Labor Court Orders IEC Workers to End Strike / Union Will Not Cut Power - Yet

There is a relative lull in the crisis with the Israel Electricity Company's (IEC) employees' union following the government's unilateral progress in the IEC's reform: Employees will not strike or disrupt the supply of electricity to the public. The chairman of the IEC's employees' union, Miko Tsarfati, and the Histadrut Labor Federation announced yesterday that they would obey the temporary injunction issued by the Haifa Labor Court which forbids a strike until at least March 11. Judge Rami Cohen also instructed the state to suspend the legislation process on reforing the electricity economy. The judge asked state representatives present at the hearing to explain why the reform should be introduced in an accelerated manner and without the agreement of employee representatives.

In the framework of the IEC reform, which was approved by the government on Sunday, the company is supposed to be split up into a number of firms that will be dedicated to production, conduction and distribution of electricity and by mid-2013, the production and distribution sections should be 49-percent privatized. The government has yet to start debating employee rights and has so far not yet dealt with one of the most crucial problems in the IEC - the company's huge debt of NIS 45 billion.

The employees' union and the Histadrut said yesterday that they expect the government to obey the court's decision and to suspend legislation proceedings. But state representatives advised the presiding judge that they reject his proposal and assert that the reform legislation procedure can no longer be delayed. A meeting was held in the offices of Minister of National Infrastructures Binyamin Ben-Eliezer between the heads of the infrastructure and finance ministries, Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini and the management of IEC, which dealt with the demand of the Histadrut and the employees that the substance of the reform and the manner of its implementation be coordinated with them.

The pretext for the strike instigated by IEC employees on Tuesday is the Knesset's approval (by 34 to 5) of the electricity economy reform in its first vote. The strike, which has been temporarily suspended at the order of the labor court, resulted in no significant damage, other than electricity outages that occurred in Ashdod and Ashkelon as a result of malfunctions that were not repaired.

The chairman of the Knesset's Economic Committee, Moshe Kahlon (Likud), has suspended voting on the bill for IEC reform to enable the government and IEC employees to reach an accord. This action was taken in response to the demands of MKs Yoram Marciano and Avishay Braverman (Labor) to enable an agreement to be reached with employees before the legislation. The coalition is attempting to raise a majority of MKs on the committee in favor of the bill in order to approve it next Wednesday, before the IEC's license expires on March 3, 2007.

In discussions held in the Economics Committee yesterday, Infrastructures Minister Ben Eliezer said, "If the bill is not approved, privatization of the company will begin next Saturday evening, when the IEC's license expires." He added that the issue at hand is not privatization, but the substantial reorganization of a company that has remained unchanged for eighty years. "The question is how the company's financial stability can be improved - whether the state will cover a debt of NIS 45 billion, or whether we will have to restructure."