When diplomats in Israel go on strike

Strikes are not uncommon in Israel and indeed were widespread during the heydays of the Histadrut Labour Federation.
When diplomats in Israel go on strike

In late August, the Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Yair Lapid would undertake two important foreign visits as part of his strategy to counter the fructification of the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1. Interestingly, the tiny new item also mentioned by the prime minister would be using the services of a private company to ‘coordinate’ his visits to Germany and then to the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York. Of course, none would have bothered if his intentions were cost-cutting, except perhaps rival companies. Lapid’s unusual move was a result of a standoff between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance over a wage dispute. Though the issue was resolved for now, there were fears that the dispute might escalate and become a full-fledged work stoppage at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Yes, strike action by Israeli diplomats; Lapid was merely contemplating a pre-emptive measure while pursuing his diplomatic moves.

Strikes are not uncommon in Israel and indeed were widespread during the heydays of the Histadrut Labour Federation. Once affiliated to the Labour party, the Histadrut dominated the union activities in Israel. As the union of workers and the owner of some of the largest economic assets in the country, Histadrut literally controlled the labour market and economy.

It simultaneously pursued two seemingly contradictory functions; bargaining higher wages for the workers and coordinating and facilitating government policies on inflation, reforms and budget deficits. Work stoppages over inflation-linked wages, working conditions, paid leaves, health and social security benefits, and pensions were so frequent that even in the late 1980s,

Israeli dailies routinely carried front-page news items: Following government offices will be on strike or will only be working partially.

However, over time, trade unionism in Israel has weakened significantly. Economic liberalisation and Israel’s integration into the global economy considerably undermined the power of Histadrut, which undermined its negotiating capacity.

The dwindling fortunes of the Labour Party in the Knesset elections since the late 1990s also contributed to the weakening of the once-unbreakable Histadrut-establishment linkages. In addition, the emergence of scores of private companies, especially in high-tech areas, led to a boom of smaller firms whose workers could not organise themselves or were induced not to unionise.

At the same time, these changes did not wholly dampen the strike culture in Israel, and larger unions continued to flex their muscles for better pay and working conditions. Powerful ones like teachers’ and transport workers’ unions often picked strategic timings to maximise their efforts. The former typically picks late August, just days before the reopening of the school year on September 1. This year also saw a last-minute multi-year wage agreement that ensured that schools were reopened on time. Strike actions by airport workers affiliated with the Histadrut normally happen around the weeklong Jewish New Year or Rosha Shana (it falls on the 25th of this month). With over a million tourists crossing the Ben-Gurion airport in a few days, can there be a better time to exert maximum pressure on the finance ministry?

Workers’ rights are steeped in Zionist ethos. Protecting workers’ rights through various measures has been seen as essential to protecting individual and societal freedom. Labour Zionism—the foundation of the State of Israel—was primarily built on safeguarding workers’ rights. Strikes affecting daily life are so common that Israelis have become accustomed to periodic but temporary inconveniences.

Israel is unique and different from other democracies; even government offices are not immune from strike actions. Cash-starved municipalities, especially the smaller ones, are the main theatre of labour actions; at times, bigger ones like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa have faced strike actions, manifested in uncollected garbage, delayed services and repairs. As a sign of impending activities, municipal and government offices only answer phones in the initial days, advising the customers to look for media updates as to when their strikes would end. These days, only the mode of communication has changed; earlier, there were bills on office doors, and now the same message is communicated online.

At times, strike actions—delays or total work stoppage—severely affect foreigners in Israel whose visas are due for renewal. Strike notices are used to greet those who come to the Interior Ministry’s downtown office in Jerusalem requiring emergency extensions or visas for their friends and relatives. Thus, the Ben-Gurion Airport had to manage foreigners who became ‘unauthorised’ or ‘illegal’ due to strike actions by the Interior Ministry.

Unlike other unions, strike actions by the foreign ministry have a worldwide impact. Even if the ambassadors function ‘normally’, other services are severely disrupted when strikes intensify. Missions must scale down their services, postpone pre scheduled meetings, limit their engagements with host countries, or defer consular services like passports and visas. Indeed, even foreign leaders could not escape the consequences of strike actions by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. For example, in January 2011, the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was scheduled to make his first state visit to Israel since assuming office. Unfortunately, it had to be cancelled due to strike actions by the foreign ministry, and the Russian leader eventually came to Israel the following year, but this time as president. Likewise, on a few occasions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the National Security Council and Mossad to manage his foreign trips, especially in handling the logistical parts like hiring hotels, cars, etc., for him and his entourage. Until this June, Lapid was the Foreign Minister under the unity government headed by Naftali Bennett; perhaps as prime minister, Lapid feared that strike action by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs might escalate, and explored alternative plans for his foreign travels.

For better or worse, strike actions by civil servants have been rare in India. However, many Indians seek to emulate the Israeli model in agriculture, science, technology, innovation and education; one honestly hopes that Indian civil servants do not mimic the Israeli examples of strike actions.

The writer is a professor at JNU, and teaches contemporary Middle East

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