Union Told Israel Electric Workers: Leave Public in the Dark

Some 24,000 households were still without power as midnight Monday because union workers were ordered not to cooperate with emergency measures.

AFP

As some 200,000 households lost power in Sunday morning’s storm and the Israel Electric Corporation declared an emergency situation, the company's union ordered workers not to cooperate with emergency measures. As a result, some 24,000 households were still without power as of midnight Monday.

The union is currently involved in a labor dispute with management over reform plans. At 7 P.M. on Sunday, some 10 hours after the storm, the IEC’s management petitioned the Haifa District Labor Court, complaining that the union was undermining the company’s operations during a crisis, and called on court president Judge Alex Kogen to order the union to halt its actions. The company’s court petition indicates that management completely lost control over operations, even after declaring an emergency.

The union ordered employees in the emergency headquarters to go home at 5 P.M., leaving them devoid of staff by the afternoon, even though some 150,000 households were still without power. The union also forbade maintenance workers from moving between districts, so that idle workers in Ashdod, for instance, could not help their colleagues who were collapsing under the workload in Ra’anana. It also forbade maintenance workers from helping hook houses up to the electricity network, arguing that this was not their core job.

Most of the homes without power were in the Sharon region, north of Tel Aviv, which includes Ra’anana, Kfar Sava and Netanya. Management said the union also blocked attempts to add more grid oversight employees — the workers responsible for monitoring high-tension wires and quickly identifying problems — even though more than 300 high-tension wires had been damaged by the storm. Thus, by evening each region had only one worker performing oversight, on call from home. The union also called on employees not to agree to requests to change their shift hours, leaving the company unable to respond to calls in the evening and at night — one of the main reasons that the company was not able to promptly fix power outages, it told the court.

“A group of workers showed up in the morning and they were told to go home and come back at night. Why should they do that? They have a workday, so they should work during their workday,” said union chairman David (Miko) Zarfati in a court hearing held after midnight early Monday morning. “We didn’t tell workers not to do anything — just to work as usual, in keeping with their hours.”

However, the union also undermined attempts to bring in outside workers as reinforcements, including crane operators. During that court hearing, the union’s lawyer argued, “Sanctions are when a worker refuses to do his job, or doesn’t do it in some way. But the workers carried out their jobs.”

When asked why the workers had blocked outside reinforcement, the lawyer responded that that was an old order that possibly had been left in place even during the crisis, adding, “There are no such orders right now.”

When asked to comment on why this happened during a time of emergency, Zarfati said, “We’re in a state of emergency all year long. They’ll always be telling stories about how the country is facing imminent collapse because of me. It’s all on me — and all the misdeeds by the country and the state just vanish.”

The IEC’s representatives were not amused. “All the arguments we’re hearing are nothing more than playing dumb and making excuses. Even if there’s an open labor dispute, that does not create an excuse for taking unilateral actions when hundreds of thousands of households are without power,” argued the representatives in court.

In a hearing in the Knesset Reforms Committee, IEC Board Chairman Yiftah Ron-Tal admitted the company had lost control over the union and asked to apologize to the IEC’s customers. “From the moment we declared an emergency at noon, everyone is held to that, but something cracked,” he said during the discussion on amending the law governing Israel’s electricity supply.

“I believe the union erred. It’s wrong to take sanctions under such a situation. The moment an emergency has been declared, everyone is called up.”

Under the court’s leadership, the sides reached a late-night agreement under which the union would cease sanctions for 72 hours, so long as the emergency was ongoing.

The IEC declared on Sunday that the majority of households without power would be back online by Monday morning, which it later adjusted to by the afternoon. Yet as of 5:30 P.M. Monday, some 33,000 households still had no power, most of them in Ra’anana and Netanya, and the company could not say when that would change.