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Labour activists met in Israel to discuss how workers’ organizations can fight the populist right



Sefi Krupsky,

Bulqiza in Albanien
“Bulqizë is probably the city with the most wealth beneath the earth's surface, and with the most poverty above.” CC BY-SA 3.0, Albinfo, via Wikimedia Commons

The miners in the Albanian city of Bulqizë achieved a small but important victory last October when the court recognized the union they had just founded. According to local labour-rights activists, hundreds of miners risk their lives every day at their workplaces without adequate safety conditions for low wages in one of the poorest countries in Europe. Yet the joy over the victory achieved in the city in northeastern Albania did not last long. They are facing the richest man in Albania, Samir Mane, who owns the mines, the established centres of power that have difficulties in accepting the new union, and other unexpected huge forces—the forces of nature.

Shortly after the court ruling, two of the leading activists among the miners were fired. According to the activists, the established union in Albania began fighting against the new miners’ union, even resorting to physical violence. Moreover, a national disaster occurred in late November: a devastating earthquake that killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more. The protest actions and the union work have, of course, been put on hold until further notice.

The story of the miners in Bulqizë was told by Bora Mema in Tel Aviv in early December 2019. Mema is an activist of the Albanian political group “Organizata Politike”, founded at the beginning of 2019 to unionize people employed in contact centres of various business branches. That is nothing to be taken for granted in a post-communist country: “Bulqizë is probably the city with the greatest wealth underground, while above ground it is the one with the greatest poverty”, Mema told me with regard to the mines mining the rich natural resources in the area, from which the people living in the city, however, hardly benefit. In early December 2019 Mema participated in a three-day workshop organized by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the Social Economic Academy in collaboration with representatives of unions and organizations, dealing with social issues from Russia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Albania, Slovenia, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, the US, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Israel.

Sefi Krupsky was born in Rehovot and grew up in Nes Ziona. He has worked as a journalist for over 15 years, among others for Ha’aretz, the magazine Calcalist published by Yedi'ot Ahronot, and Davar Rishon, where he served as editor, head of the news desk, and reporter for health and education issues. Alongside his editorial work at Ha’aretz he also reported on sports, culture, and politics. His publications include the exposure of a money-laundering mechanism in the administration of the Israeli National Service, the unauthorized infiltration of extremist evangelicals into Israeli schools, and reports on current affairs, including the exposure of various problems in the Israeli health system. He lives with his partner in Tel Aviv. The article was originally published in Hebrew in Siha Mekomit on 14 December 2019, and was translated by Ursula Wokoeck Wollein.

Under the heading “Challenges for union work in face of the rise of the populist right”, the delegates held discussions in various forums, in particular they told “Con-Reds” (“those who are also red”—a term frequently used during the workshop) about their struggles and actions in their own countries, where they face violent right-wing activists, employers, the state authorities, courts, and even criminal organizations involved in the labour market.

In the small conference room in the Herods Hotel on the promenade in Tel Aviv, for which the Mediterranean Sea serves as a pleasant and at times turbulent backdrop, it turned out that the challenges, difficulties, and efforts were specific to each area, region, or country, but at the same were also quite similar. At times, too similar.

The representatives from countries of the former Soviet bloc attracted the most attention—for good reason. In these countries there were organizational frameworks prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, but those were frameworks in which almost everyone was a member. A recurring pattern was discernible in the reports of the participants from those countries, who belong to new independent organizations that emerged from grassroots activities. The large organizations continue to exist after the fall of the regime, but their main task now is to preserve the power of those who are strong. When I asked one of the activists whether such organizations had recently done anything for the workers, she replied with a grin: “Last Women’s Day, on 8 March, they handed out flowers to women workers.”

No Breakthrough Yet

On the second day of the workshop, which among other things dealt with the situation faced by the participants from those countries, the three Russian activists admitted that the efforts of the independent unions in face of the strong economic and governmental forces have not yet achieved any significant breakthrough. Olga Masson from Moscow, a former member of an independent union, the MPRA (the interregional union “Workers’ Association”) that, against all odds, has nevertheless managed to achieve some small successes, discussed the difficulties they are facing in Russia.

“Basically, no normal unions existed during the Communist regimes. There were huge organizations in which everybody was a member and membership was obligatory”, she explained. “They did not engage in labour struggles because it was allegedly a workers’ state, and it did not make sense for workers to fight against the workers’ state. The organizations thus focused on the distribution of benefits, such as vacations, holidays, and presents. Since they were not unions in the proper sense, the tradition of labour struggles was lost during that regime.” These long-established organizations still exist today, but according to Masson tend to provide workers merely with minimal assistance.

How difficult is it for you to lead a struggle?

Masson: “Our main problem is a structural one. Since we lost the tradition of labour struggles, we are primarily concerned with filing petitions to the courts. As a result, the organization does not organize workers in joint actions. We nonetheless try to organize joint actions, but it is a difficult and lengthy process, and as soon as we achieve some success the employers immediately take steps against us with all their might and with all resources at their disposal.”

What do they do, for example?

“They immediately call the police, contact the Russian security services, and try to sue us and get court orders. So far we have not had any success.”

Did you consider alternative actions?

“Of course, but we have to organize people first. At the moment our comrades are making the same mistakes time and again. It’s like this: three members suffice to establish a union. And then these three go to the employer, saying: “Look, we have a union.” In response, the employer starts to fight against these three, while all the other workers in the firm do not participate and are merely uninvolved observers.”

And yet despite the pessimistic tone of her description, Masson also talked about successes that union activities were able to achieve. For example, the workers in the Benteler plant south of Moscow, which belongs to a German company and produces parts for the car industry, went on strike for three days. According to Masson, the workers’ demands were all met.

Was that possible because it is an international company?

“Yes, at least in part. We did extensive research and came to the conclusion that Volkswagen and this Benteler plant are closely connected. For example, the system of manufacturing low-cost component parts delivered from the Benteler plant to the Volkswagen plant, without the latter having to set up a depot for them. That means if production stops at the Benteler plant, these component parts are missing at the Volkswagen plant, and its production comes to a standstill. That is a huge loss for them.”

Professional Training Abroad

While what has been reported up to now seems far from the situation of trade-union work in Israel, the next story told by Russian activists will be very familiar to Israeli readers. Andrey Bitkov, like Masson a member of MPRA, talked about the struggle of crane operators in the city of Kazan, which is currently experiencing a construction boom: “In the city there are about 200 trained crane operators who work for low wages in precarious employment. This year they asked us for help. Since we have no representative in the city, we asked local left-wing activists for assistance and organized talks with them via social networks.”

Bitkov explained: “Our situation is similar to that in Israel. There is a construction boom, many of those employed in construction are migrant workers, and supervision with regard to safety at work is minimal. The crane operators’ wages are very low, an hourly wage of about three US dollars. We demanded a doubling of the hourly wage, stable employment, and safety at the work place.”

Bitkov recounted that they started a campaign, collected donations and organized a strike, hoping that some 80 crane operators would participate. But unfortunately “only 30 crane operators went on strike, so that the work on most construction sites in the city was not interrupted. We made a lot of noise, but it did not lead to substantial results. Yet the campaign had also a positive impact: it led to solidarity demonstrations by crane operators in other parts of Russia and put the issue on the agenda.”

By contrast, the difficulties described by the US participants seemed very different, but no less complicated. It was particularly interesting to learn how they deal with the capitalist system—not prone to compromise— in an original manner. Professor Gordon Lafer, an expert in labour issues at the University of Oregon, talked about such actions during the workshop. He described a struggle of workers employed in the hotel industry in Hawaii. There, the cleaning staff had to meet a quota of dozens of rooms per day.

When they used the most popular means, a strike, and even a sudden strike, it was to no avail. The cleaning staff went on strike at 06:00, but according to Lafer by 09:00 the same day all positions at the hotel were filled with new personnel. So what can be done? One needs to use one’s knowledge and work with all available means.

The activists had noticed that most tourists coming to Hawaii and that hotel in particular were Japanese. Therefore, they decided to establish a committee to organize a boycott by contacting travel agencies in Japan and providing information to them. They sent leaflets and made calls in order to persuade the travel agencies. And indeed, the number of tourists coming to the hotel declined. Lafer described how the hotel tried to fight against the workers with questionable means, but “the court ruled against the hotel, and the travel agencies in Japan announced that they would not send any tourist as long as the workers’ status was not put in order.”

Generally, the workshop showed that not only in ultra-capitalist countries organizations and unions are continuously trying to find original and innovative ways to protect workers’ rights. One such example is the financial support extended to workers during their professional training abroad in order for them to become better qualified in their fields and to increase their chances of finding a job. Other examples include the recognition of technological changes and their importance for the struggle for rights and their protection as well as understanding the “Me-Too” revolution and its implications for the protection of women at their workplaces.

Don’t Drink Too Much during Negotiations!

The participants also gave interesting and original tips for negotiations with management and government officials. For example, based on personal experience one of them recommended not to drink too much during negotiations because the talks could be terminated. Participants from the Ukraine recounted the case of a mine where the miners’ spouses and children participated in the protest—at times too actively (the cloths of one of the managers were torn to pieces).

On the third and final day of the workshop, participants heard an interesting topical report by Alan Sable, director of UNI Global Union Americas. Protests began in Chile in October 2019 after public transport prices were raised. Since then the protests have continued, despite the regime’s persistent attempts to suppress them.

“We are working in order to establish unions in Chile. The problem is that one only needs eight members in order to found a union. Thus there are many tiny groups and hardly any strong organization. We have been working to increase the union membership and helped establish a union in the field of private medical services—and now these unions are participating in the protests.”

Sable described some changes the neoliberal state is undergoing. Yet in his opinion, these changes merely create a very narrow window of opportunity that we need to utilize. If we do not succeed, there will be no substantial change. “We know from history that such windows of opportunity are soon closed again. To my mind, the challenge now is to make sure that concrete changes happen, in particular with regard to minimum wages, health insurance, pensions, and education.”

In addition to the historical insights, one may say in conclusion that new unions are trying to move into the future with new ideas and improved mechanisms, since it may not suffice to rely on labour courts, strikes, and sanctions such as demonstrations and petitions alone. At least from the outside, it seems that there is an intensive effort to develop a sort of high-tech configuration of labour struggles, a kind of techno-union: small independent systems that initiate major changes without relying on the old and outdates mechanisms in the field—not even those supposedly designed to serve the workers.

Nitzan Temani, one of the two general secretaries of the union Ko'ah LaOvdim, came to that conclusion at the end of workshop, saying “I see here a sort of axis between the European countries and Israel, along which union members begin to understand that they cannot rely on the old structures.” In her opinion that is in contrast to the US model, where “every organization works on its own, without attempting to influence politics at large. That is very interesting, and suddenly it shook me up. We must not duck, but raise our heads.”

Shortly before the participants gathered for a drink (just one—maybe in light of the insight regarding drinking during negotiations), the Russian activists announced a donation of 200,000 euro for the struggle of the Albanian miners. Thus solidarity did not remain on the purely theoretical level.

Prior to their departure, the workshop participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding the benefits they drew from the workshop and what action they intend to take upon their return to their countries. “Be it overthrowing capitalism worldwide or a particular action regarding something in your close vicinity”, it read. One of the participants raised their head and answered: “Overthrowing capitalism, of course.”