Ashdod Port Union Chief Suspends Self Amid Allegations

Watchdog says Alon Hassan's private business dealings may be hurting the port, and its customers.

Alon Hassan, the head of the Ashdod Port workers' committee and a symbol of allegedly corrupt public-sector unions, suspended himself indefinitely from his job Sunday after Channel 2 TV documented his private business activities.

Channel 2 accused Hassan of operating companies that provided trucking and cleaning services for customers including Ashdod Port. It alleged that Hassan pressured the port to give his companies contracts.

Hassan's suspension comes after the Government Companies Authority delivered a damning report to the attorney general last week detailing his business activities. The report, whose existence only became public Sunday, raised concerns that Hassan's business dealings "harmed the port and its customers."

Ofer Eini, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, said he supported Hassan's decision.

Senior union officials harshly criticized Hassan. "His activities cast a shadow over all [workers'] committees in Israel, most of which conduct their dealings properly and serve the interests of the workers they represent," one official said.

The report, which was prepared by an outside consultant appointed by the port at the request of the Government Companies Authority, also blasted the state-owned company that manages Ashdod Port. On Wednesday, the control committee of the company's board will decide on how to act on the report.

The Histadrut promised that it would back the dockworkers as they enter talks over the government's plan to reform the ports by introducing private-sector competition. But the labor federation said it planned measures to prevent conflicts of interest like those Hassan has been accused of.

"The Histadrut will continue to stand by the workers ahead of negotiations that we expect to begin on the future of the ports," the labor federation said. "The Histadrut's chairman plans to amend the Histadrut's charter to prohibit any member of the workers' committee from owning a private business that has any connection to his place of work."

On Sunday, the cabinet held a special session on port reform, including plans to limit the right to strike at state-owned monopolies including the ports, the Israel Electric Corporation and the railways.

"It will take time to build [private] ports, but this constitutes a fundamental change that we are about to complete," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Over the weekend, the Ashdod Port workers' committee was already under attack by politicians. "The Ashdod Port committee is blackmailing the country, and Alon Hassan is blackmailing the port," said Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.

"Alon Hassan go home," Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich wrote on her Facebook page over the weekend. "A luxury home, a pool in the backyard, expensive cars – the booty from your private businesses . That's how the ruler of a banana republic behaves, not the chairman of a workers' committee."

Hassan answered back with a Facebook posting of his own: "Ms. Yacimovich, I want to tell you that aside from talking nicely, interviewing and sullying the entire world, you know nothing . Yes, Shelly, you are a coward and must be replaced as quickly as possible. We'll meet in the Labor primary."

Since the reform of Israel's ports eight years ago turned the Ashdod Port into one of the country's largest government companies, Hassan has set the rules on the waterfront. He pressures regulators, tells ministers and ministry directors general what he thinks of them, and shuts down work at the port with a phone call. As the Trajtenberg committee on socioeconomic change found, the resulting inefficiency costs the economy hundreds of millions of shekels a year.

Hassan began working at the port more than 20 years ago, joining a crew as a "continuing son," a track of legalized nepotism that still exists at government companies.

In 1998, he was elected to the mechanical-equipment workers' committee, and five years later he was elected chairman of the panel, one of the two strongest among the port's nine workers' committees.

Ilya Melnikov