Union Chief: Want to Sell Ports? Give Employees Some Shares

The chairman of the transportation workers union in the Histadrut labor federation, Avi Edri, yesterday hinted at a mechanism that would enable the government to sell its seaports.

"Port workers aren't afraid of change, but seek a worker-partner approach by the government," Edri said at the Haaretz Infrastructure and Transportation conference, in his first comment on the possibility of expediting the privatization of the seaport government companies.

His concept is roughly that reached for Arkia airlines, Edri explained, which involved a sweetheart stock deal for workers. "Certainly if we become shareholders, our mind-set would be different from what it has been up until now," he added.

The plan to restructure Israel's major seaports involves a gradual privatization process for both Haifa and Ashdod. The process would begin in 2010 ,with a public offering of 15% of their shares on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, and possible privatization of another 49% of the companies' shares in 2011. The sale process would only be completed in 2020, with the state placing the controlling share (51%) in private hands.

The past six months has seen growing calls to expedite full privatization due to labor unrest at the ports making life even more difficult for exporters, who are already being slammed by the shekel's steep appreciation against foreign currencies.

Edri hedged his comments, noting that "an atmosphere of privatization" is needed, and that in the current mood of upheavals, and with current labor relations within the port companies, it will be impossible to move up final privatization. In response to the question of workers' demands in case of negotiations, Edri replied: "I won't start the negotiations at this venue - it would be irresponsible."

"Gideon (referring to Transportation Ministry Director General Gideon Siterman) "knows how to find me," he said. Siterman himself opened the panel discussion, calling for immediate privatization of the ports.

The chairman of the Israel Ports Company, Major General (ret.) Yiftah Ron-Tal, noted that successful privatization will require full compliance with the "landlord" model of ports. In other words, the model had to envision ays to make the ports profitable, or at least formulate business propositions with high potential. Ron-Tal suggested bringing in a leading strategic investor, a controlling shareholder and, also agreed that an accord with the workers would be essential.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Labor Tribunal ordered Ashdod port workers to cease sanctions, at the request of the Ashdod Port Company.

A spokesman for the company's management said that handling and workshop workers are staging a slowdown, despite union promises to the tribunal on June 23.

The court rejected the union denial of any sanctions, as well as the labor representatives' claim that the slowdown resulted from technical problems.

It ordered the workers to get back to full-time work immediately. The judge noted that the 2005 ports reform agreement requires workers to refrain from sanctions and strikes until 2010.

Labor relations at the Ashdod port have worsened of late. An increasingly acrimonious dispute centers on remuneration received by workers in the framework of the management's efficiency program. The gap between the parties is currently a large one, say sources involved in the talks.