By Haim Bior

On July 18, 2000, dozens of top-ranking officials from the Histadrut labor federation stampeded Kiryat Atidim, a hi-tech park in north Tel Aviv. The mission: to recruit at least some of the thousands of employees working at the park. Dozens of major companies operate there, from software house Ness Technologies to RAD-Binat (and Histadrut delegation, led by the head of the labor federation's Tel Aviv branch, Gershon Gelman, arrived in Kiryat Atidim with the dawn just as the hi-tech employees were getting to work. The delegates were there throughout the afternoon when the employees went to lunch at the many restaurants in the area.

They union reps handed out leaflets calling on the hi-tech workers to join the labor federation and take advantage of its professional legal services. The slogan of the day was "Be federated - not isolated".

The ambush was a resounding failure. Failure? A rout. "Not one of the hi-tech workers we approached joined us," Gelman admitted this week. "The only people we managed to convince to organize themselves in the framework of the Histadrut were half the workers from Hogla."

Hogla is a factory that makes disposable diapers and paper products for the home. It just happens to be located in Kiryat Atidim, a low tech interloper stuck in cyberland.

Universal language of email

But is the Histadut dismayed? Is it giving up? It is not. Gelman realizes its mistake: it wasn't communicating in the language of hi-tech workers.

"We have to get to them by e-mail and Internet," he said. There is a snag, tho: the Histadrut doesn't have a website, and there's no saying when it will.

But Gelman is cautiously optimistic about the Histadrut's ability to recruit hi-tech employees, thanks to the technology crises. Companies are dismissing workers in the thousands. Thousands more fearing for their jobs may seek protection under the Histadrut umbrella, he predicts. Hi-tech workers in their 30s who feel 25-year-olds breathing down their necks might come to see our proposal in a favorable light, Gelman says.

Meanwhile, the Histadrut hopes to take advantage of crises at veteran hi-tech firms employing unskilled workers. After dismissals at

ECI Telecom

(Nasdaq:ECIL), Giora Nachum, the head of the Histadrut operation in Petah Tikva near ECI's location, distributed a brochure calling on workers not employed under a collective agreement to join the labor federation. (Result: Squat.)

For all Gelman's optimism, the Histadrut is running a campaign to hang on to what little it has left. At Elisra, El-Op, Telrad and what remains of Tadiran, there are still workers employed under the collective agreement of the labor federation, but their numbers dwindle from year to year. The number of workers employed through personal contracts is on the rise.

A doughnut for your loyalty

Gelman wryly relates a story that illustrates his frustration. "When the Amcor plant in Tel Aviv closed a year ago, Histadrut treasurer Shmuel Avital realized that the union held in trust NIS 1.25 million worth of shares belonging to the Amcor workers committee."

Avital decided to split the proceeds among Amcor's 400 employees. "He had only one request - that they join the Histadrut. We gave them money and expected them, as a sign of gratitude at least, to join. Not one joined. But we didn't give up. Last Hanukkah we arranged an event, with doughnuts, for the Amcor employees to celebrate their receipt of the money. But we had to cancel when we realized that none of them planned to show up. Despite its embarrassing failures, the Histadrut doggedly persists in trying to stake a claim in the hi-tech arena. In February, the Histadrut set up a steering committee to find a way to wedge a union foot in the hi-tech door.

Not everybody sees the point. Manpower expert Orit Naor says technies simply aren't Histadrut material, in the union's present form. "The Histadrut reeks of bureaucracy. The whole thing about hi-tech culture is its lack of an organization. Work is done at irregular hours, every employee is evaluated by his contribution to the company and strives for independence. A hi-tech employee is an achievement-driven individualist who is not willing to be placed in the same line with everyone else."

She recommends the Histadrut set up a special unit for hi-tech that would operate as a kind of club providing members with legal services and advise them on such matters as wages, benefits and pensions.