Port Workers Ask Court to Approve Strike After Talks Break Down

Unions increase price for permitting competition from private ports; state doesn’t budge

Asserting that negotiations on port reform have reached a dead end, the Histadrut labor federation asked the National Labor Court over the weekend to authorize a strike at the Haifa and Ashdod ports.

The request came after the latest round of talks between unions and the finance and transportation ministries on the terms of the government’s ambitious reform plan quickly deteriorated into acrimony.

Union representatives increased their minimum demands for consenting to the reforms, demanding that enormous additional government funding be poured into the existing state-owned ports. Government officials refused to address union demands for minimum employment terms after the reforms take effect.

A source close to the talks told TheMarker the meeting “left the impression that neither side is ready to reach an agreement.”

The government is moving ahead with plans to create two privately operated ports that will compete with the state-owned facilities in Haifa and Ashdod. The proposed introduction of competition, aimed at making Israeli ports operate more efficiently, has port employees worried that their jobs and pay are at risk.

An extended strike would reverberate across Israel’s trade-oriented economy.

In its petition to the labor court, the Histadrut accused the government of failing to make any effort to hold talks with the unions until Wednesday, when the negotiations broke down without making any progress toward an agreement.

“In light of what has happened, our position is that to our great sorrow the possibilities for discussion have been exhausted and there is no other recourse than to exercise the right to strike that has been granted to port workers and the Histadrut,” the petition said.

The president of the National Labor Court, Judge Yigal Plitman, is expected to rule on the request by the end of the week. He has rejected previous requests for permission to strike from the post unions, insisting that the two sides continue their negotiations.

Wednesday’s talks were supposed to consist of two parts, one addressing the government’s commitment to upgrade the ports and the other with pay and conditions for port employees.

But the talks quickly fell apart after Alon Hassan, the powerful but embattled union leader at the Ashdod Port, submitted new demands for capital spending at the ports. He conditioned the union’s acceptance of competing private ports on the state’s spending not only 700 million shekels ($200.1 million) to convert a bulk freight port into a container port but also an additional 1 billion shekels to develop an entirely new southern port.

Meanwhile, Meir Turgeman, the shop steward of the Haifa port workers’ union, reiterated his demand that a new pier be developed at his port at a cost of 2 billion shekels. The government has said it is prepared to spend no more than 1 billion shekels on upgrades.

The government said the demands were impossible, given the restraints on the state budget, and that fulfilling them would create so much overcapacity at the state-owned ports that the new private ports would be unable to compete. Union representatives refused to back down.

With the two sides at loggerheads over capital spending, issue, the finance and transportation ministries refused to move on the second agenda item, pay and conditions after the reform.

As TheMarker has reported previously, the treasury has offered to guarantee port workers’ pay until retirement, based on wages at the planned private ports. If those wages are lower than the dock workers’ wages were in 2013, the government will cover 50% of the difference - as long as productivity standards are met. There will also be performance incentives.

The treasury has promised not to lay off any port workers in the run-up to competition, but says it will not hire new workers to replace employees who leave through natural attrition, except where needed. Transportation Minstrer Yisrael Katz has taken a tougher stance on that issue, however.

Rami Chelouche