A glass factory and shattered hopes
A visit to Phoenicia America-Israel – yet another Israeli industrial icon in danger, a flagship that is about to sink.
It's not Hatzor Haglilit, with its Pri Hagalil canned goods factory. The parking lot in the Zipporit industrial zone in the Lower Galilee is full of late-model cars, many of them bearing the company symbol. An American flag is waving opposite them in the hot wind, alongside the flags of Israel and of the company, reflected in the dark glass windows which were produced by the plant. The name of the company - Phoenicia America-Israel (Flat Glass ) Ltd. - is written in English and Hebrew, but the English letters are bigger and more prominent from a distance.
Only the large chimneys remind us that this is plant belonging to an old Dickensian heavy industry, of the type that is gradually disappearing from the local landscape. Although at first glance this may look like a high-tech company - featuring an environmental sculpture resembling a bubbling stream of glass fragments, with green lawns alongside - the kilns inside operate at 1500 degrees Celsius in the shade, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, turning Negev sand into flat glass for the facades of high-rise apartments and modern office buildings, armored glass for security purposes, and the like.
The glass factory is on the verge of shattering, yet another Israeli industrial icon in danger, a flagship that is about to sink. Even legendary television news anchor Haim Yavin was employed here in his youth for a few days as a metal worker, until he realized the work was not for him. No less veteran than the now-forgotten Ata clothing factory, its former neighbor in the Haifa Bay town of Kiryat Ata, it is now liable to close its doors. The price of fuel is increasing and the price of glass is declining, and this industry is also wandering toward the East.
But here, for the time being, there is no Pini Garuv, who led the struggle to keep Ata from closing, to enlist fired-up activists to man the barricades. For now there is an obedient workers committee. This week we sat for a long time with two members of the committee, chairman Haim Katri and Zion Shmueli, and we discovered that we were facing a virtual bunker: They had only good words for their factory and, particularly, for its succession of managers; together with the latter, the two are preventing journalists from entering the factory or even conversing with its workers, so that things won't heat up unnecessarily. Several times we thought we were talking to the PR people hired by the management, rather than with members of the workers group.
Pri Hagalil it isn't. There, in Hatzor Haglilit, there is a militant workers committee, with a charismatic chairman. There, the conditions are tougher, the salaries are lower, the poverty and distress of the workers more egregious - and yet the financial difficulties of the glass plant are actually greater: Phoenicia's debts have already soared to about NIS 123 million, a heavy burden even for the American owners of the plant, which was established in 1934 as a family business by immigrants from Central Europe. Later it became a leading Koor (Histadrut-owned ) plant, until the American glass giant Guardian Industries acquired it and turned it into Phoenicia America-Israel.
The American owner also moved the factory from its former location in the Haifa Bay to this modern industrial zone outside Nazareth, and separated it from the company's smaller bottle-making enterprise, which is now in Yeruham, under different ownership. On the site in Haifa where Phoenicia stood for decades there is now a shopping mall, of course: Hutzot Hamifratz.
The Zipporit industrial zone is surrounded by Arab villages on all sides: Mashhad, Kafr Kana and Arab al-Hab. Nonetheless, property taxes from the industries situated there flow into the coffers of the Jewish Upper Nazareth municipality, even though the town's roofs can barely be seen from here, peeking out on a mountain, even on a day with very good visibility. For its part, the Kafr Kana industrial zone, for example, is not much more than a melange of empty lots filled with construction waste: two or three workshops for marble and stone, a small plant for solar heaters and a sea of iron junk tossed everywhere.
Since journalists are not allowed to enter Phoenicia, we meet with the workers committee people in a trailer next to the factory entrance - around a gigantic table made, naturally, of reinforced glass. These are employees of a plant that as of last week has been under a court-ordered stay of proceedings (just one legal step before bankruptcy), with a trustee running it. These people still want to come across as being very optimistic: They won't burn tires or block roads here so as not to thwart the trustee's efforts to find investors for the collapsing plant.
Haim Katri has been working in the factory for 27 years, the third generation of his family at Phoenicia, a vestige of the days when parents brought their children in to work in this desirable place of employ - like they do for the Israel Electric Corporation, the ports or the airports authority. Katri's grandfather, Haim, brought his own son Yitzhak to work there, and Yitzhak then brought his son, the current workers committee chairman, named after his grandfather. The grandfather was a porter, the father was a carpenter and Haim is a forklift operator. A veritable local dynasty.
There are about 400 employees in the plant today, only a handful of them temporary, non-salaried workers. Most earn more than minimum wage during their shifts, an average of NIS 5,000-6000 a month; it's a good place to work. There are 80-90 Arab workers, 100-150 Russian immigrants and some 30 women. Only about one-third of Phoenicia's output is for the local market, with the rest going to export.
A veteran employee who goes to smoke a cigarette outside the plant tells us through the automatic gate that he misses the days of Koor: "The atmosphere in the plant was much better, there was more solidarity among the workers and better relations with management."
But Katri insists on saying there's no difference at all. All the managers and all the owners have been satisfactory and there's been no deterioration of conditions, he says: "The conditions are the same and the atmosphere is the same." Workers committee member Zion Shmueli, who comes from Azerbaijan, has been at Phoenicia for 23 years and sports a tiny earring, nods his head in agreement.
Both men are proud of the fact that for 13 consecutive years their plant received a citation from the Council for a Beautiful Israel; they speak of free breakfasts, subsidized lunches that cost NIS 2 or NIS 3, extremely strict safety conditions and protection for the workers, and showers: "The relations with management are very good. There's integrity. We anticipate the factory continuing to exist. We're informed about everything."
The two cite statistics they received from the management - "In 2007 we bought a ton of fuel oil for $300 and sold a ton of glass for $360. In 2011 we paid $700 for a ton of fuel oil and the glass went for $260" - and report everything in the first person plural.
Still the workers say they were surprised when they were called in by their bosses last week and informed of the stay of proceedings and the appointment of a trustee - whom they are already praising, too.
"We don't have to describe to you how people received this news," says Katri. "Since then people here have been under pressure, in a state of uncertainty. They don't know where they're going. There was a time when you knew that if you worked at Phoenicia, you had a job forever. Today you know nothing. We're trying to reassure people, to be in touch with the Histadrut labor federation, with which we have close cooperation. We hope that an investor will be found and the government will help out."
The employees say they've calculated that Phoenicia supports 8,000 families, if one includes those of subcontractors.
The workers add that they are waiting for a new natural gas pipeline running from the Mediterranean to be laid, which they hope will be paid for in part by the government; the gas it is supposed to deliver will greatly lower production costs. Until then, they expect government assistance.
Meanwhile, work carries on as usual, Katri and Shmueli say, and two weeks have been allotted in which to find a solution to the factory's financial ills. In the absence of a solution, the employees will reconsider their moves and then perhaps go out to battle.
The trustee, an accountant names Chen Bardichev, has already told the employees that the situation is bad, but he has not lost hope of finding investors and saving the plant. "We want to be optimistic," says Shmueli.
Adds Katri: "We haven't chosen to resort to a strike, not at the moment. We want to give the trustee a chance to work in peace and quiet. We don't want to interfere with his work. ... We have to give him a chance and won't stand by with a stopwatch. The situation is unpleasant but we're all in agreement. We hope we've chosen the right way.
"We're not people who cause riots. The workers depend on us. The moment we reach the conclusion that we've exhausted our options, we'll think again. We have a contingency plan, but let's be optimistic. An investor who comes here will get a functioning factory. He'll come to a high-tech plant with a new kiln that has another 17 years of operation, and a nonpolluting chimney costing NIS 4 million, and a lot of robotics too."
Afterward we asked to meet with some rank-and-file activists, but the workers committee people say: "The kiln is liable to fail. It's not a kiln where you push a button. Rekindling it is a huge process. They have to be next to the kiln all the time."
We drove off.