The Histadrut labor federation on Monday declared a labor dispute at the Haifa and Ashdod ports after hitting a deadlock in talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the government's plans to expose the ports to private competition.
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Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini demanded that Netanyahu suspend the international tenders that the government published two weeks ago for building and operating competing ports in the two cities. Calling a labor dispute gives the two sides a two-week cooling off period before the unions can legally call a strike.
"We are not opposed to the principle of reform and the development of new privately operated ports," the labor federation said in a statement. "But we expected the government to agree with us not to infringe on the salary conditions or job security of veteran port workers, as well as to ensure the rights of workers employed at the new ports."
The government is determined make the country's ports more efficient in the expectation that it will help drive down costs for industry and consumers. The antitrust authority estimated in 2009 that waste and overcharging at the ports cost the economy NIS 5 billion a year. But a strike would cost the economy heavily, too.
Tabor Economics & Finance, a consulting company, said on Monday that each day the ports are shut would cost the economy NIS 100 million.
"If the legal and political system imposed 'polluter pays' on dockworkers, they would act differently," said Michael Tabor, the company's chairman, referring to the legal principle that makes the party responsible pay for damage to the environment.
Eini said during Monday's talks that he would not let the tenders go forward until the government reaches an agreement with the ports' workers committee. Netanyahu, after consulting with Transportation Minster Yisrael Katz rejected the demand and said he was prepared to discuss the terms of the reform only while the process is underway.
Fearing, however, that Eini might declare a labor dispute in advance of a general strike, Netanyahu did agree to back down on Monday on another issue important to the unions, namely legislation that would require mandatory arbitration for critical public services, such as electric power, the ports, water and air transportation. As a result, the Histadrut said it would limit any strike to the ports themselves.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid came down on Netanyahu's side against the unions on Monday, calling on the Histadrut to pursue talks instead of unilateral actions. "The [reform] process is needed to move the Israeli economy forward and is a prerequisite for lowering the cost of living and for the welfare of every Israeli."
The Haifa Port workers' committee is taking the hardest line on port reform, while the Ashdod port workers agreed in the past to a private wharf being developed next to the government-owned facility in their city. However, it conditioned its consent on workers at the private port being represented by the union, a demand Katz has rejected.
"Taking the existing union monopoly and trying to impose it on the new port will not happen. Alon Hassan will be joint [workers' committee] chairman of both places?" Katz said, referring to the powerful Ashdod Port union official, who last month took leave amid allegations of conflict of interest.
The Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce on Monday offered Netanyahu a legal strategy for preventing a strike. In a letter from its president, Uriel Lynn, it urged the government to declare a national emergency if the unions disrupt ports in a way that endangers the economy.
The Histadrut and the Prime Minister's Office on Monday did agree on one thing - that they would continue their talks over the next two weeks despite the strike threat. The negotiations will be conducted by Harel Locker, director general of the PMO, and chairman of the Histadrut trade union division Avi Nissenkorn and Avi Edri, chairman of its transportation workers' division.
Netanyahu and Eini agreed to continue talks on two issues - the reforms planned for the civil service, such as financial incentives for outstanding civil servants, and the ban on public sector strikes in areas designated as critical to the economy or as monopolies.