Aviation strike
Nothing much moving at Ben-Gurion Airport, April 21, 2013. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Ben-Gurion International Airport will completely shut down on Tuesday at 5 A.M. for at least several hours as Airport Authority workers launch a strike in solidarity with workers at Israel’s three airlines, the Histadrut labor federation announced on Sunday.

Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini said, however, that the strike would be averted if a solution is found.

All El Al flights scheduled to depart before 9 P.M. Tuesday have been canceled.

The unions of Israel’s three airlines − El Al, Arkia and Israir − have begun an open-ended strike over the Open Skies agreement approved by the cabinet. The accord is expected to expose Israel and 27 European Union countries to mutual competition. The Israeli airlines claim the agreement will badly hurt their income and lead to heavy job losses.

In announcing the solidarity strike, Eini called on Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to enter immediate negotiations to “find a solution to prevent the collapse of Israel’s airlines and thousands of job losses.”

While Histadrut officials claim they do not oppose the Open Skies accord in its entirety, a union official said: “We want to ensure that no employee of El Al, Arkia or Israir will suffer from the new arrangement, either by being fired or due to a negative impact on benefits or working conditions. This could all happen under the pretense of increasing efficiency.”

The accord was approved by the cabinet on Sunday as employees of El Al, Arkia and Israir demonstrated outside the Prime Minister’s Office. Eini had called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone the decision by a month, allowing for more time to negotiate issues such as employee benefits. But Eini’s efforts proved fruitless, and the Open Skies agreement was approved by a sound majority of 16 ministers. Three ministers opposed the accord − Amir Peretz ‏(Hatnuah‏), Yitzhak Aharonovitch ‏(Yisrael Beiteinu‏) and Sofa Landver ‏(Yisrael Beiteinu‏).

“The Open Skies agreement with the European Union is intended to open up flight routes between Israel and EU members, which will lower the costs of flying from Israel to Europe, as well as opening up unlimited new destinations in these countries,” the proposal brought before the cabinet stated on Sunday.

The accord is to be implemented gradually over a period of five years so Israeli carriers would have time to adjust to the changes.

According to the government’s resolution, Lapid and Katz will have 45 days to answer questions raised by cabinet members regarding the agreement. Their answers are to be given at a cabinet meeting during the next month and a half.

Netanyahu said after the cabinet vote that “the aim of the reform is to lower the price of flying to and from Israel, and to increase the number of tourists.

“I applaud the ministers of finance and transportation who strived to pass this reform, which has been on the table for many years,” he said. “We will continue to bring about reforms that will reduce the cost of living and make services to citizens of Israel more efficient.”

Lapid declared Sunday that “the Open Skies agreement is good for Israel. It will reduce prices and increase competition, and will not cost jobs but rather do the opposite.” He noted that the Manufacturers’ Association estimates that 10,000 new jobs will be created as a result of the accord.

Lapid added that the agreement will not be implemented until April 2014. Once the agreement is ratified, he said, the government will hold discussions with the airlines to address issues such as how to balance improved efficiency with employees’ needs and security requirements.

Katz also gave his blessing to the new agreement, saying it was “a day for celebration by Israel’s residents.

“This is the first significant step taken by the government toward a more equal sharing of the burden,” Katz said. “The agreement will lead to competition and a drop in prices.”

Meanwhile, Asher Edri, head of El Al’s labor union, said he was “saddened by the decision,” and charged that “Transportation Minister Katz misled cabinet members.”

Eliezer Shkedi, El Al’s CEO, said the government’s approval of the agreement is “a harsh decision that prevents Israeli airlines from competing in a fair, equitable manner. The approval of the agreement will weaken the position of the Israeli carriers. The government has not recognized the need to maintain stable Israeli carriers, which, in times of emergency, would be the means of transport to and from Israel.”

Shkedi added that the decision might have serious consequences for Israeli airline employees.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich called on the government to implement the Open Skies agreement gradually and carefully while holding a dialogue with Israeli airline employees. “Israel airlines are prohibited from flying to various areas in the world, they have unique security needs and therefore their opening position in competition with foreign companies is completely different, and that must be taken into account,” she asserted.