Editorial: One strike too many

A no-strike rule should be imposed on Ben Gurion which would allow the government to fire aviation workers who abuse the right to strike.

Strike at airport 311  (photo credit: Ben Spier)
Strike at airport 311
(photo credit: Ben Spier)
Some were on business trips, others were on vacation, and there were those – such as Breslav Hassidim returning from the Ukraine, or evangelical Christians arriving for next week’s Succot festivities – who were on a spiritual journey. All had an unpleasant surprise waiting for them Monday at Ben Gurion Airport.
For several hours, well over 3,000 Aviation Authority workers, from air traffic controllers to baggage handlers, following the orders of a handful of Histadrut union officials, shut down Israel’s central transportation connection to the outside world. Intricate business transactions were jeopardized, vacations meticulously planned months in advance faced ruin and the spiritual uplift of arrival in the Holy Land of Israel was marred by the mundane nastiness of a Mediterranean labor strike.
Technically, the strike was legal. State-employed airport workers had gone through the formalities of declaring a labor dispute the prerequisite two weeks ahead of time, as stipulated by law. Union reps had threatened to strike on Rosh Hashana eve, but acquiesced at the last minute to Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz’s plea to let negotiations bear fruit. But after a disappointing meeting Sunday with Treasury and Transportation Ministry officials, a strike was called and maintained for nine infuriating hours, and union hacks did not bother to warn travelers.
LEAVING ASIDE the callous, indefensible failure to notify the public in advance, was the strike reasonable? Sometimes there comes a time when the worker, exploited by the rapacious owner of the means of production, sees no other option. Bourgeois business interests, vacationing privileges or spiritual edification must sometimes be put on hold to protect labor rights.
This was not the case with Monday’s action. The workers resorted to what ought to be the extreme, last-resort act of withdrawing their labor out of a vague concern for the future of their pension fund, with accrued assets of NIS 2.5 billion. They feared these assets might be diverted to cover a huge NIS 5 billion damages payment recently awarded by a district court to residents living in the vicinity of the airport who have been adversely affected by its expansion. Workers wanted binding assurances that pension money would be earmarked solely for workers’ retirement and insurance benefits. The Treasury had already agreed in principle to this demand, and made further guarantees in the course of the bitter strike action Monday.
The idea that a small cadre of union apparatchiks, acting on a kind of pension paranoia, could shut down an entire country is maddeningly preposterous. Not only did these workers unjustifiably disrupt the travel plans of tens of thousands – with chaotic implications extending for hours after the strike was called off – but they also abused the hard-earned right to strike. As a result, another painful blow has been dealt to the waning public sympathy for organized labor.
An airport strike in besieged Israel, unlike the recent airport strikes in Greece, Britain and France, is particularly debilitating. With land travel via Lebanon, Syria, Egypt or Jordan completely or largely out of the question, and sea travel impractical, Ben Gurion International Airport is Israelis’ virtually sole bridge to the outside world.
Aggravating, too, is the fact that Aviation Authority employees, like most public sector employees, enjoy job security unrelated to productivity or talent and are protected from the ravages of the competitive private sector.
According to the most recent 2008 Treasury wage report for public sector workers, the average gross monthly salary of 3,485 Aviation Authority employees – including low-tech workers such as security personnel and baggage handlers – was NIS 14,700, double the national average.
THROUGH THEIR irresponsible behavior on Monday, union leaders have shown they cannot be trusted. Steps must be taken to prevent them from abusing their inordinate power again. The Histadrut must henceforth be forced – whether through legislation or through other means – to require a secret ballot vote among affected workers before launching any strike.
Furthermore, a no-strike rule should be imposed on Ben Gurion which would allow the government to fire aviation workers who abuse the right to strike – just as US president Ronald Reagan did in the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike.
Israel’s only international airport must not be allowed to become a bargaining chip in the hands of a few Histadrut functionaries driven by irrational fears.