As thousands of soldiers and other commuters were preparing to board trains home for the weekend on April 12, the Israel Railways Corporation suspended all services. According to management, the decision was prompted by a sudden “sick out” by eight of 21 safety controllers responsible for preventing collisions. Management claimed that when it tried to call other controllers to replace them, no one answered.
Service resumed two hours later. The head of the workers union, Gila Edrei, denied management claims that she had instigated the event, accusing the management of halting service to fuel public anger against the union. She even threatened a libel suit against the management, which in turn demanded that the Histadrut Labor Federation punish the rail workers union.
The union is convinced that management tricked it in order to further tarnish its battered public image. “What happened on Friday was an outrageous manipulation by management designed to incite against the union,” union spokesperson Na’ama Katzir Shmueli told Al-Monitor. “Contrary to management’s claim, only two controllers did not show up for work, not eight. I have never heard of a serious organization that could not find replacements for two absent workers. It was a planned provocation designed to obfuscate a series of failures by management, a damning report by the State Comptroller and outrageous safety flaws.”
The Friday stoppage was the latest in a long string of failures, outages and strikes. Last month, the State Comptroller issued a scathing report about a public transportation crisis in Israel, detailing at length the chaotic train service. Israelis need no government watchdog agency to tell them about the shortcomings of what is probably the country’s most hated public service. Israelis know all about the severe shortage of rail cars and tracks, antiquated equipment and huge financial losses that result in poor service such as chronic delays, cancellations, unbearable overcrowding, dozens of strikes a year and safety violations. To top it all off, the long-touted high-speed rail service from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv has been plagued by failure since its launch last September.
Prompted by ongoing scandals, commuters set up a Facebook group to vent their frustration and share information. “We are the home of Israel Railways passengers. Our followers are updated online about strikes, defects and problems that arise with the trains,” Shimrit Nutman, one of the page's administrators, explained to Al-Monitor. The main problem with Israel’s rail service, she said, is a total lack of reliability. “People boarding the train cannot know for sure when they will arrive, if at all,” she said. “For example, someone gets on the train hoping to get to Ben-Gurion Airport in time to make a flight, but that might not happen. The train might let passengers off at a different station or not get to its destination at all. This happens on a regular basis.”
No one has a satisfactory answer to why the labor union often disrupts service. “I have been trying to understand for years what bothers the union but have not yet succeeded,” Yossi Saidov, founder of a public transportation advocacy group called 15 Minutes, told Al-Monitor. Nutman thinks a power play between labor and management is to blame. “It is an aggressive struggle over the question of who is the boss. The union wants to control the trains and management obviously does not want to allow it. Then they start to arm wrestle and the struggle veers out of control. The union is waging its power struggle on the backs of the passengers, using blackmail tactics. They assume that thousands of commuters stranded on platforms will create pressure on management to negotiate with them. Management, for its part, does not appear to be doing enough to find solutions regarding the union.”
The union’s spokesperson Katzir-Shmueli views things differently. “Most of our protest steps do not hurt passengers and most of the problems with the trains are not the union’s fault. The train infrastructure is flawed, there is a shortage of human resources and unprofessional management, but obviously the easiest thing is to pass the blame onto the workers.”
As for strikes, she explained, “Sometimes, we have no choice and we strike in accordance with the law. Management does not give us the time of day. They undermine our rights, hurt our pay and their unprofessional conduct threatens passenger safety. Now they are trying to undermine our legal right to strike.”
A proposed government measure floated this week could disarm the union of its most effective weapon. The union’s nightmare scenario took shape on April 14, when Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz demanded that any party joining the new government Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the process of forming commit to backing legislation mandating compulsory arbitration of labor disputes in essential services. The legislation would ban strikes in government entities such as Israel Railways, the Israel Electric Company, the Israel Ports Authority and Israel Airports Authority.
The union is outraged over the proposal, but Saidov says it brought it on itself. “The railway workers union turned public transportation passengers in Israel into hostages in their struggles with management,” he said. “The backing provided by the Histadrut for this farce indirectly undermines the legitimacy of all labor unions in Israel. You want to protest against management? Block the entry into their offices; enable passengers to travel free. Why abuse the poor passengers?”
At the same time, Saidov is also critical of the government. “Katz has held his post for a decade, running from one ribbon-cutting ceremony to another but neglecting Israel’s public transportation problems in a manner reminiscent of a developing country. I will give you just one example. There is a shortage of rail cars, but there is also an endless argument over who will pay for new ones, the Finance Ministry or Israel Railways Corporation. After a decision is made, we wait two years for the carriages to arrive, and it turns out that not enough were ordered. That means that these problems will not be resolved in the next decade, either.”
The government appears to have given up in light of the endless labor-management bickering. The Finance Ministry has gone as far as to consider shutting down the rail company and opening a new one, but that will not help. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Israel is experiencing a severe shortage of public transportation infrastructure. Its roads are the most crowded among the organization’s member states, and all forecasts indicate the worst is yet to come, with unprecedented transportation chaos ahead overshadowing the current woes.
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