Labor Court Rejects Union Bid to Strike at Ports, for Now

Judges tell Histadrut labor federation and government to report back April 24 on any progress being made in talks.

Ilya Melnikov

In a major setback for the Histadrut labor federation, the National Labor Court rejected Sunday a petition that would allow it to strike, in protest at the government’s planned ports reform.

“Discussions and negotiations between the two sides are still far from being exhausted … at this stage,” a panel of judges, led by court President Yigal Plitman, wrote in its decision. “Particularly because we are talking about a strike at two ports and its impact on the economy, it is premature to permit the use of the weapon of last resort of a strike.”

The court instructed the two sides to negotiate intensively between now and April 24, when they will report back on any progress.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz quickly claimed victory over the labor unions, posting a picture online of Alon Hassan – chairman of the Ashdod Port workers’ committee – with the word “expired” beneath it.

Katz has been leading the government’s fight to introduce competition into port services – currently a state monopoly – by developing two privately operated competitors at Israel’s two biggest ports, Ashdod and Haifa.

The government says the unions have blocked all efforts to make the state-owned ports more efficient.

The Histadrut asked the court two months ago for permission to strike, saying talks over reform had reached a dead end.

In a hearing a month ago, Plitman proposed two negotiating frameworks to restart the talks but refused to call off a tender the government is now conducting to develop the two private ports.

Both sides rejected the court’s proposal for a mediator to join the talks. While the government agreed to resume them under the court’s aegis, the labor federation refused so long as the ports tender remains.

The court was critical of the unions’ stance, noting that the government had agreed to reduce the initial size of the private ports and to deepen the state-owned ports, all with the same aim of levelling the competitive playing field, as well as creating a financial safety net for dock workers.

“Our impression is that the sides have made some progress and taken the first steps toward an agreement,” the judges said. They concluded that the government had been unwilling to negotiate at the outset, but had gradually become more flexible. Therefore, it rejected union claims that the state was negotiating in bad faith.