What’s Up, Dock? Ashdod Port Worker Tells All

Avinoam Shoshan, head stevedore, says cronyism is good and that he pays enough income tax to feed seven families, which is also good. What’s bad? Ashdod Port chairman Gideon Siterman, for one.

He’s been working for Ashdod Port for 19 years, and sat on its stevedores’ committee for 14 of them. “I’ve outlasted ministers, ministries and treasury officials, and I tell you: The port workers are here to stay,” Avinoam Shoshan says, easily dismissing the significance of the government.

Ashdod Port chairman Gideon Siterman, not his favorite person, will leave before his contract ends, Shoshan predicts: “Like in soccer, when the team isn’t functioning, you replace the coach, not the players. Siterman is the worst coach there is.”

Think of Shoshan as the foreign minister, interior minister and welfare minister for the Ashdod Port workers. Workers with a beef, hapless management, infuriated importers, wheedling exporters he handles them all. Shoshan, “the rabbi,” found religion six years ago and also runs a kollel for Haredi men financed by the port workers. His office features portraits of the great Moroccan rabbis, headed by the Baba Sali.

Two months ago Siterman himself sought Shoshan’s help in healing a rift at the port involving the board’s order to move the CEO’s assistant, Zehavit Ben Abu, to a new job due to a conflict of interest after she married a port manager. A meeting was arranged at Siterman’s office with Shoshan, Ashdod Port CEO Shuki Sagis and Alon Hassan, a dominant figure on the Ashdod Port labor scene.

“All Siterman cared about was Zehavit,” Shoshan says. Tempers rose and finally only Siterman and Shoshan were left. “I don’t understand you,” Shoshan says he told Siterman, “’I arrange a compromise and you go on the attack.’”

Shoshan and Hassan then complained bitterly to Transport Minister Yisrael Katz about Siterman, accusing him of cronyism, meddling in tenders and more.

In one instance Siterman had urged the union to approve the appointment of a temporary worker, a young woman, on behalf of Katz himself, from a minimum wage job to one paying NIS 20,000 a month plus a company car, charges Shoshan. He adds that Katz was infuriated to hear that Siterman had done this ostensibly in his name.

Personal considerations

The board also knows Siterman is driven by personal considerations, not professional ones, Shoshan charges. For the time being, he says, things at the port are tense.

TheMarker: Was it wise to get into such trouble over one appointment?

“Zehavit isn’t the issue,” Shoshan insists. “He was just acting crazy, firing in all directions because after he got the job he couldn’t deliver the goods for the people who appointed him. He said to himself, ‘I’m the chairman of the board, I’m not a puppet!’ and decided to get revenge.”

Eight of his cronies failed to pass the stevedores’ tests, Shoshan said: “I told him my people didn’t pass either.”

You tried to get cronies through the stevedores tender?

“Six, and all failed. Hassan had two fail.”

Siterman commented that out of respect for the port’s clients, workers, management and directors, he would not engage in debate with the stevedores’ committee chief in the newspaper. “I know and respect him. He pursues only the workers’ interests and good deeds, for which I applaud him.”

Cynics view the attacks on Siterman as another attempt by the Ashdod union to sabotage their cozy relations with the port management. Siterman himself has lamented the Gordian knot between Shoshan, workers’ representatives and Hassan, and has hinted that the latter crossed red lines.

Shoshan doesn’t deny close working relations with Hassan. That’s how it should be, he says. “Sagis [the CEO] also started his tenure at the port taking pot shots at everyone. He was told to stand strong against the union. But can a man live with a woman and fight with her every day? They’d divorce in a month.”

So they began to cooperate: “The claim that the union decides everything at the port and that the CEO is a dishrag is nonsense that you media people created,” says Shoshan.

“Ashdod Port is one big family, like it or not,” he maintains. “Cooperation is better than war at bringing results.”

Results? The port’s revenues and profits are down.

“The port gave the state an NIS 350 million check for its profits from 2005 to 2010, even though reform sliced its fees by 20%,” Shoshan replies. “The claim was that the workers are paid too much. Consumer goods also cost too much. So why after reforms aren’t electricity, oil and sugar cheaper? Because instead of lowering prices, importers took the money for themselves. But only the port workers get slammed. Write that I’m willing to finance hospitalization for all those Internet posters defaming us and calling for the military to take over the port, or Chinese workers.”

The fact is that Ashdod port workers earn among the highest salaries in the public sector.

“The whole issue of wages is bullshit and hypocrisy. Port workers earn high wages everywhere in the world because we work based on premiums,” Shoshan answers, and charges the treasury with inciting the public against them. “Seven families are funded every month from the income tax I pay. We’d rather earn NIS 40,000 a month and be hated than earn NIS 5,000 and be loved.”

There’s a difference between NIS 5,000 a month and NIS 40,000 plus coupons for steaks.

“A few years ago the port management saw that the average loading-unloading capacity per shift is just 130 containers. They wanted to boost productivity. In February 2006, without consulting the union, they published a letter to workers promising each team that reached 250 containers on the shift an NIS 300 coupon for a restaurant. We didn’t oppose the arrangement because the workers wanted it. They even stayed overtime and didn’t eat on breaks, working madly to reach the quota. Thus the cost of the coupons climbed and climbed, reaching NIS 4 million a year. Where was the treasury in those years? Why did it only wake up in 2010?

“It may not look good, but the question is how it’s presented in the press,” says Shoshan. “Did anybody mention the economic logic behind the coupons? Those NIS 4 million were invested in businesses around the port, and brought in NIS 15 million in increased productivity. ... They write that we work for steaks. Following the stories, the workers simply got NIS 300 extra in their paycheck. Who’s the loser? It’s all envy and sick people.”

Hard work, if you can get it

It’s hard work, he adds. People work hard and can get hurt.

But 3,000 people applied for 45 stevedore positions.

“Because there are also advantages. ... Net pay is excellent relative to the economy. You know how many lawyers and engineers work on the docks? People would rather do physical labor than work in an office.”

He isn’t unaware of the workers’ bad image. “But Ashdod Port isn’t just Hassan and Avinoam. There are families here, people who serve 100 days a year in the reserves, combat soldiers who fought in all the wars. Salt of the earth, people with academic degrees.” It hurts him that all get tarred in battles being wages against a few.

But it isn’t all about pay. Exporters complain that the whole port shuts down if a union official’s son has a bar mitzvah.

“That’s biased and unfair. The union chairman has an event once every few years and all the workers want to come and honor him.”

Why won’t the port work on Shabbat? Because hard-working people need rests too, Shoshan says.

Yet companies in the international shipping industry can’t do that, can they? Isn’t that what work in shifts is for?

“Let me become a company and I’ll think about it.”

Will you agree to the establishment of a competing port?

“It will not happen. On this we will not compromise.”

Avi Bar-Eli
Avi Bar-Eli