Port Workers Run Amok at Court Hearing on Reform

Session halted for 20 minutes as workers threatened ministry official, threw object at state's representative.

A session at the National Labor Court on government plans to create two new privately-run ports that would compete with the existing state-owned ones was halted for 20 minutes Tuesday evening last week, after port workers caused a disturbance in the courtroom.

According to witnesses, several port workers threatened the deputy director of the Finance Ministry's budget division, Shaul Meridor, and even threw an object that hit one of the lawyers representing the state, Michal Leiser, in the face.

According to witnesses, the commotion erupted while Meridor was presenting data related to the establishment of the new, privately run ports, explaining why the move was necessary. He was reportedly interrupted as port workers began screaming and approached him. One of the workers is also said to have threatened him.

Proceedings were halted before the court could rule on a request to issue a restraining order barring the port workers from taking labor action that would disrupt port operations. The court is also to decide whether to again halt the state's plans to solicit bids for construction of the new private ports, a process that has already been delayed due to the labor dispute.

"The court expresses its displeasure over the disruption in the courtroom that did not allow the proceedings to continue," National Labor Court Deputy President Judge Yigal Plitman said in a ruling. The court would issue its ruling on the request for the restraining order in the near future, he added.

Hundreds had demonstrated outside the National Labor Court in Jerusalem on Tuesday and, according to sources at the Transportation Ministry, because port workers were demonstrating in Jerusalem rather than carrying out their duties at the ports, disruptions resulted. However, officials at the Haifa port deny there was any disruption of operations there.

"Your people broke up [the court] proceedings and chased the judges out of the courtroom," Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz wrote on his Facebook page, in a message directed to two of the leaders of the port workers, Meir Turgeman of the Haifa port and Alon Hassan at Ashdod. (Hassan is currently suspended from his job as head of the workers committee at the port.) "Now you'll threaten strikes and violence," Katz wrote Tuesday, "but we don't intend to be deterred. We will break up the monopoly, create competition, and once and for all put things in order. Today you have made 15 ships wait outside the port while you went to Jerusalem to demonstrate."

The transportation minister included a photo of ships waiting offshore at Haifa in his Facebook post, but Haifa port officials released data that they said proved that operations actually proceeded at a faster pace than usual, noting there was a larger-than-average complement of dock workers on the second shift.

In other developments related to the future of the country's ports in Ashdod and Haifa, two experts hired by the port workers committees, Avia Spivak and Meir Amir, issued a preliminary opinion stating that port reform that did not allow existing public ports to compete fairly against the private facilities would cause severe harm to port workers. The report was submitted to the court on Tuesday in advance of the hearing that day.

"The [public] ports will be forced to lay off workers, and the wages of those not terminated will decline," they predicted. "The planned reform was improperly prepared. Its details are unknown. It was not coordinated or presented to the port workers, and it does not address dozens of complex problems that reform needs to deal with before issuing international public tenders involving billions of shekels [to build the new ports]."

The experts took the government to task specifically for a plan to build new docks in Ashdod and Haifa before exploring the option of expanding existing facilities.

For its part, the Finance Ministry took exception to the criticism, claiming that the reform plan was carefully developed over a period of more than a decade, and stating that the two experts never met with ministry officials or officials of the state port company that developed the plan.

Emil Salman