Antitrust Ruling Strengthens Government Hand in Port Talks

Ruling bars state from holding talks with both port unions simultaneously.

The Israel Antitrust Authority has ruled that neither the unions nor the managements at Haifa and Ashdod ports could participate as a united front in negotiations over the government’s planned reform of the ports, ruling that it would be akin to forming a cartel.

The decision gives the government increased leverage in what are expected to be difficult talks over the reforms, which envisage creating one or two privately operating ports adjacent top the state-owned facilities.

Observers said the government will now be able to limit the scope of negotiations with the unions on how the reforms will be put into effect rather than on the reform itself. It also means that talks will be held separately with each of the ports’ workers committee, better allowing the government to flex its muscles.

The decision came as talks between the Finance Ministry and the two ports’ workers committees got underway yesterday. Union leaders said they wanted a “safety net” that would ensure salaries and conditions at the state-owned ports after private sector competition begins.

Among other things, the workers committees said they wanted the government to guarantee minimal operational levels at the ports in order to ensure dock workers get their full quota of overtime pay.

The antitrust authority’s position was contained in a letter from legal counsel Uri Schwartz sent two weeks ago to the finance and transportation ministries. In it, Schwartz instructed the ministries to refrain from negotiating with one port in the presence of either management or union representatives from the other.

In the event negotiations do unfold in the presence of representatives of both ports, government representatives were instructed to either halt the proceedings or to ask the representatives of one of the ports to leave the room.

Due to the different conditions being demanded by the two state-owned ports as part of the reform, separate negotiations present the government with the option of signing vastly different agreements. For example, the Ashdod Port union supports privatization of the state-owned ports, while the Haifa Port union is opposed.

The treasury has made clear in recent discussions that it would no longer discuss certain topics already mentioned in talks, following instructions from the antitrust authority.

However, as of yet, it has not asked representatives of the state-owned ports to leave the negotiations themselves.

Ilya Melnikov