Netanyahu Opposes Dropping Anti-strike Suit, Risking Talks on Power Reform

Reform talks should continue but shouldn’t be tied to progress on reaching a reform plan for the electricity sector, says Netanyahu

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn at a meeting with Histadrut.
Daniel Bar-On/Histadrut Spokesperson

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided against withdrawing a government petition to the High Court of Justice that seeks to bar strikes by workers at state-owned monopolies, TheMarker has learned.

The decision risks unravelling delicate negotiations underway to reform Israel’s electric-power sector after 20 years of fruitless efforts. The Histadrut labor federation has conditioned continued talks about the reform agreement on the government’s dropping the suit, which both Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz had supported.

Netanyahu relayed his stand to top officials at the finance and energy ministries in a document summarizing a discussion of the issue that was sent to them by Eli Groner, director general of the Prime Minster’s Office.

On Monday, the labor federation declined to say whether it would break off the talks because of Netanyahu’s stance, but sources close to the talks said they expected they would continue. The Histadrut has until February 4 to respond to the government’s petition and the first hearing on the matter is now slated for March 12.

At risk is an agreement in principle reached last month between the state-owned Israel Electric Corporation and labor unions on a wide-ranging program to introduce more competition to the power sector and cut the IECs bloated expenses.

But Netanyahu has expressed concern that without a limit on the right to strike by powerful unions at state-owned monopolies like IEC, the government’s ability to undertake reforms will be hamstrung.

“The question of the extent of the right to strike, especially of workers in the public sector, in which the state serves as both sovereign and employer, has far-reaching and dramatic consequences,” Netanyahu is quoted as saying in the document summarizing a discussion on the issue.

“The government rarely permits the High Court of Justice to hear this question, and therefore my position is that under the circumstances, the petition filed with the High Court against the ruling of the National Labor Court should not be withdrawn,” he added.

Netanyahu has taken the view that the reform talks should continue but that they shouldn’t be tied to progress on reaching the final outline of a reform plan for the electricity sector.

But he expressed concern that strikes launched over reform issues, even when they don’t directly affect the pay and conditions of workers, had to be addressed, citing strikes that occurred over port reform and the Open Skies aviation reforms.

The summary shows that the prime minister agreed that electricity reform has strategic implications for the economy and that the reform is better than any previous efforts, but he still ordered Avi Simhon, head of the National Economic Council, to conduct an economic analysis of the reform before the next round of government discussions on it.

The government petitioned the High Court last June after the National Labor Court ruled that monopoly workers can strike without limit against structural reforms affecting them. At the time, finance and energy ministry officials warned the appeal would cause the Histadrut to back out of talks over electricity reform, but the talks continued.