The State Is Weak, the Ports Are Not

The work-to-rule sanctions in Israel's ports ended yesterday, and the dockworkers can celebrate yet another victory against a weak, timid government that did not want to stand up to a powerful workers' committee.

The work-to-rule sanctions in Israel's ports ended yesterday, and the dockworkers can celebrate yet another victory against a weak, timid government that did not want to stand up to a powerful workers' committee, because such behavior is not particularly telegenic and does not add very many points in the primaries.

Two years ago, the government led by Ehud Barak decided to establish the Jubilee port in Ashdod. Finance Ministry officials had arrived at the conclusion that it would be futile to attempt to fight the chronic inefficiency of Israel's ports, the delays and the high costs, because the workers' committees control the ports. It was thus decided that a new wharf would be established in the port of Ashdod that would be run like a European port: efficient, round-the-clock activity 364 days a year (over there the dockworkers have a holiday on Christmas, here the day off would be Yom Kippur). The Jubilee port would be operated by a private entrepreneur, chosen through a public tender, and then Israel would discover that it is possible to load and unload vessels all year round, even at night, even on holidays, even on the Sabbath, and at a low cost. That realization would generate competition with the current monopoly enjoyed by the Ports and Railways Authority, which would then be forced to streamline its operations.

However, the dockworkers quickly understood that if they had to compete with a private - and efficient - franchisee, they would have to take their work seriously, increase their level of productivity and allow their exorbitant wages to be scaled down so that they would be able to lower their prices for loading and unloading vessels. Otherwise, the ships would use the private wharf in Ashdod and the dockworkers would be left without work. Thus the moment the decision was made, the dockworkers initiated sanctions and began to work strictly "by the book." The climax of these sanctions was reached this week: The manufacturers just could not take this state of affairs any longer and they obstructed the entrance gates to the ports.

In any normal country, this would have been the job of the government. Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should have come to a decision on how to battle the dockworkers' sanctions, when to issue back-to-work orders and when to begin waging a media war against the dockworkers, who were inflicting massive damage on the economy during the present emergency situation.

However, the three ministers were afraid of a showdown and, instead, the battle against the sanctions underwent a privatization process. The government's role was taken over by the president of the Manufacturers Association, Oded Tyrah, who successfully obstructed the entrance gates to the ports and who simultaneously conducted an effective media campaign, with the result that the ports resumed their work activities.

The dockworkers proved their prowess in the use of Orwellian doublespeak. When representatives of the dockworkers' committees appeared on the media, they made no mention of the planned private Jubilee port, but instead talked about the restructuring plan that the government was refusing to authorize. You have to be endowed with a very good sense of humor to make that kind of declaration on television, because such a statement means that the dockworkers are prepared for such measures as layoffs, reduction of overtime quotas, lowered premiums and cuts in pay. Could the chicken be running toward the slaughterhouse of its own volition?

The truth is, of course, the complete opposite. After Sneh and Shalom capitulated and agreed to trash the Jubilee port project, the Histadrut and the dockworkers announced that they were also willing to pay a certain price - "restructuring" - but on condition that no private franchisee be allowed into Israel's ports. However, "restructuring" is actually a code word for new wage increases - wage increases, despite the fact that, as everyone knows, the dockworkers' salaries are already astronomical. In the report on excessive public-sector wages filed by the Finance Ministry's wage director, Yuval Rachlevsky, last April, star billing was enjoyed by 260 Ports and Railways Authority employees whose monthly salaries range between NIS 35,000 and NIS 84,000, while the average salary of all authority workers is three times higher than the average Israeli salary.

The outcome of the dockworkers' struggle was a signed document that clearly symbolized the government's absolute defeat in this battle. What began as an attempt by the Barak government to twist the dockworkers' arms has ended in the capitulation of Shalom, Sneh and Sharon. The Jubilee port will never be established and the dockworkers will obtain a new collective labor agreement that will, in bottom-line terms, amount to new wage increases. It was also agreed that the dockworkers would participate in the negotiations on the transformation of the nation's seaports into separate independent companies that would, however, be under the Ports and Railways Authority's management. Now that is really a joke.

And that is how the government missed an opportunity to carry out serious reforms in Israel's ports. The ports will continue to operate in their appallingly inefficient manner, the importers and exporters will continue to suffer, the delays and sanctions will resume soon, and all Israelis will continue to pay the price for this state of affairs.