Sunday morning. The container ship Tanja Rickmers is anchored at Haifa Port, and workers are loading and unloading on the Carmel dock. Flatbed trucks carrying containers park directly underneath the crane, which uses pulleys to lower the Twin Spreader machine that holds two containers in parallel. The containers are lifted upwards and placed with precision deep inside the ship. Underneath, on the dock, docker and signalman Liron Ben Haim receives instructions on which cables to connect. The automatic cables connect the containers to each other, locking them in place so they cannot move.

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Liron, 42, from Moshav Megadim south of Haifa, has worked as a docker at the port for 15 years. "The hardest part is having to stay constantly alert, because we work in a dangerous environment," he says. "A work accident here wouldn't be a broken hand, it would be getting completely crushed – from the weight, the intensity, the equipment." Yossi Newman, 35, working next to Liron, adds: "It's challenging and non-monotonous work. One day you work with construction beams, the next day with containers. Each day a new type of load and a new challenge. It's hard physical work, it's dangerous, it's working rain or shine. The worst is when it's pouring rain, but you still always keep working."

Haifa Port (Photograph: Gilad Shrim)

Once and for all – what is a docker?

135 dockers load and unload all the ships that arrive at Haifa Port. The work is performed using a variety of mechanical tools like chains, belts, pulleys and cranes. Dockers must operate these machines, work from height and sometimes apply large amounts of physical force. "The Hebrew word for docker, savar, comes from the Aramaic," explains linguist Rubik Rosenthal. "It appears in the Mishnah, in Ohalot 3:7, where it refers to a pile of wood or packages. It's very similar to the world tzavar, meaning 'to collect'. This word was the basis for the name of the profession, because the docker, or savar, moves piles from place to place."

Dockers work every day of the year over three shifts that span the entire 24-hour day, and through all sorts of weather. The morning shift starts at 6:30 AM and runs until 2:30 PM, the afternoon-evening shift runs from 3:00 PM until 10:00 PM, and then the night shift takes over and runs until the morning. Each docker alternates between weeks of morning shifts and weeks of afternoon shifts, and once a month perform a week of nighttime shifts only. Liron says that sometimes a docker will request to work a double shift in order to increase their take-home pay.

Dockworkers are frequently maligned by the Israeli media, which often accuses them of receiving "too high" wages due to the strength of their union. A chat with the workers reveals that the full picture is more nuanced. Their base salary is only 6,500 NIS a month. By taking on double shifts, a docker can reach a monthly take-home of 13-14,000 NIS, but these add-ons don't count toward a worker's pension contributions.

Docker fastening a cargo ship, Haifa Port (Photograph: Gilad Shrim)

"It's a satisfying salary compared to other jobs," Liron says, "…But I have to give a lot in order to get to that salary. We don't really have overtime wages. In order to make good money, I have to basically do two days' worth of work in one day. That’s in addition to working Shabbat, holidays, and nights, in all kinds of weather. The pay may be pretty good, but after fifteen years, I'm starting to feel worn down. Working nights isn't pleasant."

"I'd like to see the stereotypes around port workers fade," adds Yossi, who has worked at the port since 2006. "The stories from fifty years ago don't apply anymore. Stories about forklift operators or signalers who earn fifty thousand a month – if only that were still the case! We work extremely hard for our living, six days a week, all hours of the day. Even on Shabbat and holidays while others are with their families, we're here serving the port."

Liron describes constant fear of physical burnout. "Most workers aren't healthy by the time they finish their careers. I'm not there yet, but it's happening to most of the people around me,” he says.“With all the love I have for this place, I don't want to be here until I retire. I want to leave with my body still intact so that I can enjoy my retirement. I'd say that more than 50% of the workers here are already somewhat disabled. Slipped discs, bad necks, bad backs and eye problems. Most of us aren't young."

Yossi Newman, docker at Haifa Port (Photograph: Gilad Schrim)


Slings flying through the air

During my conversation with Yossi, he and his coworkers are unloading steel beams from a cargo ship. This particular ship, which can carry between 3,000 to 35,000 tons of steel, poses a particular challenge to unload. The steel beams are organized in "slings" that each weigh several tons. The workers thread hooks through loops in the chains that tie the beams together, which are then lifted slightly by a crane from the shore. The workers then tie the beams with more, stronger chains, which the crane uses to lift the beams to the shore. "It's very dangerous, and some of our coworkers have been injured pretty seriously. Sometimes people can't work for months," Yossi says.

We asked Yossi what he enjoys about this work. "First of all, the atmosphere and camaraderie with the crew," he says, "Getting out on the ship and providing service to the company's agent. Finishing the ship and getting the merchandise out to the dock, to the next customer. That's our job, providing a service to the port's customers who depend on us. Providing service."

Haifa Port (Photograph: Gilad Shrim)

The port challenge: Closing gaps

It seems clear that the dockers in Haifa port trust the union has their backs. They know that the union knows how to bring their demands to the port management and accept that the union sometimes brings management's demands to the workers, too.

"The union does excellent work," says Yossi, "Even when the management has demands that we don't love, and the union has to present them to us. The union looks out for our needs. Sometimes there are interpersonal issues at the port, and the union knows how to help us solve them. In the winter, the union makes sure we have the right rain gear, and if our gear gets worn out the union brings us new gear."

Liron says that the crew feels the union's effects every day. "There are always power trips in the workplace. Management is always trying to stiff the workers, and the union tries to keep a finger on the pulse. Sometimes it's as basic as making them provide us with drinking water."

Ilan Lasri, 45, is the chair of the dockers' union committee. Originally from the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim, he started working as a docker at the port in 2002. He's served on the committee for eight years and is currently serving his third term as chair.

"They used to do everything by hand. Fruit, vegetables, meat," he says to me, as cranes, trucks and containers bustle around us. Lasri says that while the technology has been updated, some aspects of the port traditions have been preserved almost entirely. "Ports operate in Greek," he says, and notes that international port jargon originated from Thessalonian seafarers. "Lift is 'vira', lower is 'meyna', tie is 'kocha', move the load sideways is 'charga'."

Ilan Lasri, chair of the dockers' union (Photograph: Gilad Shrim)

Among Lasri's challenges is the issue of "generations" of salary contracts at the port, which creates gaps in workers' wages and benefits. The "first generation" employees who were hired before 2000 cannot be fired without permission from the union, and they receive promotions every two years. Next are the "early second generation" who were hired between 2000 and 2003, who are also protected from firing but receive promotions every four years. The rest of the "second generation" hired after 2003 are employed at will and receive promotions every four years. Of the entire crew of dockers, about forty are first generation employees, sixty are early second generation, and thirty-five are second generation employees.

Lasri aims to reduce these gaps between workers with every contract agreement that the union signs. "The most recent agreement is differential and awards second generation workers more than the others in order to start closing the gap," he explains. The previous agreement, signed in 2016, was also differential and implemented 15% wage increases for second generation employees but 5% wage increases for first generation employees.

We asked Lasri if there are tasks that he doesn't agree for workers in his union to be expected to perform. "In the past we used to receive ships loaded with cows and sheep, but for ages now they've come only to the private port and not to us. That shift was related to animal rights protests."

Lasri has limits when it comes to strikes, too. "We've gone on strike more than a few times, but I never agree to strike in a way that causes harm to agricultural cargo like flowers or citruses, or to medicine," he says. "There are red lines when it comes to strikes. During the big strikes in 2017 we sent crews to unload produce, medicine and cruise ship luggage."

Haifa Port (Photograph: Gilad Shrim)



Union and solidarity

Another major figure at Haifa Port is Hannah Cohen, 56, who's been working at the dock for 36 years. "I've done lots of jobs here, but today I fix the dockers' rota" she told Davar. Cohen has a deep, almost motherly connection with the workers. "They're rugged, but they aren't stupid," she says.

But apart from her job as coordinator, Cohen has also taken the responsibility for running a charity fund, paid for out of the dockers' salaries. "We've been running the fund for 15 years now. We have a whip round before each holiday. We started off with 50 shekel contribution from each worker, but today some people contribute up to 500 shekels," she says.

The dockers' union uses the money to distribute food packages to poorer households before the holidays. "Last [year at the] holidays we gave out food packages to 150 families" said Cohen. She also makes sure that the workers visit the houses personally, and get to know the family. This has led to workers volunteering to help out poor households with expensive work at home. "Some of the workers went round to deliver the package and noticed that the house was in very poor condition" she said. "So they decided to help the family out, and a group of dockers took time off work to help with the electricity, plumbing and things like that."

Reform and uncertainty

Today, a new dock for large containers is being built next to Haifa Port, by the Chinese company SIPG – Shanghai International Company.The new port, known as the "Bay Port" is due to begin operations in 2021 and will be privately owned and run by the company.

The new port is part of a reform spearheaded by the government over the past decade, with the goal of establishing private ports alongside the traditional government-run ports in Haifa and Ashdod. When completed, there will be three ports in Haifa – the traditional Haifa Port, which the Histadrut union and the government have agreed to privatize and have sold to a strategic investor, a small private port that has been in operation since 2003, and the new Bay Port.

In August 2019, the Histadrut, together with the government company that owns Haifa Port signed a collective agreement preserving the status of the current workers. The agreement states that the government will establish a company that will provide dock services to all three ports in Haifa. The current Haifa Port workers will become employees of the new company, and their wages and benefits will be preserved.

Haifa Port (Photograph: Zvi Roger).

The Histadrut, concluding intensive negotiations with Haifa Port management and the Israeli government, signed an agreement in January 2020 that finalizes the entire port reform. Some workers will go on early retirement, but in general the remaining dockers have retained their terms of employment.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the changes, Yossi expresses confidence in the workers' ability to withstand the challenge of competition from the new port. "I'm in favor of competition, I'm not afraid of it," he says. "Haifa Port is the very best. The customers and the truck drivers give us glowing feedback and people appreciate our work."

Despite, or maybe because of, the difficult physical conditions, Lasri describes a unique bond between the port's dockers. "This type of work creates connections," he says. "You work side by side, trust each other, and look out for each other. We always work as a team. You can't do this kind of work alone."