Chicken Pluckers In The Promised Land

It's 3:45 a.m. on a Wednesday, and my injection-molding machine hasn't broken down so far. It's a small blessing, sure, but one of the delights that helps get you through the night shift at the Duram Rubber Products factory here on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh in Israel.

I make widgets. Actually, I make chicken pluckers, which are used to pull feathers off poultry, but I've never been in a poultry processing plant. As far as I'm concerned, the pieces I help make might as well be widgets. The Duram rubber factory makes a wide range of chicken pluckers for a wide range of chickens. There's a difference, you know, in how hard it is to pull feathers off various sorts of chickens. This is what a kibbutznik told me when I first started working in the factory. I'm learning a lot here. I've almost mastered the injection-molding process. One of the mechanics is teaching me how to troubleshoot the two Italian-made machines in my charge. I wear work boots and heavy gloves, and it's hard to remember that I once sat behind a desk in the midtown Manhattan headquarters of BUSINESS WEEK and pondered corporate takeovers and trade negotiations. Indeed, in the nearly three months I've been on Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh as a volunteer and Hebrew student, I believe I've adapted well. I think light manufacturing becomes me.

Today, many of the 280 kibbutzim in Israel depend on some form of manufacturing for a percentage of their income. Some of these factories, like the Duram plant, bring in the bulk of kibbutz revenues, linking the success of the kibbutz as a whole to the plants' health and profitability. That capitalism would play such a big role in supporting the socialist communal ideal on which the kibbutzim were based is probably something the Zionist founders of the collective movement would not have endorsed. But changes are necessary if the kibbutzim are to survive into the next century. Although only 3% of Israel's population live on kibbutzim, the concept helped build the country and then helped in the military as well as social fights to keep Israel intact. Today, the kibbutz remains a uniquely Israeli institution.

The first kibbutz, Degania, was founded in 1909 by a group of young Jews from Eastern Europe who wanted to flee the ghettos and the cycle of pogroms. These first Zionists returned to Palestine, determined to conquer the land. The physical labor was often punishing.

The founding members of Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh were from Poland and had barely held a hoe in their hands before coming to this patch of land in the Sharon region. The parcel, purchased by a wealthy English Jew in 1936 from an Arab family, was surrounded by three hostile Arab villages. Not for nothing they called the kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh. Ramat means "hill" in Hebrew. Hakovesh? "Conquer." From 1939-48, the kibbutz was under a constant state of siege, with frequent attacks, snipers, and mines. Until the Six Day War in 1967, Ramat Hakovesh was on the front line between Israel and Jordan.

SOLES AND PIPES. But just when its physical safety was assured, the kibbutz had to start worrying about its financial security. When agricultural profits began to drop in the 1970s, the kibbutz--like many others--turned to manufacturing. The Duram factory started in 1972 as a small shoe-sole operation. It was unprofitable for nearly 10 years and was supported by the greater kibbutz. Eventually, however, a growing export and domestic customer base and improved production led to expansion into new products, such as gaskets and O-rings for irrigation, drainage, and sewage pipes.

But in 1979, its biggest O-ring customer, Iran, closed down trade with Israel, and Duram had to find another niche. It found chicken pluckers. Today, they're the factory's main export item. Duram holds 40% of the $8 million U.S. market. In 1994, factory revenues were $6.8 million out of a kibbutz total of $11.9 million. For competitive reasons, total output for the year is a figure the factory declines to discuss. Profits go directly back into kibbutz reserves, which fully support its members.

"If the factory were not successful, it would hurt the whole kibbutz," says Haim Routzky, 44, the plant's general manager. Like the other workers here, he does not draw a salary but gets a quarterly allocation that takes care of family expenses apart from food, housing, and health care, which are entirely paid for by the kibbutz. The factory gives most of its revenues to the kibbutz for these expenses, while allocating a percentage each year for factory upkeep and expansion.

RUSSIAN INFLUX. Running a successful business isn't easy on a kibbutz. Individuals don't stand to gain from innovation or higher quality. And until recently, the idea of profit and moneymaking for its own sake weren't values much embraced by hardscrabble kibbutzniks. Each time Routzky wanted to send workers on important business trips, say, to trade shows or seminars, he had to convince the governing body of the kibbutz that the travel wasn't frivolous. Travel paid for by the kibbutz was seen as a reward--the idea of travel for business was a strange concept. As business grew, however, Routzky, a tall, affable man whose family came from Poland and who was born and raised on Ramat Hakovesh, was eventually able to show the links between travel and new-business generation.

Another problem: With no plant hierarchy and no individual monetary rewards, how could workers be expected to put their all into productivity and efficiency? "All members own a piece of the factory," says Routzky. "But that doesn't necessarily translate into harder work.

The influx of Russian Jews into Israel, however, has brought highly motivated and skilled workers to kibbutz factories. Some 540,000 such immigrants have landed since 1989, and to stave off overcrowding in Israel's immigrant housing, the government asked the kibbutzim to house, employ, and teach Hebrew to some. There are 15 such new immigrant families living in temporary trailer homes at Ramat Hakovesh. These families are not members of the kibbutz and are expected to leave and make their own way after two years. But while here, they earn salaries (triple time for night shift), study Hebrew and Judaism, and generally become acclimated to their new country.

It used to be said that anyone working at a kibbutz but not a member would find it hard to get to know the permanent kibbutzniks. I have not had that problem: Kibbutzniks have invited me into their homes for dinner, and they seem to appreciate hard work and friendliness.

As the factory continues to prosper, the benefits are hitting the kibbutzniks where they live. Members of the kibbutz today have luxuries undreamed of 15 years ago. Each family is allotted a personal stipend for whatever expenses the kibbutz does not cover. That means you can find a VCR and a couple of PCs in just about any kibbutznik's home these days. Since the factory accounts for 60% of the kibbutz' income, keeping factory production up has a direct impact on the worker's well-being. That is directly in line with the original kibbutz ethic. "The mind-set is not for personal profit," says Routzky. "The mind-set is for the kibbutz."

Unfortunately, this attitude is changing, especially with the younger generation. Money, with the material possessions and personal freedom it brings, is drawing many young kibbutzniks out of their cloistered lives. The kibbutznik populations are aging, and in some cases this means a shortage of labor. Rising costs, foreign competition for produce sales, and ongoing political tensions are also taking their toll on the movement.

MODERN WAYS. More and more, kibbutzniks are encouraged to take outside employment, with the understanding that they remit their salaries back to the kibbutz. This also lures away members, some because they want to keep their own money and make their way on the outside. Others marry non-kibbutzniks and leave the movement.

But Ramat Hakovesh has shown that a kibbutz can modernize and compete in the open market while maintaining its roots in the land and its commitment to a communal lifestyle. When my shift ends at 5 a.m., I'll walk to the edge of the fields and watch the sun rise over the West Bank, less than two miles away. Then I'll have breakfast in the communal dining room and watch the old kibbutzniks with their memories and the young kibbutzniks with their hopes for the future.

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