Histadrut pave way for port strike after negotiations falter

Labor action comes in response to government issuing tenders for building competing private ports.

July 15, 2013 16:06
2 minute read.
Yair Lapid at cabinet meeting, 20 May 2013.

Yair Lapid at Cabinet Meeting, looking official 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

The Histadrut Labor Federation on Monday declared a labor dispute, a precondition for a labor strike, at the Ashdod and Haifa ports after negotiations with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over reforms hit a wall. The unions said reforms, which will allow private companies to build and operate competing ports, would “significantly impact the state of the existing ports and their financial stability.”

The government initiative is intended to induce the existing ports, which command the highest average salaries in the government and have been accused of corruption and inefficiency, to reform themselves by forcing them to compete instead of attempting to change conditions through head-to-head negotiations.

Calling new ports a necessary step to bring down the cost of living and increase the welfare of Israeli citizens, Finance Minister Yair Lapid responded to the announcement defiantly. “The path of dialogue is open, and the labor unions’ threats to strike and aggressive measures will not prevent us from enacting corrective measures for the Israeli public and economy,” he said.

“This is a battle of principle,” said Avi Nissenkorn, chairman of the Histadrut Trade Union division. “The new government has formed a new modus operandi of incitement and delegitimization against workers unions and making unilateral decisions without any prior negotiations.”

Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini was expected to declare a labor dispute, which opens the door for a possible port strike within two weeks, the previous Sunday, but deferred the move when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered to meet for negotiations. The talks, which proceeded until just prior to the declaration on Monday, hit a wall.

Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce President Uriel Lynn urged Netanyahu to head off strikes legislatively. “I would suggest initiating a new legal infrastructure right now, and not after sanctions are imposed, that will prevent disruptions to functioning at Israel’s ports at this difficult time for our economy,” said Lynn. The Chamber’s suggestions included allowing the government to declare an economic “state of emergency” that would allow them to impose criminal sanctions in order to prevent strikes.

“Under no circumstances should the government’s program be delayed due to negotiations with the Histadrut or threats by the Histadrut to put port workers on strike,” Lynn said, adding that the unions should see the reforms as an opportunity to prove that they could compete effectively with private ports.

Avi Edri, Chairman of transportation workers at the Histadrut, said the fact that unions had not yet gone on strike showed restraint, and accused the government of setting out to harm the workers. “Building a port takes 5-10 years, it does not happen overnight, so I don’t understand why they are not engaging in dialogue,” he said.

The government's April approval of an Open Skies Agreement, which took a similar open-market approach to the airlines, led to a two-day airline strike.

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