histadrut has set up throughout Israel, and local branches receive their funds from me center, not from their local membership. This severely limits their independence. The Histadrut employs a permanent staff of 30,000 and its bureaucracy has a very tight hold on its members; indeed, the Histadrut building in Tel Aviv is known as “the Kremlin.”
  3. Moed, published by the Department of Culture and Education of the Histadrut (in Hebrew), 1960, p.3.
  4. Washitz, op. cit., p. 173.
  5. See Yediot Aharonot, May 20,1971.
  6. The Arab worker actually takes home only about half of what he earns, the remainder going to taxes and other expenses not paid by Jewish employees. See Ha’aretz, Nov. 20-27, 1971. for a detailed account of the situation of the Arab workers in Israel.
  7. Israel and the Afro-Asian World, Foreign Affairs, Vol.37 (April 1959), p.486.
  8. Africa and the West, New York: Praeger, 1961.
  9. International Supplement for the 50th Anniversary of Histadrut (1920-1970) (in Hebrew), Davar, 1970.
  10. Ibid.

Previous post:

Next post: