The Histadrut labor federation on Thursday made good on its promise to declare a labor dispute in the South, a step that opens the possibility of a far-reaching strike there in two weeks.The dispute, which covers unions in both public and private sector jobs, comes over an ongoing struggle with Israel Chemicals, which is laying off 140 workers in its Bromine Compounds plant in the Ne’ot Hovav (formerly called Ramat Hovav) industrial zone, 12 km. south of Beersheba, as part of an efficiency plan.The union says that an immensely profitable company should not have to fire workers. The company argues that it must take steps to pull the unprofitable plant out of the red, and says it offered generous compensation packages or early retirement deals to those it was laying off.“If we allow unemployment in the South or an employment crisis or the throwing away of workers, we will lose the social face of Israel. This is the struggle,” said Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn, calling on the government to use its special shares in the company to intervene. The Finance Ministry has asked to review the company’s plans.Nearly two weeks ago, workers at the plant began their strikes, which eventually spread to the Dead Sea Works plant, where additional layoffs are expected. The Histadrut also began “shutting down the South,” arranging demonstrations in Arad, Dimona and Beersheba, where they blocked roads and closed government offices.The company accused the Histadrut of grandstanding ahead of the national election.“This political strike and the loud, disproportionate protest being expressed in recent days serve the agenda and political interests of certain parties in the election,” a company representative said.The Federation of Israel Chambers of Commerce echoed ICL’s position that electioneering had blown up the issue.“Something like this has not yet occurred in Israel, trying to shut down an entire region over a labor dispute targeting one factory,” FICC President Uriel Lynn said, casting aspersions toward politicians, such as Labor MK Miki Rosenthal, who threw their weight behind the Histadrut.Manufacturers Association of Israel president Shraga Brosh called on the two sides to settle their differences without resorting to a strike.“It is inconceivable that the entire economy will be forced to pay the price of the efficiency plans that ICL management is carrying out in some of its plants,” he said.The economy in the South could not withstand the blow of a strike, he added.