Israeli train drivers call in sick, despite agreement to scale back strike
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Israeli train drivers call in sick, despite agreement to scale back strike

Workers’ union denies accusation by management that it is quietly continuing labor action in dispute over drivers’ work hours

Illustrative: A train pulling through the Hefer Valley, Israel. June 24, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Illustrative: A train pulling through the Hefer Valley, Israel. June 24, 2013. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Several train drivers called in sick on Wednesday morning in what Israel Railways management claimed was part of an unofficial continuation of a strike, which the workers had agreed to end the day before.

The Israel Railways workers’ union, which had previously called on staff to restrict train operations in various ways, including taking sick days, denied that it was behind the rash of absentees.

In an ongoing labor dispute, train drivers are demanding steps be taken to lessen their workload, which is slated to increase as the nation’s rail grid undergoes a long-planned expansion.

Israel Railways said in a statement the union is “continuing [stoppages] and harming passengers.”

Channel 12 television published a screen capture, apparently from a staff tracking system, which showed that three drivers notified they were not coming in due to illness, all within a minute. A few minutes later another driver reported that a replacement had not turned up.

“If the union’s illegal action continues, there will be no other option than to cancel passenger trains,” the statement said, noting that managers were striving to keep normal services running by drawing staff from other parts of the company to fill in for the absent drivers. It advised passengers to stay updated via the Israel Railways website and phone app.

“Despite the Histadrut [labor federation’s] announcement of an end to the strike measures, this morning the workers’ union has gone back to its old practice,” an Israel Railways statement said, referring to a Histadrut commitment on Tuesday to stop sanctions impacting passenger and cargo trains.

The union said it would still apply other measures against infrastructure work and staff training as the work dispute drags on.

The union responded on Wednesday by denying it was deliberately taking strike action and accusing management of a smear campaign.

“Once again the railroad’s management is choosing to start a quarrel and to slander the workers,” the union said in a statement. “All the trains are working and there is no order from the union to be absent from work. Since yesterday all the train operations — passengers trains and freight trains — have returned to normal. The restrictions taken at other [Israel Railways] sites don’t impact the operation of the trains.”

Train tracks and the Ayalon highway in central Tel Aviv, with the Azrieli Towers as a backdrop, December 18, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At a Tuesday meeting between representatives of the Histadrut, the Israel Railways workers’ union and the larger transportation workers’ umbrella union, it was agreed to end two days of work stoppages which had cut into passenger and freight services. In announcing the new understanding, the Histadrut said it would turn to labor courts and ask it to rule on the drivers’ work dispute.

Also on Tuesday, Israel Railways said it would file a complaint with police against union members due to drivers nationwide, who stalled trains for five minutes as a warning strike after management walked away from talks earlier in the day.

Israel Railways said the action was “a misuse of position, breach of trust and a disruption to the working public” and amounted to the “kidnapping” of tens of thousands of passengers stuck in motionless trains.

With the national election approaching on April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the train strikes to attack a senior member of his main election rival, the Blue and White party, warning on Tuesday that if Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn becomes finance minister, it will lead to the whole country going on strike.

Nissenkorn charged in response that Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for the past 10 years, was “looking for someone to blame for failures of his own leadership, and for his and the transportation minister’s disgraceful failure to look after the country’s public transportation,” saying the current crisis had its roots in the Netanyahu government’s failure to ensure the purchase of sufficient train cars to meet rising demand.

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