Israeli Government Buckles to Unions, Guarantees 1,250 Port Jobs Until 2030

Transportation and Finance ministries do an about-face and promise unions unneeded work at a cost to taxpayers of up to $600 million

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the new Ashdod Port in April 2016.
Ilan Assayag

The Transportation and Finance ministries have made a unilateral decision to guarantee the jobs of 1,250 port employees, granting them immunity from layoffs through 2030 or 2032, despite previous promises to the contrary. The decision, which came as a surprise, was the subject of harsh disagreement within the government and came amid negotiations with unions representing Haifa and Ashdod port workers and with the Histadrut labor federation.

In a surprise move on Tuesday night, the two ministries gave in to the demands of the labor unions. The decision was announced in the National Labor Court in Jerusalem. The Government Companies Authority and the Finance Ministry’s budgets division had vociferously objected to the move, which Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz approved in a sudden about-face, despite his public promises to the contrary.

The guarantee will be part of a new labor agreement, whose details have not been settled. It will include all port workers employed as of Tuesday, including temporary employees. This protects employees should the ports need to cut back staffing as private ports start operating and create competition. It guarantees workers’ jobs for 10 years from the date thenew ports start operating, which is forecast to happen in 2021 or 2022, and for a total of 15 years from the date of the commitment.

This means the government port companies, which are collapsing under the burden of salaries, which equal 52% to 58% of their revenues — cannot dismiss redundant workers even if retaining them is not financially viable.

Economic forecasts conducted a year ago predicted that such a promise would cost the public as much as 2 billion to 2.5 billion shekels ($570 million to $610 million).

Katz, who had promised not to give in to the workers’ demands and not to permit fictitious employment at the ports, made an inexplicable 180-degree turn. It was his ministry that had pushed to close a quick deal with the unions and Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn.

But Katz is not authorized to dictate the government’s stance on such macroeconomic issues, which involve dramatic changes in labor agreements and wages. Katz needed approval from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, but officials at his bureau claimed on Wednesday morning that it had not been involved. The only senior offical who supported the move was the Finance Ministry’s new head of the wages division, Eran Yaakov.

Surprisingly, neither ministry conditioned the guarantee for the employees, known as second-generation workers, on a retirement plan for first-generation port employees, and did not even condition the promise on halting the practice of fictitiously filling shifts, or expanding the number of hours for crane operators’ shifts. Crane operators currently receive a full salary for a shift of only four hours.

Furthermore, it emerged that under pressure from the Transportation Ministry, a mention of the 2015 agreement in principle between the state, the Ashdod port union and the Histadrut was deleted from the agreement presented to the court. That agreement had not mentioned any commitment to guarantee the second-generation workers’ jobs.

Katz is thought to be seeking to avoid a strike at the ports, in order to project leadership at a time of political upheaval.

The Transportation Ministry rejected the criticism on Wednesday, stating that the deal would indeed be conditioned on an efficiency plan.

A figure in the public sector who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity called the promise “simply capitulation,” saying it was “crazy” to force government companies to retain hundreds of superfluous workers without receiving anything in terms of efficiency or increasing their output. ... In one moment the government simply gave up on everything it had demanded over years of negotiation.”