The unreasonable seaport strike

If we didn’t know better, we’d subscribe to the conspiracy theory, whereby the Treasury is actually elated about the seaports strike.

By
January 5, 2011 23:28
3 minute read.
Haifa port

haifa port 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

If we didn’t know better, we’d subscribe to the conspiracy theory gaining currency in Israel’s business sector, whereby the Treasury is actually elated about the seaports strike.

According to speculation spawned by exasperated importers and exporters, this strike – despite the palpable damage that every single hour of inactivity at the ports causes the economy – makes the Finance Ministry look good, while the Histadrut appears to have leapt headlong into an open trap.

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Until the strike call last Monday, it was the Treasury that was receiving unremitting bad press for its refusal to up the minimum wage. But then, with confounding bad timing, none other than the labor federation divested itself of its advantage and diverted attention away from the struggle for the weakest components of the workforce. Instead, it threw its weight aggressively behind some of the public sector’s highest earners.

In so doing, the Histadrut may have unmasked some of its own damaging misorientations. As too often in the recent past, the Histadrut is allowing itself to be perceived as the guardian of the strongest and most powerful unions, capable of resorting to the most blatant bullying tactics. Incongruously, it thereby risks causing damage to the cause of the economy’s real have-nots – the very groups who most require Histadrut protection.

As a result of the port strike, public discourse is now revolving around employees earning an average of NIS 23,000 a month rather than those whose gross income doesn’t reach NIS 4,000. With this cardinal blunder, the Histadrut has allowed the government to appear as staunchly defending the public against extortion rather than as a bureaucracy that ignores the need of the working poor.

IT WAS actually ministerial mismanagement that rendered the present confrontation inevitable.

When the previous government, under Ehud Olmert, contracted the ports reform in 2005, it gave employees extraordinarily generous terms to facilitate the overhaul. This grievously undermined future governments’ bargaining positions.

Owing to the deal struck five years ago, the port workers’ average wage had risen by 35 percent in the interim, to say nothing of a NIS 100,000 grant per employee to cement the reform.

The Histadrut claims that it is now fighting on behalf of new crews who began working at the ports post-2005. But this is disingenuous.

Intrinsic linkage means that any sub-grouping’s gain automatically increases wages for all others – in this case an overall 15% and a new top-scale grade.

Moreover, even new port workers already take home much more than the national average. The typical “second generation” rookie port worker earns a monthly NIS 13,500, which constitutes a 50% rise since 2005. Given these figures, the government was inordinately generous to even offer port employees the 6.25% hike given other public sector personnel.

Ironically, many workers in many sectors, for whom the Histadrut should look out, stand to suffer for the port workers’ exaggerated demands, and the Histadrut’s pliability. Omnipotent unions are paralyzing the economy, and threaten to shut down numerous plants, cause mass layoffs, cost Israel valuable foreign markets and lose it credibility, with incalculable longer-term damage.

While the entire economy may grind to a halt, the veritable last waltz on the Titanic goes on. Industrialists alone voice alarm. The equanimity with which the ongoing mega-sabotage at the country’s seaports has thus far been generally received borders on the surrealistic.

Yet the unions vow to settle for nothing less than putting the ports themselves up as collateral for wages and perks. This constitutes undisguised intimidation in the cause of monopolist control – exploiting public property to hold the public hostage.

No society can allow itself to be held up this way. Union chieftains must be made personally accountable for the damage they are wreaking. At this juncture, only the courts can, once and for all, halt the heartless dispute. It threatens all Israelis – including those who seem complacently oblivious to it.


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