Historic strike by Palestinian workers enters second month

It has been over a month now that Palestinian workers at the Salit Quarries in the Israeli occupied West Bank voted to go on strike after management balked at signing a collective bargaining agreement negotiated in April. The strike is the culmination of an historic organizing campaign: It’s the first attempt ever by Palestinian workers to organize a union in Israeli occupied territory.

The workers’ organizing campaign began in  2007 when Salit workers contacted the Workers Advice Center (WAC), an independent labor group that seeks to organize unorganized workers regardless of nationality, religion, gender, or skin color into a broad-based union.

The quarry is located in the desert near the Israeli settlement of Maleh Adumin, a suburb of Jerusalem. Under the best of conditions working in the quarry would be difficult. Dust from the quarry can cause asthma and cancer. The stifling desert heat makes any kind of prolonged exertion dangerous.

Quarry workers worked without health insurance, pensions, safety equipment, eating facilities, or restrooms. Pay was low, and workers did not receive pay slips so that pay deductions could not be accounted for. The company at one point stopped paying its contribution for workers’ life insurance, but continued to withhold workers’ contributions.

After the workers contacted WAC, it began helping workers to form an organizing committee.  The company at first refused to recognize the committee, but WAC and the workers persisted.

After an Israeli labor court issued a ruling in 2009 favorable to the workers, the company began to address some of their concerns. It started providing pay slips to some workers and built an onsite eating facility and restroom. But pay was sometimes late in coming, some workers still weren’t getting pay slips, there was no health insurance, pension contributions were not being made, and pay was still low.

In October 2009, the union forced the company to recognize a committee elected by the workers as the workers’ bargaining agent, and negotiations between the two sides began.

In May 2010, the company abruptly withdrew from negotiations. After a four-day strike, the company resumed talks, which dragged on until April 2011 when the two sides finally reached a tentative agreement. After the quarry workers voted to accept the agreement, the company refused to sign or implement it.

The company was biding its time hoping that a split between higher paid workers who voted to reject the agreement and the majority of workers who voted to accept would cause the union to break apart.

But on June 15 in the heat of the afternoon, workers at the quarry held a meeting on the job to discuss the agreement and voted unanimously to strike.  On June 16, all 35 quarry workers walked off the job.

“We don’t want to harm the quarry, we don’t want to strike,”said Nihaz Qaddha, an engineer at the quarry. “Management made us declare a strike by its behavior and attitude. We want what we are legally entitled to: wages paid on time, pension contributions, wage slips and social benefits.”

Since the strike began, the company, which sells gravel mined and asphalt manufactured at the quarry, has continued to operate though at a much reduced level. It has also managed to convince a few of the strikers to return to work.

The significance of this struggle isn’t lost on the international labor movement, and the strikers have begun to receive support from unions all over the world, including UE in the US, an independent union that represents 35,000 mainly manufacturing workers.  A letter signed by UE leaders tells the company that UE “believes that all workers are entitled to exercise their freedom of association without interference from their employer. We strongly urge you to take immediate steps to sign the collective bargaining agreement that you have negotiated and to begin to establish a productive and respectful relationship with WAC-Maan, the union selected by your employees.”

The Salit workers recognize that there is more at stake here than their right to be treated with dignity and respect.  “Our strike isn’t just against the management of Salit,” said Haj Muhammad Fukara, a machine operator who has worked at the quarry for 27 years. “We want to give an example to workers in other places, here and abroad. There has to be an end to the unfairness and exploitation of workers by blood-sucking bosses. I have faith that (WAC) will stand at the head of this process and bring about a change that will empower workers everywhere.”

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