Israeli public sector strike against piggish capitalism held up

The public sector strike planned for Monday morning aimed to end one of  the worst economic injustices in Israel – the criminal exploitation of “outsourced” laborers. The government opposes the strike because it is the country’s largest employer of these 21st century slaves.

UPDATE: The National Labor Court ruled early Monday morning that the strike must end by 10 A.M., after which negotiations must resume between the Histadrut national labor federation and government, which got nowhere overnight. If no agreement is reached by Thursday, the public sector strike will go ahead, barring a second, less likely court intervention.

If ever a public sector strike in Israel were not only justified but many years overdue, it’s the one the government is trying to stave off now. The cause of the potential strike goes to the heart of the single worst injustice in the Israeli economy, the worst economic injustice in the whole capitalistic world:  Criminally low wages, benefits and work conditions for employees. Full-time jobs that keep workers in poverty.

The chief malefactor in this country is the labor contractors, or manpower agencies, that act as middlemen between the employer and the employee, and are notorious for cheating workers out of wages and benefits and firing them if they complain. Such agencies supply large offices and companies with janitors, clerks, security guards and food service employees – but also teachers and other “academic” workers. In Israel, there are as many as 400,000 of these  employees on the job, they aren’t in the Histadrut, they have no protection, and they’ve been getting screwed for a good 20 years. The planned strike aims to unionize them and give them the same wages, benefits and protection that Histadrut members get in the same jobs.

The Israeli government doesn’t agree. Why? Because the Israeli government is the country’s largest single “customer” of manpower agencies, the biggest user of “outsourced” labor, the number one employer of these hapless 21st century slaves.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Yediot Aharonot: “There is no real justification behind the demand that manpower workers be absorbed [by the public sector] as permanent employees. There’s no such thing in the member states of the OECD [Organization for Economic Development]. It’s unthinkable for us to absorb thousands of these workers when the whole world uses outsourced labor.”

Yes, the whole world uses outsourced labor. But my strong hunch is that among the 34 prosperous countries in the OECD, the problem of criminal exploitation of outsourced labor is worst, or nearly the worst, in Israel. I say this because Israel is the worst or nearly the worst country in the OECD regarding income gap between rich and poor and in the proportion of poor people among the population. Since manpower companies are the leading cause of the strongest trend in Israeli poverty – working poverty – it stands to reason that among OECD countries, the problem of gross exploitation of outsourced labor is worst, or nearly the worst, right here.

But don’t worry – the government is on top of it. To show that there’s no need for a strike, that the state can be trusted to ensure that these 400,000 outsourced workers at long last get what’s legally, rightfully coming to them, Steinitz added:  “There is room to improve the working conditions of manpower employees. We will do this in government offices and improve benefits and wages.”

You betcha. For two decades or more, the government has been saving a fortune by awarding contracts for crowds of janitors, guards, clerks and other workers to whichever manpower company comes in with the lowest bid. Thus, the government incentivizes these companies to cut labor costs by shafting these workers to the hilt. And now this same government, this economic predator, should be trusted to protect them.

The public sector strike that could begin after this week – and unless the government gives in, I hope it does – is part of J14, part of Occupy Wall Street, part of the international backlash against what goes in Israel by the name of “piggish capitalism.” It’ll be a burden on the public, but I think Israelis will back the Histadrut – this time the issue is easy to understand, easy to decide who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m betting that many if not all of these working men and women are going to be in the union, that a great victory over economic injustice is going to be won – and quickly. Netanyahu doesn’t like fighting losing battles. For lack of an alternative, he’ll do the right thing.