Haifa Port Slows to Crawl as Workers Protest Reform

Dock workers protest reform plans.

Work at Haifa Port has slowed to a languid crawl as workers demonstrate their opinion of a plan to reform all Israel's Mediterranean seaports. The Ashdod seaport has also been subjected to a "slowdown strike," but to a much lesser scale;sources there deny that any slowdown is underway.

Formally the workers’ committee denies orchestrating a slowdown, which would be an apparent violation of a National Labor Court order in effect while negotiations continue.

The workers and their union representatives hope to scuttle or at least rein in the state's plan to build two new, privately run ports that would compete with the existing state-owned ports in Haifa and Ashdod.

The purpose of the reform is to inject competition into the handling of port cargo.

Workers at the ports are considered to be among the best-paid in the public sector, albeit second to the Israel Electric Corporation.

Most recently, productivity at the Haifa port was down by 40% to 60%, following an earlier loss of productivity of 30% in the initial days of the slowdown, which seemingly began last Monday. The workers' labor sanctions purportedly involve steps such as extreme efforts to ensure safety standards, including allegedly unnecessary examinations of technical equipment onboard ships in the port. The action appears to be the result of unofficial instructions from the workers' committee at the port.

In response, the port management said it would not assign workers to additional shifts, and would insist that worker compensation be tied to the level of production. For its part, the workers' committee claims it is actually steps taken by the port’s management that are causing a shortage of manpower and slowdown of operations.

In a related development, Ram Belinkov, the former budget division director at the Finance Ministry, is Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz's choice to head the board of directors of the Israel Ports Development and Assets Co., the agency directing the government's port reform plans.

During his tenure at the Finance Ministry, Belinkov was viewed as an advocate of the port reform plan. He resigned from the ministry in 2009 over a dispute regarding the state budget. The post of chairman of the ports development board has been vacant for three years.

At a meeting between representatives of the port workers' committees and management on Thursday, the director general of the Transportation Ministry, Uzi Yitzhaki, took the workers to task, saying that he viewed the port slowdown with great seriousness. He reminded them of the National Labor Court order banning labor action, but the workers' representatives denied that such a slowdown was underway and challenged Yitzhaki to direct his complaint to the court.

At the meeting, the parties were unable to even agree on the topics that should be on the negotiating table. The state has insisted that the talks be confined to the implications of the reform plan on the existing ports, rather than broader aspects of the plan. Representatives of the port workers and the Histadrut labor federation also want the pay of the workers at the new, privately run ports to be identical to those at the existing ports. They are pushing to have the collective labor agreement at the new facilities match those at the existing ones, and to have the two workforces at the public and private ports bargain as a single unit with the government.

The government is adamantly opposed to any comparable labor arrangements at the private ports, which are being established to compete with the state-run ones. The government representatives cited the workers' committee demand as evidence that wages at the state-run ports are bloated, and ruled out duplicating those conditions at the new ports.

Among the participants at the meeting was the head of the Ashdod workers' committee, Alon Hassan, who had taken a leave of absence after questions were raised about possible conflicts of interest between his own personal and business ties and the Ashdod port's operations. He has since returned to his post. He exercised restraint at the meeting, saying he would intervene only when the discussions got serious.

A second session is scheduled for this evening at Histadrut headquarters in Tel Aviv. A third session is also to be held before the parties report back to the court on October 10.

Reuters