Appreciate this article? +972 depends on your support -- click here to help us keep going

Analysis News

Turning Israel's port workers into public enemy number one

In May of this year, Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett devised a plan to replace port workers with IDF soldiers in the case of a strike. Not only did Bennett’s spin make for a dangerous contribution to the ongoing incitement campaign against port workers, it also fit neatly into the racialized way the majority of Israelis view them.

By Yossi Edry (Translated from Hebrew by Noam Benishie)

Naftali Bennett, head of Jewish Home party, greeting supporters at the end of election day, January 23 2013

“Code Name 1981,” screamed the headlines, revealing Minister Naftali Bennett’s plan: “The military is to replace port workers in the case of a strike.” It was the boldest yet step in a well-organized and orchestrated campaign waged by politicians and senior officials at the Ministry of Finance against Israel’s port workers. The timing, too, was carefully chosen – several days after thousands took to the streets to protest against the harsh budget drafted by Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, Bennett’s political ally and friend. This measure is unique in neither its functionality, which is virtually non-existent (who exactly is going to manage the complex operation of the ports? Unqualified regular service soldiers?) nor by its dubious legal status. Its uniqueness stems from the employment of the most powerful tool in the Israeli collective imagination – the IDF. The “people’s army” as a means to fight the enemy of the people from the port is an unprecedented practice. IDF soldiers, as everybody knows, are the most popular group among most Israeli citizens, therefore using them secures an automatic blind sympathy, and nobody knows that better than Bennett.

Bennett’s preposterous spin made for a dangerous contribution to the ongoing incitement campaign against against port workers. He further pursued the matter on his Facebook page, where he laid the blame for Israel’s high cost of living on the port workers, their inefficiency and corruption. This attack comes as no surprise. You may notice that the verbs most popularly employed in the Israeli discourse into the port workers union are “crush,” “tear down,” and “break down.” These are violent verbs, usually reserved for the “Palestinian enemy.” Bennett has realized that Israeli port workers’ image is currently at a low, making it the right time to strike; yet he is not alone. Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz, who felt the fame of ramming port workers snatched from his hands, jumped on the bandwagon and joined the vilifying rampage waged against the workers. He was quick to announce that he had no fear of the “militant” port unions, and vowed to face them intrepidly. This is a further reiteration of a rhetoric borrowed from military terminology, designed to portray the opposition as terrorists and divert discussion from any social-economic discourse.

Port of Haifa. (photo: David King / CC BY 2.0)

There is nothing new about this violent tactic employed against port workers. As early as the 1960’s they were referred to as “terrorists,” having had the gall to fight for their rights in the workplace, while their Mizrahiness served as a powerful labeling tool, setting them apart from other trade unions in the Israeli economy. Israeli discourse in this context has since become more subtle, taking on board the issue’s highly sensitive status, yet the question remains: what part does the  Mizrahiness of the port workers’ mouthpiece have to play in shaping attitudes towards them? Is it all too easy to turn port workers into a “clan” – a concept laden with negative connotations in the Israeli discourse, or rather into a “bunch of Arsim” (a racialized and derogatory term for low-class men), perceived as they are to be a predominantly Mizrahi body of workers? I think the answer is definitely yes. A predominantly Ashkenazi body of workers would probably not be portrayed with the very linguistic terms associated with the Mizrahi public. The unapologetic conduct of Haifa and Ashdod ports’ trade union leaders, Meir Turjeman and Alon Hassan, compounds this brute image, which is in turn fully exploited by people with interests.

The fact that according to the 2012 annual report by the government companies authorities (PDF), the Israel Ports Company netted 218.5 million NIS in 2012, compared to a mere 86.9 million NIS in the previous year, rarely gets mentioned (to say nothing of crediting at least some of this success to the much-maligned workers).

Even the great outcry raised against their “inflated” salaries and “wage frenzy” is taken out of any rational context. The port pilots starring in the lists of top public sector earners perform a duty equivalent to that of airmen. A port pilot is a highly experienced captain, physically navigating foreign vessels into port upon their arrival. It is a job requiring experience, skill and composure. Port pilots are rewarded with high salaries, as they usually receive this position in their 50s, after a long tenure. The outcry aimed at the supposedly high salaries earned by fork-lift and crane operators is also ludicrous, given the exhaustion and grind involved year-round in this physical labor. The lion’s share of these operators salary comprises premiums and overtime, and workers are encouraged by the port’s management to increase their output as part of the reorganization reform. Yet when they work extra hours and are rewarded for it, they are once again attacked. The infamous steak coupons were another part of the management’s attempt to incentivise workers – and this step indeed yielded positive results. Labor productivity increased by millions of NIS, yet this bonus was revoked following public outcry. In reality, the ports have a limited number of long-tenured workers who are soon to retire, thus significantly lowering the average salary. However, the leading financial press does not find this fact interesting enough.

Is it all too easy to turn port workers into a “clan” or a “bunch of Arsim”, perceived as they are as a predominantly Mizrahi body of workers? (A Yedioth Ahronoth cover, the caption reads: “Who’s Scarier?”)

The Israeli public discourse, generated largely by the financial press, deems it inappropriate for blue-collar laborers to earn decent salaries, as befitting their long experience and the hard, dangerous work they perform. At the same time, a salary of tens of thousands of shekels earned by a news anchor (a position that until recently belonged to Minister Yair Lapid), is deemed legitimate and reasonable. It is another instance of the absurdity at play in the Israeli society and the collective change of mind that the country has undergone. “Hebrew labor,” so highly valued around here (or so they liked to think…) and so eagerly and proudly cited, is rendered even more insignificant when Mizrahim from the ports are concerned. Furthermore, it is important to understand that any move to privatize the ports involves great risks, concealed from the public. First of all, the big bad strike wolf doesn’t spare privatized ports; just look at the strike in the privately owned Hong Kong port, which lasted forty days, and ended only recently. Second, and more importantly, a privatized port can turn into a no man’s land in terms of safety. Let me suggest a fictional scenario. The State of Israel privatises its ports. Safety levels drop due to first generation senior staff retiring, replaced by new, inexperienced hands that cost the private employer much less. After a series of deadly accidents a public rage ensues, ending with the state’s decision to nationalize control over the port’s safety services. The very same scenario played out in England’s railway service. It is a move that will lead to a massive use of public funds that could be saved.

I do not argue that Haifa and Ashdod ports are free of deplorable practices such as nepotism, looking out for union cronies or senior staff brute conduct. Yet these are practices the state of Israel has the tools to tackle without reviling a whole group of workers and victimizing them in a campaign to crush what little remains of the Israeli organized labour. I believe it is possible, nay, advisable, to demand that the port workers union show greater solidarity with the disadvantaged workers of Israel and come out of their shell. I don’t deem Alon Hassan the Israeli Lech Wałęsa, yet he is no Al Capone either. The portrayal of him as such, and the portrayal of his workers as a crime family, is an injustice and a huge stain on the history of the Israeli labor market.

Yossi Edry is an M.A. student at Tel Aviv University’s Department of General History. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.

For additional original analysis and breaking news, visit +972 Magazine's Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our newsletter features a comprehensive round-up of the week's events. Sign up here.

View article: AAA
Share article
Print article
  • COMMENTS

    1. The Trespasser

      An astounding heap of bullshit.

      >Even the great outcry raised against their “inflated” salaries and “wage frenzy” is taken out of any rational context.

      Is that so? Let’s see…

      > A port pilot is a highly experienced captain, physically navigating foreign vessels into port upon their arrival. It is a job requiring experience, skill and composure. Port pilots are rewarded with high salaries, as they usually receive this position in their 50s, after a long tenure.

      Port captain in New York earns about $100 000 per year ($8 300 per month), compared to $312 000 per year ($26 000 per month) to earning of port captain in Ashdod port.
      http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1000823222
      http://www.indeed.com/salary/q-Port-Captain-l-New-York,-NY.html

      Three times more? For what exactly?

      >The outcry aimed at the supposedly high salaries earned by fork-lift and crane operators is also ludicrous, given the exhaustion and grind involved year-round in this physical labor.

      Crane operator earns 68 000 NIS per month – or $226 000 per year, compared to $50 000 in New York. Are they doing their job three times better than their American collegues?
      http://www.indeed.com/salary?q1=port+crane+operator&l1=New+York%2C+NY

      Exhausted by the physical labor? Moving handles in air-conditioned cabin?Than why not hire more workers? Huh?

      >This measure is unique in neither its functionality, which is virtually non-existent, nor by its dubious legal status.

      What is dubious is the right for port workers to strike. Apparently, the author of this article is not aware of the fact that nearly 100% of Israeli import and export is conducted through these two ports and any strike is first and foremost is crippling for businesses.

      >who exactly is going to manage the complex operation of the ports? Unqualified regular service soldiers?

      Port operations are not THAT complicated.

      http://www.transnet.net/Training/trs_port_ops.html

      Longest course takes only 75 days. Much less than most IDF courses.

      >Is it all too easy to turn port workers into a “clan” – a concept laden with negative connotations in the Israeli discourse

      In the light of the fact that a strange person could not get job at the port, it is too easy, yes.

      >The lion’s share of these operators salary comprises premiums and overtime, and workers are encouraged by the port’s management to increase their output as part of the reorganization reform.
      Yet when they work extra hours and are rewarded for it, they are once again attacked.

      These poor souls. Working overtime, but not hiring additional workers.

      >The infamous steak coupons were another part of the management’s attempt to incentivise workers – and this step indeed yielded positive results.

      Oh, it is not only enough to recieve hundreds of thousans of New Israel Sheqels each year as salary and bonuses, additional nutrition is also required to make them work as they should.

      >Labor productivity increased by millions of NIS, yet this bonus was revoked following public outcry.

      Three-fold increase in productivity is meanign that before that they were only working at 1/3 capasity. Bonus for doing their job? על מה ולמה?

      >In reality, the ports have a limited number of long-tenured workers who are soon to retire, thus significantly lowering the average salary. However, the leading financial press does not find this fact interesting enough.

      Soon? 5-15 years. Not quite soon. About $ 2 000 000 in 10 years, plus asdounding pension (probably, about 20 000 NIS per month). Not bad.

      >Is it all too easy to turn port workers into a “clan” or a “bunch of Arsim”, perceived as they are as a predominantly Mizrahi body of workers? (A Yedioth Ahronoth cover, the caption reads: “Who’s Scarier?”)

      If the only way to get job at the port is a personal recommendation, than it is a clan. Or mafia, if you please.

      >The Israeli public discourse, generated largely by the financial press, deems it inappropriate for blue-collar laborers to earn decent salaries, as befitting their long experience and the hard, dangerous work they perform.

      The Israeli public discourse, generated largely by common sense, deems it inappropriate for blue-collar laborers to earn many times more than their collegues elsewhere, as befitting their illicit behaviour and not particularly difficult work which they perform rather poorly.

      >At the same time, a salary of tens of thousands of shekels earned by a news anchor (a position that until recently belonged to Minister Yair Lapid), is deemed legitimate and reasonable.

      Over 100k NIS each month. Legitimate and reasonable? Let’s see…

      Lapid is receiving this kind of money because he is what he is: reasonably intelligent, handsome and smooth-talking, journalist, son of renowned journalist. He is doing a job which probably none of porters could do – people are willing to pay to look at him and listen to him.

      At other hand, port workers are recieving this kind of money because they are holding the whole contry hostage.

      >“Hebrew labor,” so highly valued around here (or so they liked to think…) and so eagerly and proudly cited, is rendered even more insignificant when Mizrahim from the ports are concerned.

      “Hebrew labor” is not on mainstream agenda for at least 40 years.

      >Furthermore, it is important to understand that any move to privatize the ports involves great risks, concealed from the public.

      Rubbish.

      >First of all, the big bad strike wolf doesn’t spare privatized ports; just look at the strike in the privately owned Hong Kong port, which lasted forty days, and ended only recently.

      Yeah, one strike during few decades. Shall I count for you all strikes and threats to strike issued by Israeli ports?

      >Second, and more importantly, a privatized port can turn into a no man’s land in terms of safety.

      Rubbish. Just rubbish.

      >Let me suggest a fictional scenario.
      The State of Israel privatises its ports. Safety levels drop due to first generation senior staff retiring, replaced by new, inexperienced hands that cost the private employer much less.

      And a few very expirienced supervisors from abroad which would still cost much less.

      >After a series of deadly accidents

      *facepalm*
      Yeah, workers just gonna smash each other with containers every day, and no-one would do a thing.

      >a public rage ensues, ending with the state’s decision to nationalize control over the port’s safety services.

      *facepalm*

      Apparently, the author had never served in IDF, otherwise the issue of safety services would not bother him much.

      >The very same scenario played out in England’s railway service.

      And now comparing British Rail to Ashdod Port… *facepalm*

      Why not compare Ashdod Port to #51 shuttle taxis? Operated privately, drivers of all origins. Not even one deadly accident during last 20 years.

      >I do not argue that Haifa and Ashdod ports are free of deplorable practices such as nepotism, looking out for union cronies or senior staff brute conduct. Yet these are practices the state of Israel has the tools to tackle…

      Which tools are? None of “senior staff” can be fired, union would not let. Ergo, first the union should be disbanded.

      >without reviling a whole group of workers and victimizing them in a campaign to crush what little remains of the Israeli organized labour.

      The Israeli organized labour (Electric Company, National Insurance, Ministry of Interior and few other offices) are getting too much for not-so-good job they are doing.

      >I believe it is possible, nay, advisable, to demand that the port workers union show greater solidarity with the disadvantaged workers of Israel and come out of their shell.

      Priceless.

      >I don’t deem Alon Hassan the Israeli Lech Wałęsa, yet he is no Al Capone either. The portrayal of him as such, and the portrayal of his workers as a crime family, is an injustice and a huge stain on the history of the Israeli labor market.

      How could author know, what methods are employed by Mr. Hassan? Insider information?
      Maybe author is relative of said Mr. Hassan? Or aother top employee?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      I’m sorry but the port workers and the lifeguards are a family run mafia. They demonstrate everything that’s wrong with Israeli society; protectzia, combinot and ripping off everybody else. I’m for unionized labour but not the way its done in this country with its racist histradut (that booted out all non-Jewish, aka Arab, members in 1968)

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      As I understand it, the ports are what in the US is referred to as a “closed shop” which was banned by the Taft-Hartley Act. This means the employer does not have the right to hire workers, the union does, which as Philos pointed out, is simply a mafia.

      Reply to Comment

    LEAVE A COMMENT

    Name (Required)
    Mail (Required)
    Website
    Free text

© 2010 - 2014 +972 Magazine
Follow Us
Credits

+972 is an independent, blog-based web magazine. It was launched in August 2010, resulting from a merger of a number of popular English-language blogs dealing with life and politics in Israel and Palestine.

Website empowered by RSVP

Illustrations: Eran Mendel