The Histadrut- the General Federation of Labour in Israel, was founded in Haifa in December 1920. It initially numbered 4,000 members, growing to 25,000 in 1927. At its creation it had several goals; firstly to represent Jewish workers in search of improved wages and conditions, and secondly to help provide jobs. The latter was achieved through the creation of the Hevrat Ovdim (The Society of Workers), the economic branch of the Histadrut which would come to play a major role in the economy, employing 280,000 people by 1989 and provided key building blocks for the creation of the Israeli state. It created Bank HaPoalim, Solel Boneh, Tnuva, and perhaps most importantly founded the Kupat Holim (General Sick Fund) which at its peak was responsible for the health care of 80% of Israeli citizens.
During the time of the British Mandate in Palestine the Histadrut grew substantially, with key figures in the independence movement such as David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, playing leading roles in its development. In 1983, the Histadrut contained 1.6 million members, 85% of all Israeli workers.
However, as with unions around the world, they struggled with changing conditions in the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1994 the introduction of the State Health Law severed the Histadrut’s link to the ‘Kupat Holim’ health service. This formed part of a process whereby the workers economy was liquidated due to rising costs, legislation and the perception of of conflict of interest caused by the dual role as trade union and employer, so that by 1995 the Histadrut was no longer a significant employer.
In its current form the Histadrut consists of 78 Trade Unions that deal with the local organisation across every sector of industry. They form 30 regional Histadrut branches across the country, each with union representation and legal services.
Politically the Histadrut has held close ties with Mapai and its successor the Israeli Labor Party. From 1995 until December 2005 the Histadrut General Secretary was Amir Peretz MK who stood down after his election in November as leader of the Labor party. In his place Ofer Eini, the former head of the Trade Union section, has become General Secretary in 2007 and was re-elected by a large majority in 2012.
Current membership of the Histadrut numbers around 700,000 workers, 40,000 of whom are Israeli Arabs, with an additional 100,000 members of the youth wing HaNoar HaOved v’HaLomed. The Histadrut faces major challenges that would be recognized by trade unionists around the world from fighting against cuts to public sector pay and conditions to the effects of privatisation and globalisation. The challenges are great but the Histadrut remains important force in the cause of workers’ rights and peace in Israel.
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