Organized Labor and the Housing Protest

In both the US and Israel, the power of organized labor is in decline, and union membership is increasingly restricted to public sector and legacy manufacturing employees, who are usually well-compensated and have a middle- or even upper-middle class income, but are still under attack by right-wing politicians who hope to privatize public services. However, these two countries’ lefts react to those employees and their representatives in diametrically opposed manner. American leftists typically support the major unions, Israeli leftists disdain them as sellouts. Although in both cases the left supports insurgent unions over well-established ones in intra-union fights – for example, UNITE-HERE over SEIU’s leadership – the attitudes toward the established unions are very different.

The relevance of this is the role of Ofer Eini, the leader of the Histadrut, in the emerging housing protests. Although the protest is grassroots, he’s started to play a role as well, demanding that the government negotiate with the demonstrators. For a selection of English-language mainstream sources mentioning his role, see Globes, the Jerusalem Post, and Haaretz, as well as Daily Kos, which bases its reporting on mainstream Israeli media. The general tone is that the protest began as a grassroots effort, separate from any mainstream organization, but now has a powerful player by its side.

In contrast the reporting I see from Hebrew-language leftist sources is quite different. 972Mag contributors Rechavia Berman and Yossi Gurvitz react uniformly negatively toward Eini. Berman explicitly and Gurvitz implicitly complain about Eini’s representing an establishment union whose members are predominantly public-sector. Berman even wrote a post on the subject entitled “Don’t Let Ofer Eini Coopt the Struggle,” calling Eini the biggest danger to the protests.

To clarify matters, neither Berman nor Gurvitz is an economic rightist, or even centrist. Both bloggers’ views on economic matters would place them in the middle of a group of Daily Kos contributors. Berman also took a hardline stance against Scott Walker’s anti-union law. But their view toward the mainline Israeli unions is hostile: they view them as representing the status quo, not the change that’s needed.

Put another way, the Israeli left is viewing its predicament and demanding wholesale changes in the economy, backed by grassroots activism. The American left is instead trying to cling to what the unions still have left; it welcomes struggles to unionize more workers, but views the mainstream unions as a succor of the working class rather than as part of the establishment.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, general interest. Second, more precisely, it shows that political stances come from not just ideology, but also political alliances, with all the implications it has. Third, specifically about good transit, it connects to what I said in my post about politicals vs. technicals, that the politicals are usually mainstream or moderate left while the technicals are all over, from the center-right to the radical left. Transit advocates with views similar to those of US labor liberals are just glad that they have APTA and Brookings on board and often want to expand from there. It’s advocates with views similar to those of the Israeli left – usually technicals, but not just politicals – who view those organizations as industry sops, with interests different from those of riders. It of course does not mean the latter kind of advocates are themselves left-wing – just that they view transit agencies the same way the grassroots left in Israel views the Histadrut.

Even on pure politics, it’s the latter approach that wins over non-leftists. The current housing protests in Israel attract everyone, even political groups that traditionally vote right-wing. The ultra-Orthodox and the settlers are fielding protest tents alongside anarchists and other people who demonstrate in front of the West Bank security fence. They argue heatedly about politics all day, and in the process build a new political arena that excludes the present-day establishment, but are united in their opposition to the status quo. The establishment right is doing its best to smother the protests, but its divide-and-rule tactics are no longer working. This couldn’t have happened if the protests had been started by the usual center-left organizations, with all their cultural baggage. People who want better services but are culturally indisposed toward joining with petrified organizations respond much better to grassroots efforts, even more radical ones, than to the same old.


  1. EngineerScotty

    Much of the former industrial left in the US now seems to regard public employees as sellouts. The difference, though, rather than doing it from a leftist position, many workers (and children thereof) who used to have good jobs in manufacturing, have assumed a reactionary position in the US. Much of the Tea Party, after all, consists of former-middle-class whites who find themselves a few steps down on the economic ladder, and rather than blaming the economic elites, they blame the underclass, the cultural elites, and those in the public sector who still–for now–have decent jobs.

    And in the transit debate, many technicals seem to have accepted that raising taxes to provide service is a political impossibility, so also seek paycuts for the workers who provide the service.

    • Danny

      It might be a political impossibility to raise taxes to provide service, but only on a national level. We have more than enough evidence of cities that have approved local tax increases to pay for more service. Even in strongly conservative areas like Utah, people are willing to pay a little bit extra for transit.

      • EngineerScotty

        Assuming, of course, that a state hasn’t had legal barriers to raising taxes enacted. California, with Prop 13 and numerous other anti-tax measures it its Constitution (it essentially takes 2/3 majority to raise taxes or fees on anything at the state level) is the most infamous case, but there plenty of other examples.

      • Andre Lot

        Those raises are usually marginal, rarely they go over 1% additional sales tax rate. Enough for a Front Rage or “T-Rex” project, not for comprehensive, large scale system.

  2. Bruce Godfrey

    I wonder if the differences in approach stem from the relative amounts of power of Big Labor in each country. It is much safer to attach AFSCME or even the AFL-CIO than it is to attack Histadrut in Israel due to a number of structural and cultural factors in each political economy. Histadrut is so large and so influential that it is difficult for it NOT to be considered “the establishment” whereas the AFL-CIO has lost a number of large unions in recent years to competing labor union federations and itself constitutes a much smaller percentage of the US workforce both public and private.

    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm… you’re right, I didn’t think about it. Well, the right tries to attack the main unions in both countries, with considerable successes, but the Histadrut is much more part of the Israeli establishment due to aforementioned structural and cultural factors, and this makes a difference to people on the insurgent left.

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