My Histadrut experience – by Byron Danby

Byron is National Campaign Organizer for the Australian Workers’ Union

My favorite Hebrew word is “balagan”; which translates as “chaos”. In English, it is a decidedly negative word, synonymous with disharmony and strife. However, “balagan” in Israel and Hebrew describes the inevitable rollercoaster of life or the unexpected adventure – if ever anything did not go according to plan; you can always shrug your shoulders, chuckle and proclaim: “balagan”!

The difference in translation parallels the difference between any Australian conference I have been to and the Histadrut conference. Both Labour movements are independent and democratic, yet they couldn’t have been more different.

From the first step off the plane (hit by 35 degrees and humidity) to my final dash home, the conference was definitely a whirlwind. I hadn’t considered how many other nations would be represented. Russian, Japanese, Italian, German, Georgian, French and Bulgarian Unions (to name a few) had sent representatives. Most interestingly (and honestly, a little outside my expectations) was meeting the representatives sent by the PGFTU (Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions).

Fascinatingly, there has been cooperation in dealing with mutual problems between the Histadrut and PGFTU since as far back as 1995. The PGFTU has sent observers to the conference since 2005; and in 2008 signed an agreement so that Palestinian workers who have a workplace dispute in Israel are automatically covered by the Histadrut.

Building the relationship between the two has, at times, been very slow going – there are still many issues and differences. Still, this co-operation has managed to continue even through the worst circumstances of that period. This should give us all hope about the genuine desire of people on both sides of finding a peaceful way forward.

It is fair to say that in Australia 2012, most conferences are fairly dull affairs, the heady days of firebrand speakers and deep ideological chasms largely gone. A degree of professionalism and media savvy has spread; differences have broken down. The folders are a lot nicer; the message to Australian workers a lot clearer – but you also lose a little something in the process. Not so with the Histadrut!

I was informed the night before that the conference was largely a matter of procedure – but not to forget, this was Israel, and “balagan” could happen at any time…

And that was exactly what happened from the first minute. With the translator firmly plugged in, I avidly watched as a member of the Congress yelled “traitor!” at the Chair within the first 30 seconds (the Chair yelled back, as did much of the Congress). Whilst speaking, the Leader of the Opposition faction had delegates on their feet applauding and booing respectively; or even standing in the isles debating each other as he spoke. The re-elected Secretary Ofer gained incredible applause for his past achievements and future plans. The energy of the people in the room was amazing.

Almost as fascinating: when all was said and done (despite what seemed like bitter argument), after the conference everyone was again on their feet – but this time to sing and dance. A well known Israeli pop singer gave a full concert with light show; which all delegates enjoyed with just as much passion.

The vibrancy of the conference, and country, struck me. Israel faces many problems – yet the Histadrut is up for the challenges.