Six-month Haifa Chemicals Strike Ends With a Whimper

Workers get bonus - NIS 2,500 apiece - and raises spread over five years.

Haifa Chemicals is reopening for business after one of the longest strikes in Israeli history wound down on Tuesday following six months of strife. The workers are getting only half the raise they wanted under the new collective employment agreement signed between the unions and management.

The agreement, inked on Monday night, does give the 250 workers more money. They get a bonus - NIS 2,500 apiece - and raises spread over five years. But the deal is not materially different from previous collective employment agreements at Haifa Chemicals, which hadn't followed protracted strikes. The workers achieved much less than they'd hoped at the start of negotiations.

A worker adds fuel to the fire of protest in June 2011, when workers barricaded themselves in the offices.

The workers had demanded a 16% annual raise for "generation A" workers, which works out to a 40% raise over five years. In practice, the generation A workers - the ones at the company the longest - are getting a raise of 7.5% (1.5% a year over five years ).

Generation B workers had demanded an 80% raise. They're having to settle for 25% (5% a year ). Under collective employment agreements signed under union umbrellas, workers automatically rise to a higher wage bracket every half year or year. This is called "wage creep." The generation A workers ostensibly get less, but they are eligible for wage creep while generation B workers are not, at least throughout the five-year agreement term.

Another concession is that the wait for tenure has been shortened from five to four years. Nobody may be fired before a hearing held by management in the presence of a union representative.

Management also undertook not to fire members of the labor committee or workers who played an active role in the six-month strike, which forced the company to shut down.

When the strike began, the Haifa Chemicals workers had been represented by the umbrella union, the Histadrut labor federation. But the Histadrut advised that their wage demands were unrealistic. The company's labor committee accused the Histadrut of colluding with management and switched to a smaller organization, Koach La Ovdim (Power to the Workers ).

During the six-month strike, the workers received no pay or other benefits, though the company continued to make payments into their pension fund. If the provisions hadn't been made they'd have lost their pension rights. A small number of workers received partial pay for carrying out essential maintenance jobs at the plant, which focuses on fertilizers for agriculture and chemicals for heavy industry.

Lost income

Altogether, the workers lost some NIS 19 million in pay during the six months. The workers' committee scrambled to find donations to help the workers survive in the interim.

As for Haifa Chemicals, it had to shut down operations; industry observers estimate its lost income at around NIS 40 million. Yet sources in management say the company will still post a profit this year.

If anything, the 44-day strike earlier this year at the Dead Sea Works - which supplies raw materials to Haifa Chemicals - hit the company harder than the six-month strike, the management sources said.

While the agreement may not be what the workers hoped for, it's a coup for Koach La Ovdim. Founded in 2007, it was the organization's first real foot in the door of heavy Israeli industry.

In mid-October, the Environmental Protection Ministry shut down the Haifa Chemicals plant on the grounds that it posed a hazard to the environment because routine maintenance had broken down. The ministry voided Haifa Chemicals' toxins permit and issued an injunction requiring the company to remove toxic materials from the site under the Hazardous Substances Law.

In fact, although the strike is officially over, work at the plant will only resume in stages as the environmental issues are handled. The city of Haifa has been insisting for years that the company move an ammonia storage tank outside the urban area on the grounds that it is vulnerable to attack and would endanger the entire Haifa Bay population. The company never moved the thing, and the city would like it done now.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: נחתם הסכם קיבוצי בחיפה כימיקלים; יצמצם פערים