This article appears on Stronger Unions, the blog of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the UK.
In the labour movement we’re often fond of our history. We preserve certain traditions, we celebrate some holidays, we even have museums displaying our union banners and old pamphlets. Our past inspires us.
We don’t tend to think of union-busters sharing in some kind of nostalgia, but they do – and it sometimes shows up in odd ways.
Back in 1981, long before Ronald Reagan was elevated to sainthood, before he “won” the Cold War (helped by Mrs. Thatcher) and was loved and revered by everyone, he was a very conservative and divisive politician.
Just six months after his inauguration, Reagan crushed the powerful air traffic controllers union, who had dared to go on strike for better pay and working conditions. He did so by bringing in strike-breakers, including military air traffic controllers, and sacking over 11,000 professionals, barring them from federal employment for life.
To trade unionists in the United States and elsewhere, it’s a bitter memory.
To newly-elected ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government in Israel, it’s a source of inspiration.
It was revealed last week that the Israeli government was looking into plan codenamed “1981” which according to the daily business newspaper Globes, derives from “the year in which US President Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers at America’s airports and brought in military controllers in their stead.”
The target in Israel is not air traffic controllers but port workers in Haifa and Ashdod.
The two ports are unionized – bastions of trade unionism despite the relative long-term decline of unions in the manufacturing sector. As a result, port workers enjoy good pay and conditions which are routinely “exposed” in the right-wing media.
The government plans to build new ports and Netanyahu, his new finance minister Yair Lapid, ultra-right Minister for the Economy Naftali Bennett and the Minister for Transport Yisrael Katz are quite openly relishing a fight with the port workers – and possibly with the broader labour movement, including the Histadrut (national trade union centre).
Lapid, who made a career as a television personality, was widely seen as a bright new face in Israeli politics, but since joining the Netanyahu government has often seemed to try to out-flank his coalition partners from the right. His comment on the possibility of a port strike was “Let there be war.”
Globes reported that “the government has prepared several responses: bringing the army and foreign companies in to operate the ports; outlawing of strikes in vital services; warning manufacturers to stock up with materials; and opening up the Port of Eilat and Israel Shipyards for loading and unloading of goods.”
Two days later, there were signs of a government retreat. While not ruling out using troops as strike-breakers, Transport Minister Katz instead raised the prospects of Israel using the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, as well as ports in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, to break any potential port workers strike.
For decades port workers have been on the front lines of some of the sharpest industrial struggles. Australia’s “war on the waterfront” in the late 1990s left bitter memories – and helped weaken the right-wing Bob Hawke government. Britain of course had the long-running struggle of the Liverpool dockers.
Now it’s to be the turn of port workers in Haifa and Ashdod who face a determined right-wing government that seems to be inspired by the ghost of Ronald Reagan.