Shira Cohen doesn’t look like a change-maker. But the shy, petite graduate of Israel’s Haredi school system won a precedent-setting case that will better the lot of Israel’s least protected workers – those employed by contractors.
Last March, a new contractor won the tender for operating the Knesset cafeteria and promptly refused to rehire Cohen — a worker with 12 years seniority — stating no grounds other than that he wanted to bring in someone of his own. Cohen suspects the real reason was her involvement in workplace organizing efforts. With the support and encouragement of the National Coalition for Direct Employment, of which SHATIL is a central player, Cohen took her case to court. Simultaneously, the Coalition initiated a media campaign against hiring by contract and Cohen was widely interviewed.
On August 15, judge Eyal Avrahami of the Jerusalem Labor Court decided in Cohen’s favor in the case, Cohen vs. Schultz Bistro Bar Co. saying that Schultz must return Cohen to her previous position and pay her legal fees. Most important, the court stipulated that a new contractor cannot dismiss workers en mass and that employees “who have put their heart and souls into their job have earned rights in the workplace.” These include the right not to be dismissed without sufficient reason as well as “not because of legitimate workplace organizing activity that they led.”
In Israel, many contract workers do not enjoy basic social benefits, work for lower wages than their directly employed colleagues and are easily fired. The NIF-supported National Coalition for Direct Employment, along with the Knesset Direct Employment Lobby (which the Coalition helped to create), are fighting to ensure that workers in Israel are employed directly rather than through a contractor. In addition to other problems, until very recently, Knesset cafeteria workers were fired during Knesset recesses for four and a half months each year. Thanks to efforts of Shatil and the Coalition, the Knesset chair has ordered that the cafeteria workers no longer be dismissed during recesses.
Shira Cohen loves her job and feels it’s a perfect fit for her. The grandchild of immigrants from Jerba, Tunisia, Cohen was born and raised in Kiryat Malachi, one of 11 siblings. Her mother was a teacher and her father is a ritual slaughterer and kashrut supervisor. Although she does not have a matriculation certificate (the Haredi school system at the time she studied in it did not have a matriculation track), Cohen has been interested in politics since she was a child, when she listened ardently to the news and dreamt of being a Knesset member. She told herself she had to get into the Knesset any way she could and 12 years applied for a job in the cafeteria.
Cohen revels in the fact that her (former) job as head server of food and drink at Knesset committee meetings and in the Knesset plenum allowed her to be in the know about the legislative process and to have good relations with Knesset members.
“At first I was disappointed that I was assigned to the committee meetings – I didn’t even know what they were. But I discovered it was the most interesting place to work. You get to understand how decisions are made, to hear all stages of the discussion on important legislation, to meet interesting people.”
Activism is not new to Cohen. In second grade, she turned to the school principal to protest the fact that school trips had been cancelled because of the intifada. In 10th grade, she went as far as Shas head Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to protest the firing of her popular school principal.
“Even though I’m shy, when I feel an injustice has been committed, I find the courage to speak out,” Cohen told NIF News.
“In my first years at the Knesset I was naive,” she said. “I didn’t know I had rights. I didn’t know there was such a thing as organized labor. My dream came true, I enjoyed my work. that’s what I knew. I also didn’t have the courage to demand anything. There isn’t much work in Kiryat Malachi.”
When the new contractor didn’t renew her contract, Cohen didn’t know she had recourse. “I was shocked, but I’m a simple person. I thought it was his right. But MKs heard about it and were mad and started talking and Shay, (Cherpanov, SHATIL lobby expert), who I’d gotten to know in the Knesset, called and asked if I wanted to fight it. I didn’t think I could but he and the Coalition and other Knesset workers encouraged me and SHATIL and the Coalition got me a pro bono lawyer from Koach LaOvdim (Democratic Workers’ Organization.) When friends told me the working conditions in the cafeteria had gotten intolerable, I said to myself, This is no longer just a personal matter. These are downtrodden people, heads of families working to put bread on the table. I had to do something.”
Thirty five Knesset members pledged to cover Cohen’s court costs if she lost her case.
Cohen’s goal now is to ensure that “at least in the Knesset, there be no contract workers and that the Knesset care about how its workers are treated.”
Cohen credits SHATIL and the National Coalition for Direct Employment with her success.
“I was afraid. I knew I was standing against strong a strong man. But they convinced me that I did have the strength for this and gave me the tools and knowledge I needed,” she said. “They supported me from step one and did it in an organized, effective way. Without the help of Shay, SHATIL and the Coalition, I would not be in this place.”
A second hearing is scheduled for September 19th in order to discuss the conditions of Cohen’s re-hiring. The contractor is appealing the court’s ruling.
The National Coalition for Direct Employment represents more than 25 organizations, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Maaglei Tzekek, the Israel Students’ Union, Koach LaOvdim, Shatil, Kav LaOvedand more.