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The Invisible Union

May 30, 2004

When I finished high school, I was conscripted to the South African Defence Force, and ordered to report to First Infantry battalion at Bloemfontein at the end of January 1993. At the time I saw myself as a pacifist, and beyond this was not willing to put on a uniform to defend apartheid, so like many young white men, I left the country and waited for political change from beyond the border.

I spent a year and a half overseas, and returned shortly after the country’s first democratic election in April 1994, when the threat of conscription (or imprisonment for failing to report for duty) no longer existed. I spent that period within the Zionist entity, as well as in Egypt and Turkey.

Towards the end of 1993, I found myself in the Israeli port city of Eilat. Eilat is on the Red Sea, just a few kilometers form the Jordanian city of Aqaba and Taba in Egypt. The city is a tourist resort, and brash hotel developments were mushrooming up along the beach front – the city, perched between the red rock mountains of Negev desert and the azure depths of the Red Sea, was experiencing a construction boom.

For this reason, it was something of a focal point for travellers, especially those, like myself, who had been on the road for some time and made our money as we travelled. Because the Israeli Shekel was a stronger currency than the Egyptian pound, it was possible to work for two weeks on the construction sites of Eilat, and then use the money earned there to spend a month or more living the life of a bohemian king at some hippy resort on the Egyptian side of the border, smoking hash, drinking Turkish coffee and snorkelling.

I made the most of this, and worked construction for as long as 12 hours a day. When I finished work, I would allow myself one pint of the cheap local beer – Maccabi or Goldstar – before starting my second shift as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. The added benefit of this was that it was usually possible to steal a meal or two while working: For serious travellers, there was a lot to be had for free, and it was possible to save a relatively good amount of money. We raided dumpsters at night, and took bread, fruit and sealed products that had passed their sell-by date, and we lived off these.

At times I slept on the beach, at other times in a cheap ‘youth hostel’ that was really just a dormitory for itinerant workers. But although all of us were living from manual work, we didn’t see ourselves as workers but as free spirits.

Those of us who wanted a day’s work lined up in the early morning outside the inappropriately named Peace Café – it had the cheapest beer in Eilat and was home to a very rough crowd. We would line from around seven. Most of the workers were working class lads from England and Scotland, with a good contingent from the rest of Europe. But there were also other South Africans, and Aussies and New Zealanders, as well as Africans, Palestinians, and Israelis on welfare who were doing black work to make some extra money. Some mornings there were also Koreans, and Philipinos, and South Americans.

It was here, amongst this ragbag, motley collection of people from all countries, that I first experienced the spirit of what I later learned to call class solidarity, the consciousness of what we have in common that keeps the otherwise disparate and diverse working class together. I call this the invisible union, because although we never used the words ‘solidarity’, ‘union’, ‘socialism’ or ‘collective action’, we acted according to the purest of union principles – and what amazes me today is that this all came naturally.

I first experienced it at about eight one morning, when I was lined up outside the Peace Café with the other workers, hoping for a day’s labour. Building contractors would come by in trucks, hold up fingers for the number of workers they needed, and shout what they were paying.

The first truck of the morning came past, and the driver wanted ten workers for a full day at eight shekels an hour.

“No one moves for less than ten”, said a working class British man, sotto voce, and no one did. We didn’t need it explained to us that by accepting a lower rate – no matter how badly we needed the money – we were undermining conditions for everyone.

A real union would have been divisive and disastrous. We didn’t need it. But our invisible union pushed our wages up and protected us.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. camerado permalink
    June 30, 2006 5:40 am

    …I also worked construction back in 89′ when I was taking a year off from school in New York, same deal as mentioned by this writer re: lining up outside Peace Cafe, working etc.

    I was 19 then, the only guy from the US as far as I knew.

    Generally had some good jobs, but one bad gig where I didn’t get paid and had to walk back to town from a desert Army base where I’d been hired to dig holes.

    All in all, a character building experience though, not to mention that if I didn’t work, I wouldnt eat or make it back to the States!

    ~ Camerado ~

  2. camerado permalink
    June 30, 2006 5:40 am

    …I also worked construction back in 89′ when I was taking a year off from school in New York, same deal as mentioned by this writer re: lining up outside Peace Cafe, working etc.I was 19 then, the only guy from the US as far as I knew.Generally had some good jobs, but one bad gig where I didn’t get paid and had to walk back to town from a desert Army base where I’d been hired to dig holes.All in all, a character building experience though, not to mention that if I didn’t work, I wouldnt eat or make it back to the States!~ Camerado ~

  3. Fred the Finn permalink
    January 29, 2007 3:16 pm

    So the Peace Cafe survived. I was there in 1972-73 as the hippie trail was coming to its end, and hashish had been outlawed in Israel only a few years earlier, but Eilat was still full of smoking long-haired freaks spending the winter before heading to Goa. Or just lost souls, or Aussies on round-the-world trips. Everyone slept in improvised shacks out in the desert in an area simply called the Wadi. Until Golda Meir came to visit town and they burned down a lot of them. But workers’ solidarity? I just saw normal human compassion, decency and fortitude, plus some us-versus-them divisiveness. Work was hard, however, back-breaking hard.

  4. Fred the Finn permalink
    January 29, 2007 3:16 pm

    So the Peace Cafe survived. I was there in 1972-73 as the hippie trail was coming to its end, and hashish had been outlawed in Israel only a few years earlier, but Eilat was still full of smoking long-haired freaks spending the winter before heading to Goa. Or just lost souls, or Aussies on round-the-world trips. Everyone slept in improvised shacks out in the desert in an area simply called the Wadi. Until Golda Meir came to visit town and they burned down a lot of them. But workers’ solidarity? I just saw normal human compassion, decency and fortitude, plus some us-versus-them divisiveness. Work was hard, however, back-breaking hard.

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