Israeli Port Workers Return to Jobs After Strike, but Some Continue Labor Slowdown

The three-day strike had been held in defiance of court order

A view of the Ashdod port.
\ Ilan Assayag

Israeli dockworkers grumpily returned to work on Sunday after belatedly agreeing to honor a back-to-work order issued by the National Labor Court last week. The workers committees at the state-owned ports in Haifa and Ashdod relented after a four-hour hearing that started at 11 P.M. Saturday. The strike lasted three days and saw the court issue a rare order instructing the police to round up union officials who had failed to appear in court last Thursday.

Port workers didn’t fully comply with the order, however. Even though there was a big backlog of ships awaiting unloading from the strike and the labor slowdown that preceded it, the first shift of workers didn’t arrive until Sunday morning.

In Haifa, the port was operating near capacity, although among transport workers, only 104 of 116 employees showed up, leaving the port short of a team. Nevertheless, management said work was at normal levels.

At Ashdod Port, however, management said that productivity was 15% to 20% lower than usual and that workers were engaged in a labor slowdown, much as they had been in defiance of a court order in the weeks preceding the strike.

“Unfortunately, performance levels continue to be lower than expected on many of the teams, and attest to the continued slowdown as the port has experienced by in recent months,” Ashdod Port management informed the court on Sunday.

Port workers have been protesting competition from privately owned and operated ports that are due to go into operation in the next few years. The state-owned ports are inefficient and unions are concerned they will lose business when competition emerges from ports operated by China’s Shanghai International Port Group in Haifa and another by Netherlands-based Terminal Investment Limited in Ashdod.

Among other things, unions are demanding that the government finance the cost of improving the two state-owned ports to make them more competitive rather than having the cost come out of the budget of the Israel Ports Company. The Ashdod workers committee is also demanding that its members be employed at the private port.

As of Sunday afternoon, there were 10 ships being unloaded and eight others waiting to unload while in Ashdod, 14 vessels were being unloaded and 22 were waiting offshore. Management at the ports said if workers don’t engage in a slowdown, the backlog could be eliminated by the weekend.

Because the workers committee chiefs had agreed to end the strike, most of the hearing Saturday night and Sunday was devoted to the issue of the penalties the court had imposed on Friday on them, which was 80,000 shekels ($22,400) for each of the six Ashdod committee heads and 20,000 for each of the five Haifa leaders.

No decision on rescinding or reducing the penalties was made, but the court will hold another hearing on Tuesday.