Taking passengers hostage

Wherever justice resides in this bitter wrangle, one thing is clear: even in the context of the most defensible labor struggle, some tactics are out of bounds.

October 1, 2011 22:25
3 minute read.
israel railways train

train 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Those Israelis who commute daily by train have long suspected that Israel Railways has well and truly gone off the rails. With each day, it seems, Railways employees do their utmost to accentuate that impression and bolster it with yet more bizarre illustrations.

Few are the train services anywhere that take their passengers hostage – not metaphorically but quite literally.

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Last Thursday, some 800 luckless people traveling from Beersheba to Haifa were deliberately tortured on a muggy, hot day, by orders of the union.

The driver moved exceedingly slowly, if at all. Time and again he simply stopped his locomotive in the middle of nowhere by whim. The windows were locked and the air conditioning was turned off. Commuters – among them children, expectant mothers, the elderly and infirm – felt ill. Then the train budged a short distance farther down the line only to stop again.

There were no fewer than 20 such prolonged and suffocating halts. The passengers were bluntly told the ride “would take as long as possible.”

The ordeal continued for hours, until irate passengers improvised assorted blunt instruments to break the windows.

Others kicked out the doors. They had to forcefully escape their enforced confinement and then walk along the rails in the direction of their destination – an act fraught with danger. During the commotion several passengers were injured and one went into premature labor.

This wasn’t the sole Israel Railways horror story of recent days. The deliberate callousness toward paying passengers was part of an ongoing union struggle to sabotage a management decision to allow companies that manufactured new rail cars to also maintain them.

The union demands a monopoly. This would have been easier to empathize with had the employees’ standards and record thus far been sterling. But in fact their service record is shoddy to say the least, replete with chronic delays and near-accidents.

Moreover, the battle about new-equipment upkeep is only the latest installment in a disturbing saga. The union claims that the government’s endgame is privatization, which the government denies.

For its part the government accuses the union of obstructing vital reforms to preserve the sinecures and attendant vested interests of a small group that controls the works committee and hands out positions to cronies and relatives.

There is no need for us here to judge who is right – whether the employees are justly fighting for their jobs or whether the government is indeed out to bust a nepotistic ring that holds up progress to the detriment of all of us.

Wherever justice resides in this bitter wrangle, one thing is clear: even in the context of the most defensible labor struggle, some tactics are plainly out of bounds.

Tormenting members of the public by inflicting gratuitous suffering or outright physical risk on them is unthinkable and unconscionable. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that the Beersheba-Haifa passengers were calculatingly subjected to acute distress. This is no tolerable industrial action. This is out-and-out endangerment for which someone ought to pay.

If no accountability is demanded of the perpetrators of such cruel antics, then we as a society will lose all deterrent and increasingly find ourselves at the mercy of emboldened union bosses. It’s important to stress that Israel Railways isn’t unique. Other powerful unions – including those at our seaports, municipalities and the Israel Electric Corporation – haven’t shied from holding us all hostage, even if not as directly and as blatantly as in this case.

Finally, last though hardly least, is the crucial importance of upgrading our undeniably inferior rail services.

This summer’s social protests sprang from the scarcity of affordable housing. Yet the underlying logic of supply and demand deems that the already chock-full though desirable Central region will also be the most expensive. In the long-run, population dispersion is indispensable, but the periphery remains uninviting due to its distance from employment opportunities, and commercial and cultural hubs.

These prohibitive distances need shrinking by belatedly pulling Israel’s rail links out of the late 19th century and bringing them into the 21st. Backward-looking/violent union politics must not be allowed to stymie this.

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