Historic unionization deal ends Pelephone strike

Management at the cellular company recognize workers' union after heated, four-week strike shuts down some operations.

Cellular phones are displayed in a store 370 (R) (photo credit: Erik de Castro / Reuters)
Cellular phones are displayed in a store 370 (R)
(photo credit: Erik de Castro / Reuters)
Workers from cellphone provider Pelephone returned to work Monday after a fourweek strike, which came to a halt after management recognized the workers’ union.
In a joint statement released late Sunday night, Pelephone and the Histadrut labor federation said that a joint count proved that workers had amassed the one-third threshold legally required to unionize, and that the strike would end.
“Pelephone announces its recognition of the Histadrut as a representative organization at Pelephone. The sides will enter negotiations for a collective agreement,” the statement read. The labor dispute and strike were both firsts in Israel’s cellular carrier industry.
The troubles began brewing in August, when Pelephone rejected workers’ attempts to unionize, claiming they failed to amass the required votes.
Concerned about intense new competition in the mobile phone market, the company said that unionized workers would harm the company’s ability to compete with HOT mobile and Golan Telecom.
In an October letter to employees, CEO Gil Sharon warned that the unionizing issue had distracted workers from their jobs, harming productivity.
“Our business results have weakened in recent weeks due to the loss of focus and attention, and in a competitive market, our failure has been seized upon by our competitors,” he wrote. The workers committee dismissed the claim as a pressure tactic.
In late November, the Histadrut declared a labor dispute on behalf of the temporary employee’s committee the workers set up, paving the way for the strike two weeks later.
What began as a limited strike by members of the IT and engineering divisions soon grew, as additional units and employees from Pelephone’s parent company, Bezeq, joined the action.
At times, the strike got ugly, with Pelephone at one point towing off the company cars of eight striking workers, and employees barricading a work center at another, stymieing international calling services and throwing a wrench in the phone repairs operation.
On Thursday, the National Labor Court validated the workers’ position in a precedent- setting decision, ruling that companies could not interfere or even vocalize their position on workers’ attempts to unionize. The Israeli Chamber of Commerce called the decision an infringement on employers’ rights, saying it would deter foreign investment.
According to Globes, Pelephone chairman Shaul Elovich intervened at the last minute, pressuring management to accept the outcome of a vote count supervised by both sides.
As employees went back to work, Sharon said: “I am pleased that we can resume full business activity and focus on dealing with the intense competition in the industry. I believe that we will reach an agreement that will continue Pelephone’s leadership in the mobile sector as we deal with the difficult challenges ahead of us.”
Avi Nissenkorn, Histadrut chairman of professional unions, praised the deal as historic.
“This is the first time workers in the cellular industry are unionizing and I hope that others will follow in their footsteps.”
Globes contributed to this report.