The National Labor Court on Thursday took the unusual step of ordering police to bring the heads of the Ashdod and Haifa Ports workers committee to court after they failed to appear earlier in the day for a hearing.
The union leaders defied a back-to-work order issued by the court late on Wednesday, hours after workers walked off their jobs in a wildcat strike and went “underground” in the words of one source. The strike was called without the legally required declaration of a labor dispute or the consent of the Histadrut labor federations.
After port workers failed to appear at work Wednesday night and workers committee leaders defied an order to appear in court the next morning, a panel of judges headed by Ilan Itah issued the injunction.
Histadrut leaders, including chairman Avi Nissenkorn, did appear in court but said they could not find the port union chiefs.
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“We are doing everything we can to bring the heads of the [workers] committees but their telephones have been turned off,” Avi Edri, chairman of the labor federation’s transportation section, told the court.
The wildcat strike was the latest escalation in a dispute between the unions and the government that has seen a labor slowdown over the last several weeks that has reduced activity at Ashdod Port by about 20%. At Haifa Port, it can now take a week to unload a cargo ship.
Unions at the two state-owned ports are seeking concessions from the government as the date for two privately owned ports to begin operations draws closer. The new ports – the one in Ashdod operated by Netherlands-based Terminal Investment Limited and the one in Haifa by China’s Shanghai International Port Group – are meant to compete with the government-owned ports.
Israel’s ports are inefficient, and workers are nervous about the competition. On Thursday, Eli Glickman, the CEO of Zim, Israel’s biggest shipping company, warned it would move the job of transferring goods between ships to ports in neighboring countries.
“I’m very sorry for the escalation in the situation, and especially about the tremendous damage caused to the economy and Zim,” Glickman said. “This is a fatal blow to Israeli shipping and a severe blow to the Israeli economy.”
Because virtually no cargo is transported by truck from neighboring countries, Israeli is more highly reliant on its seaports than most other countries. The Manufacturers Association said on Wednesday that a strike would cost the economy 500 million shekels ($140 million).
Among other things, unions are demanding that the government finance the cost of improving the two state-owned ports to make them more competitive, rather than having the cost come out of the budget of the Israel Ports Company. The Ashdod workers committee is also demanding that its members be employed at the private port being developed in the city, a demand that would effectively undo the whole idea behind the private ports.
At least 17 ships were waiting to unload at Ashdod Port, with another 14 lined up to come in. Ten were held up at Haifa Port, with more ships due to come, spokesmen for the ports said, though cruise ships were still able to dock in Haifa.
With reporting from Reuters.