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Labor Organizing Across Israel’s Apartheid Line: An Interview With Israeli Labor Activist Yoav Tamir

To call WAC-MAAN simply a labor union is not quite accurate.

A person stands by the partition wall separating Israel and Palestine. (Photo: Fellowship of Reconciliation-USA)

I met Yoav Tamir at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago this past April. Young, lanky, and with a scruffy trace of a beard, he looked like any number of activists at what is the most progressive, unruly wing of labor movement in the U.S. I heard organizers talk about leading strikes in strawberry fields, even in U.S. prisons, yet what I learned about him literally stopped me in my tracks: a Jewish Israeli, he organized Palestinian workers on Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank. I’d never heard of such a thing.

Yoav is an organizer with the new Israeli labor union, Workers Advice Center, or WAC-MANN. WAC-MAAN was founded in the late 1990s as (as its name might suggest) a workers’ advice center, and began organizing unions and negotiating contracts in 2010. A product of both deepening austerity within Israel as well as the wave of uprisings in the Arab world in 2011, WAC-MAAN organizes both across the racial line and across the Green Line, doing what no other labor organization in Israel or Palestine’s history has done: create a multi-ethnic, bi-national workers’ movement.

But to call WAC-MAAN simply a labor union is not quite accurate. While they do negotiate contracts, they are also a social movement, organizing in the interests of the entire multi-ethnic working class of the two national cultures, Israeli and Palestinian.

WAC-MAAN organizes the unemployed in East Jerusalem, helps workers find jobs, protests against lax safety rules that threaten the mostly Arab construction workers, and even helps sustain an olive-oil plant run by mostly Arab Israeli women. We would have to go back to the 1930s or even 1880s in the U.S. to find a union with such a broad social mission.

Perhaps more remarkable is, I would argue, WAC-MAAN’s non-Zionist character. Unlike the Histadrut, Israel’s main labor organization, WAC-MAAN organizes without regard to nationality and makes a point to organize Arab Israeli and Palestinian workers. The political implications of this are clear to the organization. As Yoav explains, this democratic, bottom-up approach is the means by which both a new democratic culture can be born west of the Jordan River, “a society here that will be able to sustain peace,” in Yoav’s words. He sees WAC-MAAN as part of the wave of democratic movements that formed the Arab Spring.

Of course, this is not without complications. WAC-MAAN is ambivalent about the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement — which is at the center of the U.S. Left’s engagement with Israel and Palestine. And WAC-MAAN is not (yet) an entirely dues-funded union, as much of their work is outside of the half-dozen collective bargaining agreements they’ve reached.

But I was inspired by both the kind of union WAC-MAAN is, as well as its materialist conception of how to build a new kind of non-Zionist society within Israel and Palestine: from the bottom-up, with working people coming together to form independent, multi-ethnic, bi-national organizations.

Our interview lasted almost two hours, and touched on everything from technicalities of contract negotiations to the Syrian civil war, from the BDS movement to the Israeli trucking industry. Assembled here is an excerpt. Note: I mostly left Yaov’s Hebrew-inflected English unedited.

Benjamin Balthaser: Could you give us a picture of the Israeli labor movement and how WAC-MAAN fits (or doesn’t fit) within it? Particularly how WAC-MAAN may depart from the central Israeli labor organization, the Histadrut.

Yoav Tamir: WAC-MAAN was established in the ’90s by a group of political activists who saw the opening of the Israeli economy to the market — the privatization of the Israeli economy. Every side of the political map was on board with this. Even the Histadrut was an active part of this trend. The people who were hit hardest by this trend were the Arab citizens who traditionally worked in the now-shuttered textile industry. WAC-MAAN started working in the Arab sector specifically, helping to combat poverty there. You have to understand — the Histadrut is a trade union, but it is not a trade union in the sense of the U.S. or Europe, built from the bottom-up as a workers’ movement. Histadrut built Israel. Histadrut existed before Israel existed. It was a mechanism to conquer and build Israel. It used to own businesses; it was the owner; it was the boss. So WAC-MAAN is a wholly different phenomenon, a completely different idea.

What is the relationship between Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians and the Histadrut?

A lot of our work is concentrated in East Jerusalem and the settlements, especially Mishor Adumim. It’s a very big settlement, there’s an industrial zone there. And we unionized a group of Palestinian workers who work in a garage there. The official stand of Histadrut when it comes to Palestinian workers is that it’s a political problem. It’s not Histadrut’s business. They won’t go and they won’t fight for Palestinian workers, who are not citizens, for their rights in the workplace. That’s where we come in.

Also, I’ll tell you this. We have, especially in the settlements, a huge phenomenon of contract workers, and who gets hurts by this? Mostly the Arab workers who have to work under a contractor. And Histadrut actually takes money from these workers — they have to pay fees to the Histadrut.

Would you say it’s fair to suggest that Histadrut doesn’t represent Arab workers, either in Israel or in Palestine? That there’s a racial fault line down the center of Israeli labor?

Look, if you go to Histadrut and you ask them if they organize Arab workers, they tell you, of course, they have a lot of Arab members. WAC-MAAN is a completely different idea. We’re talking about an idea of a trade union that organizes Arabs, and Jews, and Palestinians, and Israelis, and everyone, just as workers. Histadrut? They were not formed this idea at all. Today, they are not even organizing workers; they don’t actively fight for the interests of the working class. That said, we don’t assume to fight against Histadrut; we do not compete with Histadrut. We organize where Histadrut doesn’t.

How did you personally get involved in WAC-MAAN?

I started volunteering 5 years ago with WAC-MAAN in Tel Aviv, my last year in university. It was when I realized I have to go out into the job market… I realized I was going to be a worker. I have truck drivers’ license. And you realize that if you become a truck driver in Israel then, excuse my language, you are fucked. It’s a bad job… speaking of Histadrut, the hauling industry used to be very organized, in Histadrut. All this was privatized; all this was sold. And now most truck drivers are not unionized, not represented, the workers are forced to work extra hours, the equipment is very bad; you have accidents. WAC-MAAN is trying to organize the truck drivers now, we are trying to fight this now.

Is this what you are working on now?

Until recently we had a very large campaign organizing in the settlements. We got our union leader back, after two years he was fired. Recently we got a court order to bring him back to work. This was the first time that we managed to get settlers to give anything to a Palestinian. And we got him back to work and we are going towards a collective [bargaining] agreement in a settlement. It would be first of its kind.

Can you tell me more about what it’s like to work on a settlement? As a former labor organizer, I have organized in some difficult shops, but I cannot imagine what it’s like to organize on an Israeli settlement.

You have to understand that Palestinians in the West Bank cannot come and go as they please. And those who work in the settlements need to have a permit in order to get in. So it’s very easy to get rid of a worker. You don’t even need to fire him. You just have to cancel their permit. It’s very easy to do so if you’re a settler and you own a shop in the industrial zone, and you’re in touch with the army and the security forces and the police. All you have to do is say “he threatened me,” or “he’s a terrorist” and it’s done. It’s finished. And the worker cannot even approach the employer.

The Palestinian unions are not allowed to work in the settlements. At all. This was something I realized when I was in Chicago at the Labor Notes conference — I was surprised to see that people did not know this. They are not allowed to work there. Histadrut does not want work to work in settlements. The Palestinian unions are not allowed to go into the settlements. So nobody organizes in the settlements. So this is where we come in. So this is why we work there.

The Zarfaty Garage works with buses, with trucks, and with the army. So you have Palestinian workers fixing army vehicles. It’s a very big garage. And you have workers who have worked for 35 years, 20 years, 17 years, and they earn below minimum wage, no pay slip, no social benefits of any kind. Although all of these are in the Israeli law. And these workers approached us, after they went to the Histadrut, by the way, but Histadrut turned them down. And they came to us. And we started organizing them based on a court decision in 2008 that says that a worker that works for an Israeli employer deserves the Israeli labor law. Doesn’t matter if they’re Palestinian, has a permit, doesn’t have a permit. And we also said OK, this applies for organizing laws as well. Which in Israel are very nice — you only have to have a third of the workers. And that’s it, it’s done. And according to the law, the employer is forbidden from even talking to the employee about organizing during a drive.

That’s much better than the U.S.…

It is much better than the U.S. When I became familiar with labor laws in the U.S., I thought, my job is not so bad, really…

So we went in on this basis. We got a workers’ committee up and going, and we went into negotiations and over the course of two years we managed to lift the working conditions in this garage. We got everyone up to the minimum wage, which was another 1,000 shekels added to their paycheck, we got them social security, pay slips, we got them pensions; there was a lot of money that went to the workers. That’s where it stopped. In the last Gaza War, the employers fired our union leader, Hatem Abu Ziadeh. We went on strike. In a settlement, during the war. It went by the book — the thugs, the police, with me, and also Asaaf-Adiv, chairman of WAC-MAAN, we were detained by the police as well. And the employer accused the union leader of sabotaging a military vehicle in the garage.

You’ve heard the stories of what happens in the West Bank — if the Israeli army wants someone gone, they just take them. We went to the courts, the police, to the security, to the army, and we defended him. And what happens is they only took his permit away. That’s it — which of course, was bad enough. Over two years we fought his case in court, and we got the court to reinstate him, again, the first decision of its kind. And now he’s working. And we worked very hard to get the police and the military to back off — to get them to admit there’s nothing on him, he’s clean; this is a labor issue. And they did back off.

It sounds like organizing in the settlements, you have the traditional problems any organizer is going to have, but you have the problem of working under military occupation. How does the discourse of “terror” shape how you organize?

In the intifadah going on now, the military, in several instances, wanted to stop all Palestinian workers entering the settlements. It was the settlers who opposed this, and fought to get them to come to work. The settlements run on the backs of Palestinian workers, who have to work there, because there’s no jobs in the West Bank. It’s closed down. There’s no economy — nothing moves. Settlers want them to come and work. They’re the ones who issue permits for them to do so. Of course, if a Palestinian starts fighting for something, for anything, then he’s a terrorist, obviously. Because this was done as a labor dispute — and with Palestinian workers organizing with an Israeli organization, in the sense that we are listed in Israel — that gave them a lot of power. This was the first time a Palestinian was able to get the settlers, get the army, to retract a charge like this.

How do Palestinian workers respond to you as an Israeli organizer?

The workers know who we are. They know who we are because we started working in East Jerusalem, back in the year 2000, the second intifadah. We were in touch with a lot of Palestinian workers, we have a lot of contacts also in the West Bank. We speak Arabic. It’s very clear who we are; it’s very clear what we want. We’re talking about workers whose income comes from the settlements. They see it in a very pragmatic way. In the sense that OK, fine, they want, and we want, an independent Palestine, but they still need to bring home bread. And whoever can help them do this is their partner. Obviously I’m not going to say that there’s no suspicion and there are no problems, but that’s an overall problem, not just because WAC-MAAN is an Israeli organization.

We also work a lot in East Jerusalem. We also work a lot with the unemployed workers, to fight for their benefits, to find work. East Jerusalem was annexed, and the Palestinians who live there are not full citizens, they are residents, they have voting rights in local elections for city hall, but not in Israel, not for the government. They are entitled to benefits, but for many reasons it’s very hard for Palestinians to get the benefits in East Jerusalem, and poverty is a big problem.

WAC-MAAN sounds like very different kind of union than we are used to in the U.S., usually only focused around contract negotiations.

We see poverty as something a trade union has to address. We know we cannot solve it by ourselves, but we have to address it. Specifically when it comes to somewhere like Israel and Palestine, where it plays a huge part of the conflict. In East Jerusalem, also a word about this, poverty is a way to further push out Palestinians from Jerusalem, and to make their lives miserable. This is true for East Jerusalem, it’s true for the West Bank, it’s true for Arab workers in Israel as well.

We do a lot of unconventional work for a trade union. We also have a sister organization Sindyana of Galilee, this is a factory that produces olive oil from two plants. It’s all women, and it’s mostly Arab. And they now work with Whole Foods in the United States. This project goes to strengthen the Arab economy in Israel, and to fight poverty.

If I can be so bold to say, you sound like more of a syndicalist, socialist organization than a traditional labor union.

We see ourselves as part of the workers’ movement in a very broad sense, not just as a trade union. We have organizers who help women find work, find good work places. People who want to support something, people, an idea, they can find a lot to do with us.

There was a very enthusiastic article about WAC-MAAN on the New Unionism blog. Quoting from the blog post, “WAC-MAAN combines social struggle with struggle for peace and against discrimination.” We discussed some of the ways WAC-MAAN fights against discrimination in Israel and Palestine. Do you see yourself also as a peace organization? Do you see yourself as part of the peace movement? How do you see yourself in the context of this larger conflict that tends to dominate the way an American audience would see everything that happens in Israel and Palestine?

We see ourselves as a trade union that is part of the Middle-East. As part of the Arab world as well, as much as it’s part of Israel and part of the Western world. I’ll go back to your question about how I got into working for WAC-MAAN, and I’ll tell you that I did this when the Arab Spring broke out. You see for example, in Egypt, you see the independent trade unions that popped up during, and even before, the revolution. Even before, you saw in 2008, the workers of El-Mahalla El-Kubra coming out, and for the first time ripping a picture of Hosni Mubarak, calling for revolution — wild strikes going on. This is what started the revolution and the Arab spring… we see ourselves as part of this, as part of a demand by the Arab people everywhere, not just in Palestine — in Egypt, in Tunisia, and in Syria specifically, for freedom, for Eish, Hurrieh, Addaleh Ijtima’ieh (life, freedom, social justice). And also for peace, in the same sense the Syrians are calling for peace, which means getting rid of Bashar Al-Assad and stopping the slaughter there. We see ourselves as part of this. In that sense we are a peace movement.

Now, I realize that when we talk about the peace movement we are not talking about negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We don’t see this going anywhere. We see Israel and the Palestinian Authority as the old regimes that are falling down around us. Israel wants to go into some sort of negotiated agreement with Saudi Arabia behind them. How would go and have a peace treaty with Saudi Arabia right now? It’s not a very concrete ground to do anything. The same that has happened in Egypt, the question now is whether or not the Palestinians are able to organize and form a social movement. It won’t be the Palestinian Authority; it won’t be Fatah; it won’t be Hamas. Like all the shebab, all the youth, who went out in Tahrir, who went out in Syria, will demand the end of the occupation. People asked me recently at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago, where do I see the one-state or two-state solution? This is something you will be able to solve once you have such a movement. This is where we stand as a peace movement.

Would you say you are building a new form of cross-racial, binational civil society, out of which a new democratic political organization could come?

Exactly. We want to have a trade union in Israel that will have partners in the West Bank that will be able to bring us to a solution. The thing is, every Palestinian movement, will have to have its counterpart in Israel.

Do you see WAC-MAAN as reorienting the conversation away from military conflict, a terrain on which the Right wins, and back to the question of democracy and civil society?

Definitely. As a trade union, you push the point of democracy. You want democracy as well. It’s the oldest idea. You can’t occupy another people and be democratic. You can’t. This means that Left in Israel is going to fight this battle. It’s going to have to fight this, not against Palestinians, it’s going to have to fight it against its own fascists, in Israel. The only way they will be able to do this, is if they will have Palestinian counterparts. It’s not only the Palestinians who need Israelis, it’s Israelis who need Palestinians for this. You need to do this with all the democratic forces, with the trade unions, with political parties. The problem is that at the moment, you don’t have such a movement, not in Israel, not in Palestine.

On the Palestinian side, along the years, Israel has broken down all the democratic institutions, but with different process, this has happened in the Arab world as well. It’s not only Israel and Palestine, around us, it’s everywhere. The democratic revolt happened in such a way that shook the whole world, and it’s not over yet. Of course, we’re still small, and it might seem counterintuitive to anyone thinking about the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, but we believe this democratic movement is the only thing that should happen.

Does WAC-MAAN have a position on the BDS movement?

BDS could be a very good tool to put pressure on Israel. But to put pressure on Israel to do what, now? There’s no idea about what’s going to be afterwards. We have to build a society here that will be able to sustain peace, that will be able to sustain a democratic country. If you don’t believe Arabs deserve or are able of having democracy, then you have a problem. If you do, they have to support everyone who is trying to build democracy on the ground, not just from the outside.

Of course, we like to say we kicked Soda-Stream out. By the way, the industrial zone we are talking about, that was Soda-Stream, that’s where the Soda-Stream used to be. We just now finished a lawsuit against them, to get a group workers there money — they were fired in a very terrible way. The position of WAC-MAAN is that BDS could be a good tool, but not by itself. It needs a counterpart in Israel and Palestine, and we feel there isn’t one yet.

Now something BDS has done that I’m in favor of, it has put the settlements on the spot. The settlements are now, for some companies, not a place they want to be in. That’s true. And I’m for that completely. The Palestinian workers are for it too. They will get permits in Israel and for them it is no problem. Still, I think there are other things we could do. Our concentration is more on organizing, on building a democratic movement from the ground up. We call on people to support Palestinian workers who are organizing on the ground, for a democratic movement… We do not want our organization to be boycotted.

Some in the BDS movement might argue there’s a particular character to the Israeli state that is wedded materially and ideologically to settler-colonialism. And until it can solve the colonial question, it cannot solve the democracy or even the economic question. And that because settler-colonialism is written into the DNA of Israel, especially since the vast expansion of the settlements in the last 30 years — literally written into the landscape — no internal change is possible. External pressure must be applied.

And then I’ll say, nobody ever thought Hosni Mubarak was going to fall. Nobody ever — he was going to stay forever. That’s what people said. It’s true; it’s not only up to Israel. And I agree completely that no other question will be solved before we solve the question of the Occupation. But you cannot say this state of affairs won’t change. You see the cracks now. In 2011 you had a very big social movement in Tel Aviv — part of the Arab Spring, part of the Occupy movement. The first one of its kind in Israel.

People say in Israel that this has caused this radicalization in the right wing. Since then the right wing became very paranoid, and very afraid, and started targeting the Israeli left-wing, more so than ever before. When I raised this point in Chicago at the Labor Notes conference, I was accused of defending the left when they don’t need defending because they don’t do anything against the Occupation. That’s not the point. The point is that things do change in Israel. It’s very true that the Israeli left tries to distance itself from the Palestinians. You see it in the labor movement, in Me’retz, in the Zionist Camp, Hertzog, and so on. It’s of no use — they still get targeted.

Ever so slightly little by little there’s a crack here in Israel. We see a crack here. We need to broaden that crack. We need the left wing to realize that they need to find their Palestinian and Arab partners, because they, the left, are not partners with the right-wing. It hasn’t happen yet. But it’s starting to happen. You can’t say things aren’t changing. This will change — I can’t say for certain in what direction, but I working for a very particular direction.

How would someone from the U.S. support Palestinian organizing from the U.S.?

Of course, we are talking about fund raising, there are a lot legal expenses when it comes to collective bargaining. Of course, we need help with that. Also raising the issue of Palestinian workers who work in the settlements with no rights at all, the poverty in East Jerusalem, the poverty in Israel, the Arab population in Israel. We have 60% of women who don’t work at all. These are things are not addressed at all.

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