Labor Disputes Erupting Across Israel

Trade unions are positioning ahead of talks on wage agreements for the public sector, postulates an official.

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Close to 20 labor disputes have been officially declared at major Israeli companies and organizations. In the public sector, strife has hit the Israel Lands Authority, the Housing and Construction Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the ports and the Economy Ministry. Meanwhile, in the private sector, tempers are flaring at Migdal Insurance, Israel Discount Bank and Israel Chemicals.

Labor slowdowns by ILA and Housing and Construction Ministry employees have been called to protest Finance Ministry plans to develop rental housing, with the workers saying they are concerned that the program could lead to outsourcing of their jobs and ultimately result in layoffs. Workers are preventing tenders for the rental housing projects from being published and have effectively stopped marketing of state-owned land for development.

Tensions flaring at the Ashdod and Haifa ports between unions and the government, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz in particular, have required the constant intervention of the National Labor Court, which has been seeking to avoid a strike. Still, a strike at the ports now seems closer than ever. At the end of last week the Histadrut labor federation asked the labor court to approve a strike, which would Israel’s disrupt international trade.

At the last meeting between the two sides, the unions went as far as demanding that the government invest 4 billion shekels ($1.15 billion) to expand the Ashdod and Haifa ports as a condition for their consent to building the private ports planned by the government. Government officials rejected the demand.

Prof. Guy Mundlak, a labor relations expert at Tel Aviv Univeristy, suggests the flare-up in labor strife could be due to Yair Lapid, a weak finance minster, and to a leadership vacuum at the Hisatdrut, where Chairman Ofer Eini is due to step down shortly. His designated successor Avi Nissenkorn still hasn’t be cleared to take over. “The treasury isn’t being managed with a strong hand,” Mundlak said. “That could be contributing to the unrest."

Fortifying positions

But Yuval Rachlevsky, a former treasury wages commissioner, said he doubted either factor was involved. “If you’re looking for a common thread between all these labor disputes, I would look to the public sector where hundreds of thousands of workers are awaiting a new collective labor agreement on January 1, 2015,” he said. “That’s a long way away but talks will begin soon and everyone wants to fortify their positions in advance.”

At the Foreign Ministry, where unions declared an official labor dispute half year ago, a strike was about to be called before Steve Adler, a former president of the National Labor Court, was called in to mediate. Adler brought the two sides closer but the Finance Ministry says that under an agreement signed in 2010 civil servants are not entitled to pay increases until next January. Unions have proposed awarding across-the-board increases in job ranks that will automatically entitle them to higher pay.

Work slowdowns have been undertaken by several dozen inspectors at the Economy Ministry. The inspectors, whose job it is to enforce labor laws, are employed under personal contracts, so chances of their winning anything are slim.

Staff at the State Employment Service and the Justice Ministry’s land registry, popularly know as the Tabu, have returned to their jobs after they kept the public away for three days in protest of what they said were plans to reform the system without union consent. The reform plan, however, were suspended after the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee sided with the workers. Clerks at Tabu held 19-day job action, stopping thousands of real estate transactions from being processed and preventing home buyers from taking out mortgages.

In the private sector, Israel Discount Bank has endured labor disruptions for several weeks in the wake of a series of disputes over a new collective labor agreement and management’s decision to introduce time clocks.

At Migdal, Israel’s largest insurance company, employees have been engaged in slowdowns that have sharply cut into revenues as they protest the refusal of Shlomo Eliahu, the company’s controlling shareholder, to recognize their organizing under the umbrella of the Histadrut. The dispute has spilled over into the Tel Aviv District Labor Court, where Judge Dori Spivak will determine whether management is in contempt of an order handed down three weeks ago barring it from interfering in organizing the workplace.

Last week, the Histadrut declared a labor dispute at Israel Chemicals that encompasses 5,000 workers at plants in the Negev. Once the 14-day warning period has elapsed, workers will be legally entitled to engage in a slowdown or go out on strike.

Behind the dispute is concern by the workers over layoffs under the company’s streamlining plan. The first round of firings began two weeks ago at the company’s Rotem Amfert Negev division, despite management assurances that every cutback would take place in consultation with unions. The company is offering laid-off employees an 800,000-shekel ($229,000) severance pay and a monthly salary of 21,000 shekels until retirement.

Ashdod port. Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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