The Solution for Labor Disputes in Israel

A train in Tel Aviv. Labor disputes have led to ongoing chaos at Israel Railways.
Ofer Vaknin

After 10 years in which he could have done so but didn’t, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz finally announced that he will submit a bill requiring compulsory arbitration of labor disputes in essential public services – the trains, the ports, the electric company, the water company and the airports. Katz suddenly remembered this issue only five days after the election because until then, he was being careful not to upset the big unions; he wanted them to vote for him in the Likud primary and for his party in the general election. Now, he’s doing what he should have done long ago.

What prompted his announcement was the ongoing chaos at Israel Railways, which peaked last Friday when, after several safety engineers called in sick, management shut down the entire train system nationwide so as not to endanger passengers. As public fury mounted, the new chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, Arnon Bar-David, who fears the enactment of a compulsory arbitration law, realized that the railway workers’ union had crossed the line and ordered them to return to work immediately. The sick engineers recovered as if by magic.

Bar-David even announced that the Histadrut would set up a commission of inquiry to look into the incident, because he understood that this time, unlike in the past, the government might actually pass the compulsory arbitration law, and then the power of both the unions and the Histadrut would decline. They would no longer be able to easily shut down essential services in order to obtain egregious raises, prevent important reforms and enable the large unions to continue running monopolistic government companies. But due to opposition from Israel Railways’ management and other parties, it’s not clear whether the commission will ever be formed.

Needless to say, this isn’t the first time the railway workers’ union has harmed passengers and ignored management. In February, 35 train conductors announced that they were sick, so the railroad was shut down.

The union’s chairwoman, Gila Edrey, was already ousted from her job once after being found in contempt of a labor court. But in 2017, she was reelected, earning hearty congratulations from the Histadrut’s then-chairman, Avi Nissenkorn. Edrey, who has thus far declared 40 labor disputes with management, isn’t letting management run the company, and the public is paying the price.

But management has also failed. Many trains are late, and some routes are even canceled with no prior notice. Management still hasn’t managed to get the new line to Jerusalem running properly; moreover, the line is already 10 years behind schedule and its cost has doubled from 3.5 billion shekels ($1 billion) to 7 billion. And on Sunday, serious disruptions of railway service in the south began.

Now, the ball is in the hands of the transportation minister and the prime minister. They must make passage of the compulsory arbitration law a non-negotiable part of any coalition agreements they sign with Likud’s partners in the next government. If they don’t, they will be wittingly harming millions of Israelis for the benefit of a belligerent minority.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.