Haifa
A worker sitting as a crane unloads containers from a ship at the port of Haifa, April 23, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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Employees of government monopolies providing vital services will be barred from striking or taking other unilateral measures to block reforms at their work places, under legislation being formulated by the Prime Minister's Office.

The legislation, which is being devised by Harel Locker, the director general of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, mandates that the government and labor union would be required to submit their disputes to arbitration if negotiations fail to reach an agreement.

The bill also limits how long negotiations can continue before the dispute is submitted to arbitration.

"The monopoly premium of the government monopolies has moved from the owners to the workers," said a senior official involved in drafting the law, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The high salaries and good work conditions in these companies stem from the excess profit of the monopoly, which in a private company goes into the pockets of the owners, but here it goes into the pockets of the workers, who also act like the owners because in fact they control the companies."

The legislation is being prepared as the government is battling with dockworkers unions over introducing competition to the ports, and with the Israel Electric Corporation workers committee over private power producers. Armed with the ability to bring electric power or global trade to a halt, the unions have for years successfully blocked any serious effort at breaking their monopolies.

The latest draft of the bill designates government bodies responsible for health, foreign affairs and critical infrastructure, including the ports, the Israel Electric Corporation, Israel Railways and airlines, as vital services whose employees cannot strike under these circumstances. For now, the education system is not included on the list.

The PMO and the ministries of finance, justice and the economy are working to advance the bill, which is aimed at stemming the spate of strikes and slowdowns at government-owned monopolies in recent years.

The legislation couches the goal of restricting the right to strike as a means of upholding the public's right to control its assets - assets owned by the government.

The bill explicitly states that reforms are a matter for the government alone to decide and that the arbitrators will only have a right to weigh the impact of reforms on the workers' rights. Workers will not be able to strike or file legal claims simply because they object to a particular reform.

The bill also prohibits solidarity strikes, which are considered one of the strongest weapons against the government currently available to the Histadrut labor federation.

According to a senior official in one of the ministries involved in preparing the law, exposure to competition constitutes a direct threat to business owners, while workers only indirectly feel the impact. "But a reverse situation has been created whereby the employees act as owners, fighting against the reforms."

The arbitration body will have authority similar to a labor court, will be headed by a judge and include public representatives.

No 'Italian strikes'

In addition, the bill is also seeking to address the growing phenomenon of so-called "Italian strikes," undeclared strikes or slowdowns that are difficult to stop through the justice system. It is still not clear how the question will be resolved by the bill.

The legislation will include penalties against unions that defy it, although officials are still undecided on what they will be. Among the options are financial penalties against unions, dismissal without compensation, the use of strikebreakers, and withholding wages. As for the right to appeal the arbitrator's ruling, the officials are leaning toward making all arbitration binding.