Government pushes seaport reform, braces for backlash

Government pushes seaport reform, braces for backlash

Transportation minister takes page out of Reagan's 1981 anti-union moves, threatening to replace strikers with soldiers

Illustrative photo of a container ship at the Ashdod port (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a container ship at the Ashdod port (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

As the government seeks to implement reforms in Israel’s docks, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is preparing for an all-out battle against expected strikes at the seaports of Haifa and Ashdod.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently gave the go-ahead to Katz’s plan to establish two new, private ports. The transportation minister is expected to publish tenders within the next two months to build the first port, either in Haifa or Ashdod, which he expects will be completed within five years. The estimated cost of the port will be NIS 1.1 billion ($308 million).

Anticipating potential backlash from the unions at those two ports, the finance and transportation ministries are advancing a plan to fire stevedores who decide to strike and replace them with IDF soldiers and port workers from abroad.

The plan was dubbed “1981,” a reference to the year in which then-US president Ronald Reagan fired some 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike in peak summer travel season, threatening to cripple commercial air travel. Approximately 7,000 flights were canceled in a single day due to the strike. Reagan replaced the dismissed workers with supervisors and military personnel, imposing a lifetime ban on the strikers from ever being rehired in air traffic control.

“We will be prepared to do this in litigation with the workers, but if that doesn’t work, we will act unilaterally,” Katz said Sunday.

Along with taking measures to prevent a strike from disabling the ports completely, Katz also said that his ministry will seek to outlaw strikes among providers of essential services.

Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, who has been working with Katz on the reform plan, engaged over the weekend in a war of words with Alon Hassan, the Ashdod port workers committee chairman.

In a Facebook post he entitled “The 6,600 people” — a reference to the median salary in Israel — Bennett wrote, “In simple Hebrew: Half of the Israeli population earns less than NIS 6,600 ($1,850) per month.” Inefficiency in Israel’s ports is to blame for the high prices of products that are forcing people earning less than NIS 6,600 to reduce their spending, Bennett charged.

In addition to the ports, Bennett blamed monopolies and the inefficient public sector for “strangling us.”

According to a recent article in Globes, the average port worker in Israel earns NIS 24,000 per month, almost four times the median salary.

Bennett received support in his attack on the ports from David Gilo, director of the Israel Antitrust Authority, who on Thursday declared that the Haifa and Ashdod ports were oligopolies imposing high costs on the broader public.

According to an Antitrust Authority report released in April, the Haifa and Ashdod ports operate at 30 percent less efficiency than comparably sized facilities in other countries. Inefficiency cost the Israeli economy around NIS 5 billion ($1.4b.) a year, the report said.

On Thursday, Hassan, head of the Ashdod port workers, called Bennett a “phony.”

“You have no idea what you are talking about,” he wrote on Facebook. “You are a populist minister who is letting the public hear nonsense.”

Bennett, he said, should “learn something about the ports” before making any statements.

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