Two Months After Launch, Strike by Engineers Halts Jerusalem Light Rail

Operator asks District Labor Court to issue back-to-work orders to engineers; court expected to issue decision Monday.

On Sunday, two months after the Jerusalem light rail system was launched, passenger travel ceased due to a strike by engineers. Train operators said they will not return to work until their demands were met. On Sunday, System operator Connex-Israel, a subsidiary of French company Veolia, asked the District Labor Court to issue back-to-work orders to the engineers.

The court is expected to issue a decision on Monday.

Jerusalem light rail - Emil Salman - August 2011
Emil Salman

In the short time the railway has been in operation it has gained popularity among Jerusalemites, with an estimated daily ridership of 40,000. Passenger traffic on the light rail system was expected to double during this week's Sukkot holiday.

On Sunday, Would-be passengers were greeted by electronic signs informing them that service was suspended due to a "illegal strike." there would be no trains. Officials from Connex and CityPass, the consortium operating the network, expressed anger at the strikers, who they said did not give proper notice of the strike.

Representatives of the engineers and of the Histadrut labor federation said a warning letter about the strike was sent out last week and that the companies are well aware of the longstanding labor dispute. Histadrut Transport Union chairman Avi Edri said that 10 months of negotiations had been fruitless.

Yossi Hazan, chairman of the drivers' committee in the union, said the strike would continue indefinitely until management sat down for serious wage negotiations. He said the train engineers earn considerably less than bus drivers.

"It may be light rail, but our responsibility is heavy," Hazan said. According to Hazan, the average monthly salary for a train engineer is NIS 6,000 for 200 hours of work. The striking operators are also demanding better social benefits, including bigger pensions. Hazan said many engineers have quit because of the poor terms of employment, and in consequence the remaining drivers often work 10 or 11 hours straight, in violation of safety regulations.

"We're ready to return to work in an hour," Hazan said, "All they have to do is talk to us seriously."

Connex Israel VP Tomer Bass rejected the union's claims and said there had been progress in the salary talks. "Declaring a strike without due notice and during the holidays is an act of thuggery against the passenger public. The rail operators agreed to most of the workers' demands and even initiated wage hikes," Bass said.