Peter Lerner: The union leader who helped bring Israel’s government to its knees [part and parcel of the apartheid state]

Thomas Helm

The National  /  March 28, 2023

Histadrut’s plans for a crippling general strike forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay his contentious legal reforms on Monday.

Extraordinary details of how strikes brought Israel’s embattled government to its knees on Monday have been shared by the country’s biggest trade union.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was already under fire as mass protests broke out over sweeping judicial reforms on Monday and the sacking of Defence minister Yoav Galant over his criticism of the plans.

Histadrut’s international director Peter Lerner told The National the union’s co-ordinated actions “brought results in less than 10 hours”, and sent “a clear message that the Prime Minister needs to stop the reforms”.

“First it was Ben Gurion Airport stopping departures on Monday,” he said. “Then municipalities and local authorities joined the strikes and then shopping centres. It was a systematic, co-ordinated effort that brought immediate results.”

The widespread strike action coincided with street protests in which an estimated 700,000 people came out against Mr Netanyahu’s contentious legal overhaul. The actions forced the government to delay the parliamentary process to pass the bill and enter into negotiations with the opposition.

“Monday was a huge success for the union, who flexed only a little muscle to get what it wanted, without too many people paying the price,” Mr Lerner added.

The strikes have now been called off, after the government pledged to delay its plans for the judiciary to allow time for dialogue.

The coalition’s proposed reforms would limit the power of Israel’s legal institutions and increase the government’s ability to challenge court rulings and appoint legal officials.

Co-ordination was key to the union’s success, Mr Lerner said. “Each of the 29 affiliates of the union knows the plan about how they should withhold labour in the event of a general strike,” he added.

Mr Lerner said the swift consensus in Histadrut’s diverse ranks showed that many in Israel feel “humiliated” by the coalition’s “undemocratic, winner-takes-all approach to governance”.

New polls make a similar assessment. On Monday, a survey by Israeli channel N12 News said that for the first time in a decade, Likud, the Prime Minister’s political party, would receive fewer than 30 seats if an election were held today.

Mr Lerner says an intransigent government is solely to blame for the strike. “Up until Monday the union’s position had been that these political debates need to be solved around political tables with dialogue and discourse. But the events preceding Monday’s demonstrations were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

He was referring in particular to Mr Netanyahu’s decision to fire Mr Gallant, who publicly called for a halt to the reforms on Sunday evening, saying they posed a “tangible threat” to Israel’s security as more and more people in the armed forces threatened not to show up for duty in protest over the government’s plans.

“Just last week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US said Iran was a few months away from a nuclear bomb,” Mr Lerner said.

“All Israelis know that our country is surrounded by enemies. That is why so many people poured out into the streets after the Defence minister said the country was being weakened. Israelis are very attuned to what the security community is saying.”

Mr Lerner said many others in the defence establishment were in favour of the strikes. “Under the roof of Histadrut, all sectors of Israeli society gathered on Monday morning in our conference room, from business leaders to former generals and the former chief of the Shin Bet. Many of these groups would normally have been head-to-head with one another.”

The assembly even included high-profile members of Likud. “The head of the workers committee in the Israel Airports Authority is a very strong and well-connected figure within Likud,” Mr Lerner explained.

“In television interviews yesterday, he was saying that he is a very strong supporter of Mr Netanyahu and the government, but that what is happening with the reforms and how they are being rolled out is wrong for society.”

He said the success of the strike action showed the enduring power of the union movement in Israel.

“Like the military, unions are central to Zionism. We were established in 1920, 28 years before the State of Israel came into existence. Our movement was fundamental in laying the foundations for the country.

“There hasn’t been a general strike in many years. But that’s not because we don’t know how to or can’t, it is because we prefer to sit around the table and negotiate good terms for workers.”

He also predicted a rise in membership. “Our numbers were already growing by about 2 per cent each year, which is quite different from most trade union movements around the world,” Mr Lerner said.

“Our numbers grow, because we are effective in the collective bargaining agreements that we sign and the security that we offer our members,” he added. “I think yesterday’s action is an opportunity to make the trade union movement in Israel even broader.”

But he stressed the importance of wielding such power with restraint. “There is real power in unions, but strikes are still a very blunt weapon. They can be damaging, and need to be used with a high level of wisdom,” he said.

For now, Histadrut is closely monitoring the government’s next moves.

“Mr Lerner said: We need to see if the promised delay and dialogue is actually going to happen. Remember, another general strike general is always possible.”

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National