Labor Disputes Proliferate Across Public, Private Sectors

Outgoing chairman of the Histadrut Labor Federation Ofer Eini (R) shakes hands with Avi Nissankoren, whom he has designated to replace him. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Outgoing chairman of the Histadrut Labor Federation Ofer Eini (R) shakes hands with Avi Nissankoren, whom he has designated to replace him. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Labor disputes have been flaring up like wildfires across both the public and private sectors in Israel, and no one is quite sure why.

Close to 20 labor disputes have been officially declared at major Israeli companies and organizations, according to Haaretz’s count on Tuesday.

Trouble spots in government include the Israel Lands Authority, the Housing and Construction Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the ports and the Economy Ministry.

In the private sector, labor and management are locked in combat at Migdal Insurance, Israel Discount Bank and Israel Chemicals, among others.

Prof. Guy Mundlak, a labor relations expert at Tel Aviv Univeristy, suggests the flare-up in labor strife could be due to a lack of tough, competent leadership. Mundlak cited the weakness of the finance minster, in the person of Yair Lapid. “The treasury isn’t being managed with a strong hand,” Mundlak said. “That could be contributing to the unrest.”

A weak Histadrut could be another factor. There’s a leadership vacuum at the national labor federation, where Chairman Ofer Eini is due to step down shortly. His designated successor Avi Nissenkorn still awaits official clearance to take over.

But Yuval Rachlevsky, a former treasury wages commissioner, said he doubted either factor was involved. He pointed to political maneuvering instead.

“If you’re looking for a common thread between all these labor disputes, I would look to the public sector where hundreds of thousands of workers are awaiting a new collective labor agreement on January 1, 2015,” he said. “That’s a long way away but talks will begin soon and everyone wants to fortify their positions in advance.”

However elusive the causes may be, the effects are easily identifiable.

The Ashdod and Haifa ports continue to be a battleground between unions and the government, requiring the constant intervention of the National Labor Court, which has been seeking to avoid a strike. But late last week the Histadrut asked the labor court to approve a strike, which would disrupt Israel’s international trade.

Labor slowdowns by ILA and Housing and Construction Ministry employees have been called to protest a Finance Ministry housing program they fear could lead to outsourcing of their jobs and eventual layoffs. Workers are preventing tenders for rental housing projects from being published and have brought marketing of state-owned land for development to a standstill.

At the Foreign Ministry, where unions declared an official labor dispute half year ago, a strike was about to be called before Steve Adler, a former president of the National Labor Court, was called in to mediate. Adler brought the two sides closer but the Finance Ministry says that under an agreement signed in 2010 civil servants are not entitled to pay increases until next January. Unions have proposed awarding across-the-board increases in job ranks that will automatically entitle them to higher pay.

In the private sector, Israel Discount Bank has seen labor disruptions for several weeks in a fight over a new collective labor agreement and management’s decision to introduce time clocks.

At Migdal, Israel’s largest insurance company, employees have been conducting costly slowdowns as they protest the refusal of Shlomo Eliahu, the company’s controlling shareholder, to agree to their affiliating with the Histadrut.

Israel Chemicals’s 5,000 workers at plants in the Negev have declared a labor dispute. Once the 14-day warning period has elapsed, workers will be legally entitled to engage in a slowdown or go out on strike. At issue is streamlining a plan that is necessitating layoffs.

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