Israel Railways administration on Friday shut down train traffic until further notice, after eight employees at the railway’s central control system called in sick. The administration said that the “sickness” was an organized labor effort, akin to a strike, but as the workers who called in sick constituted half the staff at the railway’s nerve center, it was decided to shut down train traffic because it would be impossible to ensure passenger safety.
Administrators said they would do everything possible to restore service. Union leaders were set to meet with workers Friday to try and work out a solution that would restore service later Friday, at the risk of stranding tens of thousands who want to get home for Shabbos. In a statement, the railway workers’ committee that it had not ordered any strike or work action, and that the closure was unnecessary and would hurt Israelis. “These workers have been sick for several days, and this incident is a tempest in a teapot, being used by management to create a fictitious crisis.”
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz expressed support for the shutdown, and has ordered management to immediately seek an injunction against the sick-out in labor court. “We will not allow Israel Railways to descend into anarchy,” he said in a statement. “Rail passengers will not be held hostage to a small group that is seeking to extort benefits with force and violence. I intend to institute steps to end these serious incidents, as I have done in the past.”
The sick-out Friday is one of a series of actions by railway workers in recent months, which have ranged to shutting down train traffic for minutes at a time to mass sick-outs. According to administrators, workers have taken off 512 sick days since the beginning of 2019 – more than 200-percent more than the number of days off in the first three and a half months of 2018.
One of the main issues workers are demanding a solution to is a recent change in work schedules for conductors. In recent months, management added an extra half hour to conductors’ shifts. The union is demanding an additional amount of paid break time to “allow workers to refresh themselves with a cup of coffee,” it said in the statement. “We are demanding a reasonable break for conductors who are working nine-hour shifts. Workers need an opportunity to refresh themselves in order to ensure safety.”