Israeli employers, Palestinian workers and an Arab-Jewish union: Workers at Salit Quarries demand basic, fair employment terms, but the quarry management says their claims are childish. The first organized labor dispute in the West Bank is coming to a head – is this ideological adventurism or a revolutionary precedent?The drivers bringing their heavily loaded trucks into Salit Quarries near Maale Adumim were greeted enthusiastically this week. As each truck passed, a group of workers gathered round and called in Arabic, “Stop! Support us! There’s a strike here, we’ve been working here for 20 years without fair terms!”

Most of the drivers stopped. One driver said with feeling, “We understand!” “But if we strike the owners will take on someone else instead,” another said. “Hezi [the factory manager] promised me 3,000 shekels,” said a third.

The trucks coming from outside are part of the quarry’s “emergency plan.” Usually, the factory quarries its raw material from the nearby hills, but because of the strike which began last Thursday, it is receiving stone from outside. The huge boulders on the trucks are destined to be ground to gravel, which will be sent to the cement factory at Givat Shaul, and from there to building sites around the country.

Most of the workers sit under a makeshift awning. The manager, Hezi, has succeeded in persuading some to break the strike, and he operates the factory machines at low output. The workers aren’t worried about this. They believe that within a few days the usual faults and mishaps will begin and their expertise will be needed once more.

Nihaz Qaddha (Abu Mahmoud), father of four, engineer and member of the workers’ committee, is among those under the awning. “We don’t want to harm the quarry, we don’t want to strike,” he says. “The management made us declare a strike by its behavior and attitude. We want what we are legally entitled to: wages paid on time, pension contributions, wage slips and social benefits.”

“What’s the management’s aim?” Musabah al-Bayeed asks rhetorically. “To stop the workers organizing, to ensure they don’t know their rights, to make each one look out only for himself. It’s time we entered the 21st century from the point of view of our employment terms.”

The workers who had been calling to the truckers return to the awning. The black tarpaulin is the only thing protecting them from the burning sun. Some 30 men sit under the awning, all of them around the age of 50, tanned manual laborers with faces lined from thirty years working in the desert. One of the workers’ children from the nearby shanty neighborhoods brings a bottle of water. A worker cuts open a watermelon and someone else passes round some home-baked pastries.

Despite their failure to prevent the entry of the trucks, there’s a good spirit under the awning. Perhaps it’s the sudden vacation from hard toil, perhaps the feeling of dignity in the struggle for rights, but there is also another reason: they understand that they’re making history. This is the first unionized workers’ struggle of Palestinians confronting their Israeli employers in the West Bank, in the framework of an Israeli workers’ organization.

Like any labor dispute in Israel, this dispute has the approval of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor and is protected by the Israeli labor courts. The situation is complex, but it well reflects the experience of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN), the organization directing this strike.

Watching out for each other

This article should have begun differently. During the last few weeks, Zman Yerushalayim has followed the Salit Quarries workers’ committee as they prepared to sign the first collective agreement in a West Bank factory. It was to be a satisfactory end to a long journey.

After more than two years of negotiations, including power struggles, wages being withheld, and endless talks with attorneys on both sides, the final meeting was to have taken place last Thursday, June 16. However, on the previous Monday the committee received a call from the management: the meeting had been cancelled, they said, and declined to give a reason for this. The committee decided enough was enough, and work was brought to a halt.

The troubles in Salit Quarries have been going on for a long time. The quarry was founded by a Jerusalemite, Uzi Kalab, in the early 1980s. The Civil Administration granted the license to quarry. The quarry is surrounded by the shanty neighborhoods of the Jahalin Bedouins. The workers say that the Bedouins and the quarry came to an understanding: they would allow the quarry to be established and in return they would be offered jobs. The heavy dust caused by the quarry would not have been acceptable to most towns in Israel, but the quarry was considered part of the Jahalin industrial zone. The quarry was to have funded schools and infrastructure using revenues from taxation, but in reality the taxes were channeled back to Israel, just like most raw materials extracted in the West Bank. The Bedouins made do with earning an income.

Eleven quarries under Israeli ownership licensed by the Civil Administration currently operate in Area C [as defined by the Oslo Accords]. Salit is a private firm, so it is not obliged to disclose its financial information. A report requested by the Interior Ministry in 2008 from a private architectural firm illustrates the scope of Salit’s economic interests: Salit produces gravel used for strengthening concrete; it is the most highly demanded gravel in construction and constitutes some 70 percent of the mining and quarrying industry in Israel.

How crucial are the quarries of the West Bank to the construction industry in Israel? In the year 2007, the Israeli market used some 48 million tons of gravel. Some 9 million come from Area C, of the 12 million produced in this area each year.

The report asserts that Israel is dependent on gravel from the West Bank and has no intention of giving up this source. “These reserves, at the current rate of output, will supply gravel for another 30 years assuming no political changes are made to Area C,” the report notes. It is not clear what Salit’s financial situation is like, but it is probable that its profits have grown with the flourishing of the real estate market. The workers note a number of new Mercedes trucks bought by the quarry recently.

Since the quarry was established, the workforce has become more varied. Many of the workers still come from the shanty neighborhoods, while others come from Ramallah and the Hebron area. Abu Mahmoud, for example, worked on the Kuwaiti oil wells, and returned after the first Gulf War. His children study in the West Bank universities, and will not continue in their father’s footsteps at the quarry. When the situation in Kuwait had stabilized, he received an invitation to return, but that was in the optimistic days of the Oslo Accords when it seemed things might improve here. Despite the situation, he doesn’t regret coming back. “My home is here,” he says.

The quarry workers have various roles including vehicle mechanics, drivers and smiths. A huge automated grinding mill crushes the stone, but there are many breakdowns, and only the more experienced workers are able to fix them.

For many years the workers considered the quarry a hard but dignified place to work. They never received wage slips and never clocked in. The arrangement was based on the belief that “it’ll be ok.” The general attitude of the owner was fair and amicable. If someone fell sick, he would visit and ask how he was doing.

“There was someone we could count on,” the workers say. At the end of the 1990s, Kalab died and the quarry was taken over by his sons who were less involved in daily management. Under a stern manager, the factory sank into anarchy. The workers suffered insults and abuse. (Our attempts to speak to the manager for his answer to these claims was met with the response, “Get lost!”)

When the humiliation increased, the low wages began to be felt. The workers sought legal solutions and turned to Jerusalem attorneys. Palestinian workers in such a situation are fearful of confronting management, but they understood they had a number of points in their favor. Firstly, the level of skill required at the quarry is relatively high, so they would not be hastily dismissed. In addition, as one worker said while pointing to the factory premises, “There is no [separation] fence.”

The metal installations, valued at millions of shekels, stand unmonitored. The agreement was, as the worker says, “We’d take care of him and he’d take care of us.” For many years including during the two intifadas, in a poor area which suffers from theft and includes many metal traders, the quarry continued to operate undisturbed. The Jewish managers continued to arrive and there wasn’t even a guard. “Just for a fence and guard, they would have to pay hundreds of thousands each year,” says Assaf Adiv, secretary-general of the Workers Advice Center (WAC-MAAN).

For a number of years the Israeli lawyers failed to solve the problem by legal means. The Histadrut was irrelevant. By word of mouth, the workers heard about the WAC office in Jerusalem and came for a meeting. Finally things began to move: signatures were collected, elections were held for a workers committee and negotiations were begun with the management. The most important achievement was the issuing of wage slips which began in 2008.

“On the level of the Filipinos”

To explain how contact was made with WAC as opposed to the Histadrut, we must go back to the beginning of the strike, to WAC’s General Meeting in Tel Aviv. In the spirit of the uprisings in the Arab world, the atmosphere was one of elation. Some 100 representatives of various workers committees arrived – an eclectic mix of people who would not otherwise have a chance to meet: Arab women working in agriculture in the Galilee and the Wadi Ara region; teachers from the School of Visual Theatre and the Musrara School of Photography in Jerusalem; a waitress from an exclusive Tel Aviv restaurant; leaders of the social workers’ strike; and Palestinians from the Salit Quarries who had received a permit for a single entry to Israel.

Abu Mahmoud spoke for the workers and described WAC poetically as “the ship of the desert that would lead us to our destination.” A few months ago, the organization bought headphones for simultaneous translation. WAC management members – Ashkenazi and Mizrahi men and Arab women – switched so freely between Hebrew and Arabic that the translators got confused and they weren’t sure which language they were supposed to be translating.

WAC was founded in the mid-1990s by veteran leftwing activists. The first months saw a number of sporadic activities to assist various individual workers. “For many years we simply managed correspondence with government ministries, the National Insurance Institute and employers,” Adiv explains. With time, the achievements added up: NIS 7,000 compensation for a cleaner dismissed from a bank; the successful pursuit of a sewing workshop owner who closed up and disappeared; and in the first years of the new millennium the workers’ committees began to be established.

To begin with, WAC concentrated on organizing Arab female agricultural laborers, then they worked with laborers at the Israel Antiquities Authority employed via a manpower contractor, and organized truckers and others. WAC’s strategy is to go into all the places the Histadrut neglects. “The Histadrut is an important player in the market acting for the benefit of the workers,” Adiv says. “I do not deny its status. But it has retreated from the battle time after time. As a fighting force, it is simply powerless, especially for the weaker workers, the exploited, the Arabs, because it has been recruited for national objectives.”

The Histadrut, according to Adiv, has forsaken more than the Arab sector. “The Histadrut fails to protect all those with fewer skills, whether Ethiopian immigrants, or older workers,” Adiv says. “Twenty-five years ago, the Histadrut organized 85 percent of the workers in Israel, the highest rate in the western world. Today, only 26 percent of the workforce is organized. In other words, more than half of those in the workforce have been cast aside. In addition, there are some 30,000 Palestinian workers in the settlements that are not represented at all.”

Adiv describes the status of Palestinian workers in Israeli factories as “slightly less screwed than African workers, a little stronger than the Thais, a little below the Ethiopians, roughly on the level of the Filipinos. Arab citizens of Israel are a little higher. So we’ll go with the weaker workers and they can turn to us.”

The Histadrut need not fear for its status, but WAC can certainly provide its leaders with food for thought. During the last decade, a total of some 8,000 workers have passed through WAC. Today, it has about a thousand members who pay a monthly membership fee of about NIS 35 [$10] and are organized in nine workers’ committees. Some 14 people are employed by WAC. They all earn minimum wage, according to a deliberate policy. Most of the workers Adiv represents earn more than he does.

The Teachers Union and the Waitress

Little by little, WAC has entered premises where the concept “workers committee” was about as distant as Salit Quarries is distant from the School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem. WAC began being active in the field of the arts last year when it organized the workers committee at the Musrara Art College. Yossi Mar Haim, music teacher and member of the committee, explains that as a result of the steps at the school, 70 teachers are now employed with tenure for the first time.

“This is the first time we’ve received a salary for 12 months, including pension and fringe benefits” he says. “Up till now, we worked just eight months each year on a self-employed basis.” The teachers at Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theatre heard about the efforts at Musrara and decided they too wanted to take this step. Their negotiations with the institution are now at a peak.

“There is something in WAC’s activities that crosses all sectarian boundaries,” says Amit Drori, teacher and committee member. “By working with them, you realize there are many aspects and phenomena that are a matter of principle, regardless of what field you work in.”

Meanwhile in Tel Aviv, Dana (not her real name), a waitress at one of the city’s classiest restaurants, is setting up a workers committee whose members are preparing for negotiations with the management. “At the end of the day, the tips reach the bosses and they decide what to do with them,” she says, explaining her decision. “Or they take you to sommelier training and don’t pay you.”

“It doesn’t make sense that wealthy bosses like ours try to pay restaurant expenses using coupons,” she continues. “As soon as we began getting organized, they said, ‘we’re a family, we’re a home, we’re friends, why do we need negotiations?’ Don’t they understand it’s nothing personal? I don’t want my bosses to be my family. I want them to be my employers and to give me what I should get.”

WAC, as can be understood, has a clear leftist agenda. Despite this, its messages are not comprised of ideological statements and visions for a distant future. Its day-to-day activities, its concern with pension percentages and sick pay, are almost dull.

The breakdown of achievements in the monthly bulletin is laconic: “Driver Y.T. was awarded NIS 7,500 in his case, driver H.Y. was awarded dismissal compensation of NIS 32,000.” There is no overblown glitz here.

Each day, a WAC delegation comes to the small awning near the Salit premises to support the workers. They stay there till 4 p.m. “The strike is also a kind of work,” Abu Mahmoud says, and displays a list he keeps of those present. WAC describes the strike as an “all-out strike.”

A year ago, the workers struck for four days. The strike ended with the start of negotiations for an inclusive deal. Their monetary demands, they emphasize, are minimal – no more than the law prescribes. “And no less important, we want them to treat us respectfully,” says Musabah al-Bayeed. The mechanism to create this respect is, according to the draft agreement, a joint committee of workers and management which will meet once a month to discuss various claims.

Till last week, nothing was heard from the management. However, Salit board member Rabbi Natan Natanson told Zman Yerushalayim that “they’re not kids, but they don’t have a clue about communication between workers and the company. All these rights and all these nice things, they’re all from WAC’s explanations which are ruining the little work ethic they’d had till now. Since WAC arrived we have suffered from things they have done less seriously and less willingly. We’re not sure if they’re doing the right thing, even for themselves.”

“Their wages are low,” Adiv explains. “If I tell the Salit management I want to double their wages, I’ll be starting a world war. We are only asking for basic terms. We have to reach a reasonable and logical agreement.”

In the spirit of the uprisings

For both sides, time is the decisive factor. The quarry has to supply its clients with raw materials, while the workers’ savings are running low. Most earn about NIS 5,000 per month, or NIS 200 per day. A day without work is a day without a wage. WAC, a small organization, has no strike fund.

A few hundred Israeli factories employ a few thousand Palestinian workers in the [West Bank’s] Maaleh Adumim area, especially in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone. Strikes, especially in the quarries, occur once in a while. They are usually spontaneous. Each side flexes its muscles, then a wave of dismissals comes or the Israeli factory owners add a few hundred shekels to wages to buy industrial peace.

The organized strike at Salit, it seems, is the first of its kind in the West Bank. How is it that Palestinian workers are striking under the protection of Israeli law? “Israel did not annex the territories completely, but gradually applied Israeli law to the West Bank,” says Dr. Amir Paz-Fuchs from the law faculty at the Ono Academic College.

“Some lawyers call this ‘legal annexation,’ such as the Knesset elections law or the firms law that were applied to the territories but only for the settlers,” he says. “Israel doesn’t want to annex the territories and expose itself to the world’s wrath, so the courts are solving this dilemma. When the state talks about Israelis, it claims Israeli law should be applicable to them. But it gets complicated when the owners are Israelis and the workers are Palestinians. This is where we have the High Court v. Kav Laoved.”

The High Court v. Kav Laoved from 2007 is what led to a revolution in the legal definition of Israeli factories in Area C. At the beginning of the millennium, a Palestinian worker at Givat Zeev municipality turned to the labor courts and demanded his employment terms (pension contributions, compensation, overtime) be made equal to those of Israeli workers.

The municipality refused, claiming that the worker was subject to Jordanian law. The worker won the case, but the municipality appealed to the National Labor Court and won. Judge Shmuel Tzur ruled that “There is no special reason to conclude that the employment of workers from this area [the territories] should be subject to Israeli law.”

Kav Laoved appealed to the High Court. High Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin overturned the National Labor Court ruling, saying, “The National Labor Court had in fact removed from Palestinian workers the cover of protection which Israeli legislators saw fit to grant Israeli workers. This removal constitutes… discrimination and creates an irrelevant and immoral distinction between the employment terms of Israeli workers and those of Palestinian workers.”

Natanson nonetheless insists that the strike is superfluous. “If they want to strike, let them strike,” he says. “The state permits strikes, and they can take advantage of this right. The agreement should not have been brought for signing on the 16th. These childish claims are unbecoming of adults.

“We didn’t agree to changes. There were things we had to prepare. We wanted to update everything. In the meantime, they’re just hurting themselves and the workers. WAC is the one creating all this political uproar.”

However, on the ground it’s clear the strike has already attracted attention. On the busy road to Ramallah many Palestinian vehicles pass, honking their horns in support. “People hear about the strike and want to know what’s going on here,” says al-Bayeed.

Can strikes with an Israeli organization become widespread around the West Bank? Dr. Guy Davidov, labor law specialist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the chances of success for this strike are reasonable. “In order to succeed, you need bargaining power, but I don’t know if they have that,” he says.

“Even if they have the protection of the law, they will fail if the quarry is able to hold out. If they fail, others will not hurry [to do the same] but if they succeed, perhaps others will succeed in similar cases. The question is how long the quarry can stand it. The workers, for example, have no strike fund, so they can’t last long. In a case like this, you can fail even if you strike. But perhaps the quarry will back down, because it may understand the importance of the workers being satisfied.”

Adiv was recently interviewed by Shalom Yerushalmi in Maariv as one of the only Israelis who foresaw the uprising in Egypt. Regarding Israel, he remains with both feet firmly on the ground.

“We believe that any change no matter how small is good,” he says. “It increases confidence and grants a feeling of power, a feeling that things can be different. That’s why WAC struggles for another thousand shekels for the worker, another few percentage points for pension contributions.”

Abu Mahmoud, sitting with his workmates under the awning, notes the connection between their strike and the uprisings. “The revolt in Egypt was due to government corruption and injustice,” he says. “Our demands here are similar. We want justice and dignity.”

But his main interest is the daily grind: “We already have an agreement. The management simply refuses to sign it,” he says.

Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger

The article was first published in Zman Yerushalayim, taken from Maariv’s NRG website, June 26, 2011