Thousands of people in three southern cities went on strike Sunday in solidarity with Israel Chemicals workers who are facing layoffs, and to protest the bleak state of employment in the Negev region as a whole.
In Dimona, Arad and Yeruham, city services were shut down, and some schools were closed and business shuttered in solidarity.
An estimated 2,000 people held a high-profile march in Dimona, which first announced it would strike to protest the layoffs, including a number of politicians.
Demonstrators, chanting slogans and holding signs calling for government intervention, blocked Route 25, a main highway leading through the city, for a short time.
“Dimona is like a microcosm for everything that’s happening in the Negev and there’s nobody dealing with it,” Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog said. “Today they canceled the cabinet meeting; they should have had it here.”
Herzog’s own faction planned to hold its weekly meeting in Dimona in support of the worker action.
Middle and high schools in Dimona (grades seven through 12) will be closed, while schools in Arad and Yeruham will remain open, though all municipal services will be shut down for the day in all three cities.
The protest is designed to draw national attention to what locals and others say is a worsening situation for the working-class towns, where a string of layoffs at nearby plants have hobbled the local economy.
Workers at two subsidiaries of Israel Chemicals — Dead Sea Works in Sodom and Bromine Compounds in Neot Hovav — are facing layoffs, according to reports.
Union chairmen at both companies are pressing for agreements for voluntary retirement and early retirement for older workers instead of layoffs, the Hebrew-language news outlet Haaretz reported.
Avi Nissenkorn, the head of the Histadrut labor federation, met on Saturday night with Nir Gilad, chairman of the board of Israel Chemicals, to resolve the disagreement as to whether Israel Chemicals has the power to lay off workers as part of its efficiency plan.
The mayors of cities in the south of Israel warn that the plan to lay off workers at Israel Chemicals could have long-term implications on employment throughout the south, since Israel Chemicals is considered a major employer in the Negev, the news outlet Ynet reported.
“Unfortunately, the strike cannot be prevented because of the intransigence of the Israel Chemicals management,” Dimona Mayor Benny Biton said, according to Haaretz. “However, I’m still optimistic and believe that within 72 hours, the saga threatening the livelihood of many Dimona families will come to an end.”
Politicians in the south have called for years for the government to invest more money in developing the region and bringing more jobs to the area, which has faced thousands of layoffs in the past years.
With so many factory closures over the past decade and the accompanying shortage of jobs requiring unskilled labor, those who lose their jobs have nowhere else to go, they say.
Dimona has an unemployment rate of 15%, according to Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, 95% of whom don’t have a college degree.
Despite the government’s repeated promises to invest in the Negev and the Galilee, no government ministry — including the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee — keeps track of the number of factories there that shut down and the resulting loss of jobs, Ynet reported.