TEL AVIV - In the days before the end of 1996, Israel's working class was engaged in the biggest-ever strike wave since the establishment of the state.
More than 250,000 workers - approximately one-quarter of the country's overall work force - went out on strike. At issue is the government and corporations' plan to cut wages and benefits, to privatize many of the nationally-owned enterprises, as well as increase income taxes on lower income people. At the same time they plan to increase military spending.
One of the main causes for the now temporarily suspended strike wave is that the privately owned corporations and the authorities in some industrial and public service sectors refuse, in the wake of the official government policy, to renew the collective labor contracts, signed with the Histadrut and labor committees, the terms of which ended with the end of the year. Instead, they want to sign individual contracts with each employee.
The strike at Haifa Chemical and other petrochemical plants started in early December. About 250,000 workers in these industries, at the three Israeli seaports and the railways, as well as municipal and other public sector workers, left their work places Dec. 26 after a two-week "cooling off period."
On Dec. 29 police detained Shlomo Shani, the national secretary of the trade union section of the Histadrut, during a mass rally of chemical industry workers. Labor Member of Knesset Amir Peretz called for an immediate general strike. More than a million laborers followed his lead.
The labor court, facing a still growing nationwide strike wave, ordered Shani's release. The Histadrut leadership called off the general strike while the strikes in the different sectors continued.
Israel has never seen a strike front this united at the rank-and-file level. Striking workers blocked the gates of their plants. Laborers of some big plants erected barricades on important inter-urban highways and burned tires.
Organized labor and its Histadrut trade union center came out as a united force, causing the government and its "labor courts" to give in.
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