MKs Skewer Train Workers: 'You Don't Own the Railway'

At Knesset session, several legislators criticize railway workers for allegedly shutting down train service with a few hours' notice, causing chaos at the stations and congestion on the roads.

Train service throughout the country resumed at midnight Tuesday after Israel Railways union leaders were fined for ignoring court injunctions against the strike that began late Monday night, but the underlying dispute remains unresolved. Union representatives refuted claims that they failed to give proper notice of their strike plan. While the Histadrut labor federation demonstrated solidarity with the workers yesterday (see box ), Israeli elected officials were less sympathetic.

At an extraordinary session yesterday of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee several legislators were bitingly critical of the railway workers for allegedly shutting down train service with a few hours' notice, causing chaos at the stations and congestion on the roads. The session was attended by labor representatives.

Railways union - Michal Fattal - February 2012
Michal Fattal

"Service disruptions and strikes have become commonplace, but this time a line was crossed," said committee chairman MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen (Likud ). "Given the behavior of the union, the justification for the strike has become of lesser importance."

About 140,000 Israelis take the train every day, Shama-Hacohen said, adding, "The strike turned the trains from a brand in which billions of shekels have been invested into a symbol of contempt for the consumer."

The railway system is not the private property of the workers nor of the management, said MK Ophir Akunis (Likud ), who had called the extraordinary committee session. It belongs to the people, he said.

If Israel Railways employees had a champion in the debate it was Labor MK Amir Peretz, the former chairman of the Histadrut umbrella organization of Israeli trade unions. He said that for years reforms at the government company had been exploited to change the structure of employment. He agreed that a line was crossed yesterday, but blamed both sides: Why were IR's negotiations with labor still continuing after one and a half years without a contract? he asked.

MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism ) interjected that both parties had right on their sides, but in the meantime passengers were suffering.

Israel Railways union head Gila Edrei, who was one of several union officials who were fined NIS 10,000 for contempt of court, said they came to the Knesset session "hurting": "Harming passengers is the last resort," she said. "We sought solutions, such as letting people ride the train for free, but because the ticket sellers are outsourced contract workers we couldn't do that," Edrei said.

She also said that after negotiations had deadlocked the union had the right to stop the trains from running with 48 hours' notice. She said she informed the CEO of Israel Railways, who told her, "Fine with me."

Edrei also accused management of blocking a train from leaving in order to "drum up buzz against the workers. "Last Wednesday a train left Lod for Rosh Ha'ayin and the driver said the CEO told him not to return and pick up passengers. The CEO returned a train so he could say I wasn't letting the train run," she told the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee yesterday. "The CEO heard me say that in court and didn't deny it," Edrei said.

Yaron Zaft, legal counsel to Israel Railways, said he hadn't heard any such statement. He said the union did not provide 48 hours' notice for the strike, and said that if anything the court had accused the union of fraying the fabric of labor relations at Israel Railways.

The union will appeal the contempt of court ruling handed down by the Tel Aviv Labor Court against its leaders, Edrei said.

Urged by Shama-Hacohen to apologize to the public, Edrei said it would if the Supreme Court rejects its appeal.

It cannot be said that the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee session reached any conclusions. Shama-Hacohen called on the union not to cause the public needless harm and ended with a note of fatherly advice. "Try not to hurt your own interests," he told the union representatives. "You have done yourselves no little harm."