'Illegal' Wildcat Strike Shuts Down Nation's Railways

A wildcat strike shut down train traffic throughout the country for more than half the day yesterday until the strike was halted by court order.

The strike, which was called by the northern chapter of the rail workers union, began at midnight Wednesday, though there were scattered disruptions had taken place even earlier. The union did not give any reason for its action, nor was the strike preceded by the declaration of a labor dispute, as required by law.

Israel Railways immediately sought an injunction against the strike, but the Haifa Labor Court issued it only eight hours later, at 8 A.M. And though workers in the south and center of the country decided to honor the injunction, only three and a half to four hours later was train service in these areas finally running normally again.

The union's northern chapter, in contrast, initially decided to ignore the injunction. Only at a follow-up court hearing, which took place at 1 P.M., did it finally agree to resume service, and actually getting the trains running then took additional time. Thus service to and from the north remained shut down until mid-afternoon.

The Histadrut labor federation repudiated the strike as "illegal" and "irresponsible," and Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini said he would begin immediate proceedings to oust every member of the chapter's workers committee. "The Histadrut will not allow committee members to take wildcat action, without the Histadrut's permission and in defiance of its instructions, that also causes unnecessary harm to the public," he said.

The harm was felt widely, since Thursday, when soldiers and students head home for the weekend, is Israel Railways' busiest day. Naval crews with leave from their Haifa base, for instance, found themselves unable to get home: The trains were not running, and the buses were consequently jammed.

"I haven't been home for two weeks, and this morning I was supposed to go on weekend leave," one said bitterly as he gave up and returned to base.

There were also many frustrated drivers on the roads, as people who would normally have taken the train resorted to driving instead, generating traffic jams.

Even taxi drivers who had hoped to make a killing from the strike found themselves disappointed, as would-be train travelers nevertheless passed them by. "It's mostly soldiers here, and they don't have money," explained one driver as he gave up and left.

Though the northern chapter has yet to explain why it called the strike, its workers committee has been on edge ever since three senior committee members were arrested on suspicions of bribery, fraud and breach of trust a month ago.