S.F. labor leader laments decline of Israeli unions

Israel’s economy is booming. That’s not in dispute. Israel’s booming economy is good for the Jewish state’s workforce. That is in dispute.

Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, recently returned from a junket with several American labor leaders who toured Israel and the Palestinian territories from end to end.

And while he concurs that the tech boom has doused Israel with cash, he fears that, before too long, the nation’s workforce will be uttering, “Brother, can you spare a shekel?”

Just as America’s labor situation has slid “from Roosevelt to Reagan,” Israel has “gone from Ben-Gurion to Begin, where you have total market-driven economy as the basis … and that goes directly in the face of the social justice and respect for the workers that had been a mainstay of the American trade union movement as well as the Israeli trade union movement,” said Paulson, a tall, soft-spoken man with a flurry of white hair and a white beard. “It’s moved totally to the right, and workers are not respected anywhere near the way I expected them to be.”

His trip was sponsored by three national groups, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (the parent organization of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council), United Jewish Communities (which gets money from 155 federations, including those in the Bay Area) and the Jewish Labor Committee.

While this was his first trip to the Jewish state (and he is not Jewish), he is well-versed on the labor socialist origins of Israel; he refers to David Ben-Gurion as the “Samuel Gompers of the Histadrut,” Israel’s general federation of labor.

Paulson’s San Francisco office is crammed with labor memorabilia ranging from a pile of more than 100 lapel pins to photographs of himself standing alongside local and state politicians or getting arrested at labor demonstrations.

In Israel, whether it was at a government-owned Haifa port, a Bedouin camp or at the West Bank headquarters of Palestinian labor leaders, Paulson discovered workers who were pessimistic and scared about the future.

The dockworkers worried that the port might be sold to a multinational corporation. Other laborers noted that Israel’s unions now represent 40 percent of the nation’s workers — perhaps only half as many as they did just over a decade ago. And Palestinian union men claimed an 80 percent unemployment rate due to Israel’s security wall and Hamas repression.

“We went to one of the more established and dominant kibbutzim and it felt in many ways like a funeral was going on,” he recalled.

“The kids don’t want to stay on the kibbutz anymore. They want to go to Tel Aviv. [In the early days of Israel] the country demanded people work the land and take charge of their country. Now we’re seeing guest workers come in and do construction work and it’s reverting back to the ‘Let’s get rich quick’ and top-down, market-driven economy.”

Paulson lamented that Israel waived its national pro-union stance to attract “the Microsofts and Intels.” While those in favor of attracting high-tech giants to the Jewish state have said this was the only way to do so, he noted “that has been the corporate line since the beginning of time.” The Israeli labor leaders he spoke with are glum; this is a difficult time to be an Israeli union man.

While Paulson’s June trip was disheartening for him, it didn’t shake his support of his fellow unionists in Israel.

At a recent S.F. Labor Council meeting, a representative loudly pushed for a boycott of Israel similar to one enacted by British unionists. Paulson’s response? Not on my watch.

“As the executive director of the labor council, I said I would never let that happen here,” he said.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.