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Legislating Labor Relations

04 May 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Many are surprised at PM Sharon’s “lack of full support” for Finance Minister Netanyahu’s stand against the Histadrut and his demands for legislation to regulate salaries and labor relations.  Those who are not taken unawares attribute Sharon’s behavior to the ongoing political struggle between the two for control of the Likud.  It is true they are bitter enemies going back to 1996 when Netanyahu refused to include Sharon in his government after defeating Shimon Peres.  In the end the infrastructure ministry was glued together to pacify Sharon.

This is only part of the game.  Sharon and Netanyahu are ideologues, both from the Revisionist right but with very different backgrounds.  Sharon grew up in the Labor agricultural settlement of Kfar Mallal (1930’s – 40’s) where his family was one of two Revisionist supporters.  In his youth he worked his father’s farm and served in the Palmach, always surrounded by Labor ideologies and issues of workers’ rights.  Netanyahu grew up in Jerusalem (1950’s and 60’s), his father teaching at the university and having been personal secretary to Ze’ev Jabotinsky founder of the Revisionist movement (who died in 1940). 

Jabotinsky detested the ‘Bolshevik’ Labor movement led by Ben Gurion and the Histadrut no matter how realistic they were in nation building. Jabotinsky believed strikes were illegal and demanded binding arbitration, very akin to the economic underpinnings of fascism.  True Revisionists have always reviled the Histadrut as showing too much interest in wages and benefits while undermining the state.  Ben Gurion crushed several strikes in the 1950’s when he saw the good of the nation at peril due to workers’ demands.  Up until 1948 the union built the state, now it could be a thorn in its side.

Sharon’s attitude towards the union is ambivalent, workers deserve rights and fair wages but should not overdue it, an attitude held by most Israelis (there is even a Likud – re: Revisionist faction - supporting today’s strike in the Histadrut) but Netanyahu quite despises the whole operation.  He prefers a laissez faire economy with the workers taking a back seat.

He more than anyone pushes the Reagan/Thatcher approach.  Sharon like many others know the economy needs a capitalist overhaul and are willing to let the Jabotinsky – in - Netanyahu do the job.  And as many analysts have pointed out he does not mind watching his finance minister absorb all the shots and when he succeeds (which he most likely will) the PM can take some credit.

The controversial issue is the legislation of wage agreements.  The union complains it is dictatorial but the Knesset was elected by the people so the claim is problematic.  Yet workers must have the right to strike otherwise one can head towards a fascist economy.  The fact the people voted center – right in the elections does not mean the workers’ interests should be ignored as a matter of legislated principle.  Democracy also means defending the rights of the minority.

In short the Histadrut overdid it and Netanyahu was only too happy to use the deep economic crisis as a weapon to crush their power forever.  There will be negotiations and most likely an agreement without legislation. 

But labor relations will never be the same.