Social Workers’ Strike Enters Its Second Week amidst Daily Protests

The nationwide strike of Israel’s social workers entered its second week on Monday, July 13, a day after Shaul Meridor, Director of Budgets within the Finance Ministry, announced that the social workers’ demands to improve their working conditions are “irrelevant.” Meridor is a scion of a privileged right-wing, revisionist Zionism family, politically prominent from before the founding of the state. On the very same day, Meridor complained that the government’s plan to extend entitlement for unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of jobless and furloughed workers creates “negative incentives” to return to work. Talk about class conflict.

Inbal Hermoni, head of the Social Workers’ Union, said “We are being attacked with violence and cruelty… The entire welfare system has been neglected, dried up and abandoned,” and maintained that the current neo-liberal “government wants to decimate the social services and shut them down.” Therefore, the social workers have “no choice” but to strike. A key element in the social workers demands is to fill the hundreds of empty positions that the state has approved. But the catch is that few graduates of social work are willing to enter the service with the currently miserable and totally inadequate salaries being offered by the state.

Social workers block traffic at the Mahanaim Junction in the Upper Galilee on Monday morning, July 13.

Social workers block traffic at the Mahanaim Junction in the Upper Galilee on Monday morning, July 13. (Photo: Social Workers Union)

The social workers launched their strike on Monday, July 6, to protest the collapse of social services after decades of governmental neglect, an overload of cases, low pay and exposure to workplace violence. Last year the union found that 83% of social workers experienced violence at work; 30% suffered physical violence; and 30% suffered threats against their lives or the lives of their children.

The strike is expected to impact some 1.5 million recipients of social services provided by government ministries and local authorities. During the open-ended strike there will be no protection orders issued for children and youth in danger, no meetings of abortion committees, no respondents available to deal with inquiries from the elderly, no handling of domestic violence incidents, no allocation of minors to care homes, and no assessments of convicts or those under arrest.

Since the beginning of their strike on July 6, social workers have conducted daily protests all over Israel. A fortnight ago, during the mandatory two week “cooling off period” before the strike, a contingent marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and protested outside the Knesset and the Treasury, in conjunction with demonstrations held in Tel Aviv and other cities. At that time the far-right government repeatedly refused even to meet with the striking workers to discuss their demands, an obtuseness which led to the strike on Monday of last week. The social workers’ union is threatening to continue its nationwide strike – its first since 2011 – until its demands are met.

Social workers gathered outside Finance Minister Israel Katz’s home on Thursday, Friday evening and Saturday morning, July 9-11, to protest the government’s refusal to negotiate with them. On Saturday evening, dozens of social workers held a protest outside the Channel 12 television studios where Katz was due to give an interview related the government’s plan to contend with the country’s deepening social and economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. As Katz entered the building, the protesters called out to him “slave workers,” a Hebrew play on words derived from that language’s term for “social workers.” In another play on words, during the Meet the Press program he was being interviewed on, outside the social workers held up signs reading “Meet Reality.” After about half an hour outside the television studio, a special police unit arrived on the scene to break up the protest and detained 16 of the demonstrators under the charge of “disturbing the peace.”

In light of the deteriorating social and health situation in Israel, where the second wave of the coronvirus is yielding approximately 1,200 new verified infections every day, and the number of confirmed cases has jumped 500% in the last month, Finance Minister Israel Katz for the first time agreed yesterday to meet with the head and representatives of the Social Workers’ Union. The meeting is scheduled to take place today, Tuesday, July 14. However, following Shaul Meridor’s comment about the “irrelevance” of the social workers’ demands just two days ago, cited at the beginning of this report, it’s not at all clear what Katz can or is prepared to offer the social workers, other than appeal to their inherent sense of humanity and professional responsibility at this critical time. If this is the case, it will be yet another example of the ineffectuality with which the government is facing the current crisis which has gotten increasingly out of control in the past weeks, and in which a lack of coordination, leadership and consistent overall plan, on the backdrop of a problematic coalition government, to say the least, are coalescing to create a perfect storm in the anarchy descending on Israeli society.