Workers May Shut Down Ports Next Week

They can strike for a year: new ports will be built, transportation minister says.

The country's ports may be shut by a strike as early as next week by workers opposing competition in the sector, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz warned Tuesday.

Speaking at a shipping conference in Tel Aviv, Katz said he doubted that talks now under way would head off a strike, which could have profound consequences in an economy where 90% of international trade goes through the country's three ports. But the government would not back down on plans to establish privately operated ports in competition with the state-owned facilities, Katz said.

“It will be a strike in vain. Even if they strike for a year there’s no chance to alter the decision to build new ports,” Katz said, adding that “2,000 workers won't be allowed to bring the country to its knees.”

Unions are determined to water down, if not block, the plans to create privately operated ports in Haifa and Ashdod, asserting that competition would come at the expense of wages and work conditions.

Katz insisted he was not opposed to the unions but wanted Israel to adopt the Dutch model, where unions are powerful but not to the extent that neither the government nor management can control the ports' operations, as has been the case in Israel.

Katz even suggested that Histadrut labor federation chief Ofer Eini may have announced his resignation last week because of the port unions.

Edri, chairman of the transport workers' union, said the ports’ managers and the unions had been near an agreement over privatizing government ports and establishing new private competitors. But progress stalled because of the general election early this year and the new government's decision to rescind all previous agreements.

“Workers are under attack on all fronts and people need to learn not to use words like 'eradicate' or rile up the workers with slogans on Facebook,” Edri said, alluding to comments by Katz and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett.

Edri said dockworkers wanted to “divorce” themselves from government regulation and the Government Companies Authority so that they could compete on equal terms with the new ports and be sure their pensions were preserved.

Despite Katz's remarks, Ashdod Port chairman Gideon Siterman and Edri have apparently reached an agreement on many of the issues in dispute, with Siterman criticizing the Finance Ministry, particularly its Wages Division and the Government Companies Authority.

Siterman accused the two of being out of touch with day-to-day life at the ports. “It would be impossible not to comment on the treasury’s steps that make it harder to have a dialogue with the workers,” he said.

“Agreements were reached three years ago, but the director of the Wages Division blocked them. Sometimes we prefer to pay a bit more so that our clients receive better service.”

Echoing Edri, Siterman said government-owned ports should be privatized to be able to compete and no longer be answerable to the Wages Division and the antitrust authority.

Emil Salman