IDF Soldiers to Operate Ports if Workers Strike

Ashdod union chief: Naftali Bennett is a populist cabinet minister who's feeding the public nonsense.

The government is putting together competing plans for how to keep the country’s port operating in the event dockworkers walk off their jobs to protest reforms in the sector.

The Transportation Ministry has begun exploring the possibility of bringing to Israel foreign labor to stand in for striking workers and has discussed the idea with various overseas companies. Meanwhile, Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett has raised the idea of bringing in Israel Defense Forces troops to operate the ports.

Both ministries are also examining the possibility of opening augmented loading and unloading facilities for container ships at the privatized ports of Eilat and Israel Shipyards.

The talk about employing troops is very preliminary, but it signals how big a confrontation may be ahead as the government moves ahead with plans to permit a private port to operate side-by-side with the state-owned facilities in Ashdod and Haifa. Port workers are threatening a strike to block the government’s plans.

The Transportation Ministry will present a plan for implementing new reforms at Israel’s seaports within two months. The mainstay of the plan is the establishment of a private port in either Haifa or Ashdod. A final decision will be made by Katz and Finance Minister Yair Lapid after which an international tender to operate the facility will be published.

“The old idea of privatizing the port companies or floating the shares in them hasn’t proved itself,” Katz told Army Radio in an interview broadcast on Sunday. “Competition is more important than privatization.... Pitting pier against pier is the only way that can lead to competition just like it’s done throughout the world.”

Katz said in the interview that he presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a plan to institute lightening legislation for a bill subjecting essential services to mandatory arbitration if a wildcat strike unfolds at the ports.

The bill, presumably included in the draft of the Economic Arrangements Law, would outlaw strikes in essential services before going through the arbitration between the unions and the government. “If the workers don’t obey the law, we’ll certainly need to adopt measures to ensure the ports’ operations,” added Katz.

A page from Reagan?

Bringing in soldiers was among the ideas raised at a meeting of the business concentration committee, chaired by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. The proposal calls for retaining a foreign contractor to operate the ports on a temporary basis, assisted by the Israel Defense Forces’ engineering units.

The Economics and Trade Ministry’s plan is being dubbed “1981,” a reference to the year when U.S. President Ronald Reagan broke a strike of air traffic controllers that had paralyzed U.S. airports by firing 11,000 striking workers and bringing in military controllers to replace them.

But Katz Sunday threw cold water on the idea. “The army isn’t included in these plans and I’m telling you this as the only one who formulated the plans. It didn’t come from me. The IDF doesn’t operate ports: It doesn’t have the appropriate manpower and doesn’t have the power to enforce the law.”

Shipping companies also cautioned Sunday against turning the struggle over developing the ports into what they termed an “arm wrestling battle.”

“We aren’t in favor of a war,” said Gad Sheffer, chairman of the Israel Shippers’ Council. “We believe that resolve can also be displayed through dialogue. War must be the final means.”

The government has been slowly reforming the ports sector over the past decades, first by reorganizing the ports as three state-owned companies and selling Eilat port to private operators last year. Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to move forward with the next phase of the reform.

“This program has major implications for the cost of living in Israel,” Netanyahu said. “About 90% of our exports and imports, a good part of our output, pass through the ports in one form or another.”

But Antitrust Commissioner David Gilo was one step ahead of the government in determining the outlines for the reform. On Thursday, he informed the two state-owned companies responsible for port operations in Ashdod and Haifa that he intended to declare them oligopolies in loading and unloading of container ships.

If Gilo goes through with the designation, any new port facility built by the government at the two locations could only be operated by another franchisee that would compete with the two major port companies.

The port workers, protected by strong unions, enjoy some of the country’s highest salaries. But an Antitrust Commission study published last month found that the seaports are grossly inefficient, costing the economy some NIS 5 billion a year.

Eli Hershkowitz