Get Back to Port, You Sluggard

Port Authority workers may be asking for too much by striking and demanding higher salaries. The agreement reached with them was scandalous

If they would at least keep quiet, or say, "We're sorry, but we did not have enough strength to stand up to the committee," it would somehow be possible to understand them. But to cause severe long-term damage to the Israeli economy and to spout off to the media about their accomplishments? That is too much.

Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh picked up the ball when he said, "This is a historic decision. From the beginning there was no room for privatization." They thought so even in the former Soviet Union (10 years ago). But they have learned. The hard way. Sneh is still stuck back there. The fact that all the largest seaports in the world are privately run makes no impression on him. Not even the fact that the government management of the ports has made the Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat ports expensive and inefficient. The fact that there have not been strikes at ports in the western world for 30 years also seems unimportant. The main thing is to pick up another vote in the center of the party. Another populistic point in the struggle toward the next political appointment, and the Israeli economy can go to hell.

Even the director general of the ports, Gideon Shamir, has changed his tune. Once he was in favor of a private Jubilee Port, but he has lately surrendered to the workers. He says the agreement that destroyed the possibility of a private port is "a step up in worker efficiency and a move forward in improving customer service." What a joke. Who knows better than he that the next strike is already on its way and that the queues of ships get longer at the whim of the workers. After all, they have not lost even one half of one percent of their power.

Gad Yaacobi (why was he silent throughout the strike?), the Port Authority's chairman of the board, has also joined the festivities. "This is an important comprehensive reform," he declared. "It is the structural change we have hoped for for many years." Thus Yaacobi proved he has a weak sense of humor. To call this surrender "the structural change we hoped for"? Because it is just the opposite of structural change. The structural change was part of the decision by the Barak government to establish a private platform that would compete with the existing ports and force them to streamline. But now there will be no competition and no real streamlining. There will not even be a reduction in wage costs per production unit.

The workers also do not think for even a moment about allowing the establishment of the three subsidiary companies that would be run "independently." To top it all off, this week the government made the worst possible decision, with the support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Sneh and with the objection of Finance Minister Silvan Shalom. The decision immediately cancels the establishment of the private Jubilee Port, but postpones the establishment of the three subsidiaries until an unknown future date. Now let's see Sneh, Yaacobi and Shamir set up three independent companies that will compete with one another. They'll grow hair on the palms of their hands first.

Shalom should also be ashamed of himself. He should have prevented this ignominy. Has he also ceased to believe in a market economy and competition? After all, it was the workers who suggested establishing "three subsidiaries" to former finance minister Avraham (Beiga) Shochat, but he declined. Shochat knew it was better to wait for a better opportunity to institute such reform than to kill it altogether, as Shalom has just done.

The agreement with the port workers, which has ended the sanctions (for the time being), is scandalous for another reason. It grants the workers a wage supplement of 10 percent in addition to a one-time grant of NIS 38,000 at a time when the finance minister repeats over and over that the economy is in dire straits and government policy is to maintain real wages and no more. But this supplement, in light of zero inflation, is an illogical giant increase in real terms, for a group of workers that earns wages that are among the highest in the economy.