WAC Maan – Workers Advice Center’s Annual General Meeting, June 16, 2012
After the demonstrations of last summer and also well before, the offices of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Maan) have been open 365 days a year for meetings with workers from throughout the country. These workers face a harsh and frustrating reality, a reality known in the dialect of Netanyahu and his associates as “Israel’s flexible and dynamic labor market” – hardworking female agricultural laborers from Arab towns; college teachers working through labor contractors without peripheral benefits; Arab and Jewish truckers, particularly those of Mizrahi or former USSR origin; archeological dig workers from East Jerusalem laboring for the Antiquities Authority; workers of Ethiopian origin in the neglected towns of the south; Palestinian workers who are employed in the Settlements, Jewish and Arab factory workers from Nazareth Illit; and many others. They all feel squeezed and exploited, they all feel the system and the economy are working against them, trampling them underfoot together with their families and future.
What they have in common is greater than what divides them. On Saturday, June 16th, they all gathered for WAC’s 13th annual general meeting that was held at Tel Aviv’s Minshar School of Art. This meeting summarized the organization’s work during the past year and outlined activities planned for the coming year. Representatives of workers organized with WAC attended, including some 70 people representing dozens of workplaces and groups of workers who have joined WAC during the past years.
One of the central issues that were discussed was WAC’s commitment to social change, and its activists’ deep involvement in last year’s social protest movement. We understand the importance of this movement, and seek partners and allies in the struggle for social change and for changing the order of economic priorities. WAC and its Arab and Jewish activists constitute an example of the possibility of genuine partnership between the two peoples. This is one issue we wished to extol in the AGM, and we underline our determination to continue to develop it on the basis of opposition to the neo-liberal rightwing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak – a government hostile to workers, both Jews and Arabs alike.
For three years, WAC has been conducting a unique campaign with truck drivers. Of some 15,000 drivers of heavy goods vehicles in Israel, only a handful are organized in work committees affiliated with the Histadrut. The rest – some 95% of drivers – have no protection and work with no enterprise-level agreement. All, both the unionized and the unorganized, work under the shadow of a harmful collective agreement. This agreement was signed by the Histadrut 20 years ago, and enabled companies to employ truckers without registering hours worked and without payment for overtime. In recent years, WAC has become the address for hundreds of truckers. We have dealt with wage claims and rights infringements, and we labor determinedly to set up work committees in the haulage firms and to change the sector-wide collective agreement in order to put an end to the exploitation of drivers.
Thousands of teachers in private colleges, established during the last 20 years, constitute an army of academics and artists who create the culture we consume. They are mainly active in the various arts and earn their living by teaching in a few colleges at the same time, without employment security and without any acknowledgement of their contribution to our society. At the Musrara School of Photography, the School of Visual Theater and the Minshar School of Art, teachers have organized with WAC and established work committees, and we are moving together towards collective agreements.
Another organization effort worth noting is that of the Jana food factory in Nazareth Illit. The factory employs some 20 people, and pays them an unchanging wage with no opportunities for promotion. Recently, they began suspecting that the pension contributions the employer is legally obliged to pay were not being paid. Their decision to organize is unique since it involved both Arabs and Jews. It must also be noted that the factory workers come from the periphery and thus lack alternative employment options, but are nonetheless determined to establish a work committee and get their employment terms in order. WAC, with its nationwide presence and its openness towards both Jewish and Arab workers, is leading this initiative towards the establishment of the committee and a collective agreement.
For seven years WAC has been operating a widespread framework aimed at offering Arab female agricultural workers better chances for employment. Tens of thousands of these workers from Arab towns and villages have few employment options in their own areas, yet the government – all governments in the last 20 years – continues to allow the import of cheap migrant labor from Thailand for the agricultural branch. Thus the way into the labor force for these women is blocked. Despite the obstacles, WAC has succeeded in breaking through the barrier and has placed some 2,000 Arab women in agricultural work. WAC’s Women’s Forum is active among Arab women also in areas not directly connected to employment: women who work via WAC were active this year in various women’s empowerment projects, social activities, and initiatives against violence within society and for promoting progressive culture.
The crude racist campaign waged by the government today to deport African refugees illustrates the reactionary nature of Israel’s policies but also its absurdity. On one hand, Israel’s governments have permitted the organized import of tens of thousands of workers from Thailand, the Philippines and China, while on the other it deports refugees whose lives may be in danger in their countries of origin. The “revolving door” policy of importing migrant workers for a limited time serves the interests of manpower agencies who make huge profits on every worker who enters the country. Racism here sits comfortably with financial interests.
WAC’s offices in East Jerusalem play a critical role in protecting the rights of unemployed Palestinian workers. The offices were also a logistics base for organizing and recruiting workers at the Salit Quarries in Mishor Adumim (a settlement industrial area located in Area C) last year. The presence of WAC activists in occupied East Jerusalem, an inseparable part of the social and human fabric of the West Bank, reflects our principled commitment to equal rights for the Palestinian people. In our day-to-day work of explanation and demanding rights which have been arbitrarily violated by private employers (such as Salit Quarries) and Governmental institutions such as the Employment Service and National Insurance Institute, we create a foundation of trust and empowerment among the Palestinian working class in East Jerusalem and the industrial zones of the settlements. In these areas, Palestinian union activity is forbidden, yet the Israeli Histadrut turns its back on the workers here for political reasons.
WAC’s activists and volunteers set up an invaluable educational project during the last couple of years: “Youth for Social Change.” The project has been running successfully for two years in partnership with Jewish and Arab schools in the Galilee region and the central region. It includes regular meetings with WAC group leaders during which the need for correcting the distortions of the society in which we live is raised and discussed. As the young people cope with these problems – each side with its own social issues – an interesting and genuine basis for meetings between young Jews and Arabs is created, which lead to closer relations and partnership within a reality of enmity and distrust.
WAC’s systematic and consistent activities for social change recognize no national borders. When we hear the common claim, “The poor of your city must come first,” we reply that the poor of our city is anyone who lives here, whether Arab, Jewish, migrant workers, Palestinians or Israelis. WAC is not an Arab organization, neither is it a Jewish organization. WAC is a workers’ organization, and does not differentiate on the basis of nationality or religion.
Academics, artists, unskilled workers without a formal profession, men and women, older laborers and young people – this is the human fabric that makes up the unique organization known as WAC. WAC’s doors are open to all workers who seek to build an organization of solidarity across borders, to act with us to change reality in Israel and around the world; workers who refuse, as we refuse, to accept the existing situation as a given; who believe like the young people who flooded to Cairo’s Tahrir Square or into the streets of Athens that it is in our power to change reality.
Until we get our own Tahrir Square in Israel, WAC is where people with vision can meet and work together for change. You are warmly invited to join this march.