The Histadrut labor federation and management of Israel Chemicals Ltd. were reportedly close to a deal Sunday night that would end months of labor actions on planned layoffs.According to Channel 2, the two sides have agreed that just 40 workers would be laid off, instead of 115, at its plants in the South, and that even those would be postponed until the end of the year and come with retirement packages. Channel 10 reported that the layoffs would be confined to workers over the age of 55 and include continued salary payments of NIS 12,000 a month for 10 years, twice the time period ICL management had offered earlier in the day. The Histadrut had rejected that offer.As of press time, ICL would not confirm that a deal was close or that the details were accurate.The reported breakthrough follows a day of strikes in Dimona, Yeroham and Arad; in Dimona, thousands of protesters picketed and secondary education was canceled.The strike, which follows the swearing in of the new government, picks up where it left off just before the March 17 election.At that time, Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn had promised to “shut down the South” and held labor protests in city after city in the runup to the polls.The protests were an early challenge for the new government and its ministers, as well as the new opposition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened with his new Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Economy Minister Arye Deri, and promised action in a meeting with Dimona Mayor Benny Biton. Kahlon and Deri vowed to head up a task force on ways to invest in the region.“I told the ministry people that I want to see unemployment going down every month, including through the Capital Investment Encouragement Law. Very quickly the situation will change and it will be a pleasure to live here,” said Deri, who also holds the portfolio for Negev and Galilee development.Biton pushed for a plan that would open six new factories to help the ailing economy.“This city was hit hard on the Israel Chemicals issue, but I believe this issue will be over this week,” he said.Netanyahu told Nissenkorn he would facilitate contacts with ICL management. Likud MK Miki Zohar, who is the party’s representative to the Negev, called for a quick deal.“This dragging out and the uncertainty aren’t good for the families. We have to end this saga for the benefit of the entire Negev,” he said.Opposition leader Isaac Herzog made no bones about who he thought was to blame for the ongoing problem.“Netanyahu threw billions of shekels away in order to build a factory for his survival in Jerusalem, a factory that has just 61 workers, but to each of them he gave NIS 20 million,” he said, referencing expensive promises Netanyahu made to put his governing coalition together. Herzog said he would seek 40 MK signatures to force a Knesset discussion on the issue, which Netanyahu would be required by law to attend.For its part, Israel Chemicals said it invests NIS 1.5 billion every year in the Negev, where it accounts for a fifth of all economic activity. The company tried to fend off the possibility of the government using its “golden shares” in the company – a special minority ownership that allows it to intervene on certain issues if the company is “not fulfilling its duties.”Far from mollified, Joint List MK Dov Henin (Hadash) decried the importance of the company in the South’s economy.“It cannot be that one family and a number of wealthy people hold the fate of the South and the livelihood of its residents in their hands,” he said.The company reported strong profits in the first quarter of 2015, though sales were somewhat depressed by the ongoing strikes.