JERUSALEM (May. 16)
In another country the resignation of the head of the largest trade union may not be a national event of primary importance. Not so in Israel where Histadrut has been described as “a state within a state” as long ago as during the British Mandate when the Jewish Agency supposedly was the supreme body representing Jewry here and abroad.
Histadrut, with its tightly organized machinery of bureaucrats and leaders, whose emblem of office is the open necked shirt, has been able virtually to dictate salary conditions for most of the country’s economy. It is an axiom in Israel that an employe cannot be dismissed except for crimes or for activities bordering on the criminal. The all powerful workers committees (or shop committees) prevail against everyone–certainly their employer and often also the central Histadrut machinery.
After the establishment of the State, the Cabinet brought the Histadrut somewhat under its control. This was done by appointing loyal and somewhat docile Secretary Generals such as Mordechai Namir and later Aharon Becker. However, the result was that the central institutions of Histadrut fell into disregard and each group of workers dictated their own terms. In these years wildcat strikes were the rule rather than the exception.
Itzhak Ben-Aharon tried to reverse this situation. An ambitious statesman and former Cabinet minister, his main strength is his unmitigated workers ideology–he is a member of the Achdut Haavoda wing of the Labor Party–which seems to have been unaffected by time or the fact that his party now runs the country. His ideology evokes nostalgic echoes and memories in the minds of many old-time labor leaders. He is generally credited with having brought about the amalgamation of the previously separate labor parties into one large alignment.
LOGICAL STEP UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES
The industrialists and businessmen in Israel are not considered by most observers to be a real political force. At least half the enterprises are owned by Histadrut or the State. Private undertakings have to rely on government credits, subsidies and incentives to survive at all. They are, therefore, not likely to cross daggers with the government. The latter, on the other hand, being one of the largest employers in the country, has a vital stake in everything that goes on. This is why Histadrut even in this labor-run country should in the opinion of the Cabinet play second fiddle to the government.
Once before a Histadrut Secretary General tried to challenge the power of the government. This was Pinhas Lavon, a dozen years ago. The so-called “Lavon affair,” which utterly destroyed his political career, is seen by some observers as having been uncovered in the course of the ensuing power struggle between him and David Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Aharon, too, tried to again give the Histadrut the stature he sought. He did so by Joining the workers in their claims whenever he could not win them over. Conditions at Ashdod port, for example, are quiet now as a result of Histadrut having adopted the workers demands.
However, the dispute in the food canning industry, which seemed to Ben-Aharon to be a legitimate cause, became a testing case for the government and for the industrialists who work under its tacit protection. First one minister and than an entire battery of ministers headed by Premier Golda Meir tried to mediate–despite a clear-cut decision by the Histadrut Central Committee that the workers’ case is a Just one and their strike action will be supported.
This was too much for Ben-Aharon. He realized that if the government won in the steps taken against the Histadrut–as it did–the latter would revert to being Just another organ or branch of the Cabinet. If the government lost, it would try again what had been attempted a dozen years before–destroy the power of Histadrut. His decision to resign may not have solved the problem. But it was a logical step for a leader who sees no way out of an impasse into which he has been driven by circumstances.