"Once we heard that the board of directors decided to lay off 900 employees, I immediately called the Minister of Finance and the Minister of the Government Companies Authority," says Yair Katz, chair of the workers’ council at Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI),  Israel's state-owned aerospace and aviation manufacturer. "I made it clear to them that when a stable and profitable nationalized company like IAI decides to fire workers, now, with the economy in this state, that’s the Israeli government making a statement."

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Yair Katz, chair of the Israel Aerospace Industry Workers' Council. (Photograph: Yosi Aloni)

How did they respond?
"They’ve made it clear to me that they don’t think now is the time to fire workers. They support me, they’ve offered to help."

Katz is the head of a workers’ council representing 15,000 employees at IAI, one of the largest manufacturers in Israel’s economy. The company’s employees haven’t gone on strike for three decades, despite a number of shake-ups over the years. 

What happens now?
“I asked the Histadrut [Israel's largest union] to declare a labor dispute. For that to happen, I needed the workforce’s approval. The employees unanimously voted in favor. I met with the chair of the Histadrut and I gave a comprehensive overview of the situation. Arnon Bar-David [Histadrut chair] expressed his support, and the Coordinating and Implementation Committee approved the labor dispute. Arnon's statement of support means a lot for the thousands of workers on our staff."

Company management says the planes are grounded, and that there’s no work for these employees.
"It’s true that this isn’t an easy time for the aviation department, but we have to remember that this week we launched our Ofek 16 spy satellite, and we’re also working around the clock to supply complex aviation systems to the world's most advanced countries, which is very profitable. Even during the Corona crisis, the aerospace industry is profitable."

How have workers suffered during the COVID-19 crisis?
"During this difficult period, the workers' union and company management have worked together, and the employees have stepped up accordingly – we’ve gotten rid of the shuttle buses that used to take us to work, and we’ve taken double shifts without additional compensation."

"At this point in time, we agreed not to join the public sector wage agreement to help the company during this difficult period. In the aviation division, we’ve approved mobilizing workers, and of course many employees are currently at home. We have allowed over a thousand employees to take a long vacation to cope with the slowdown at work."

What’s your prediction for the future of the aerospace industry? Can it stay afloat without laying off more workers?
"Nobody knows where the COVID-19 crisis will take us, but in Europe, planes are slowly returning to their flight schedules, which translates into more work for us. At the same time, we’re in a situation with a high degree of uncertainty. The IAI is a visionary organization that can work cooperatively and deal with crises and has done so in the past."

And what if management doesn't cooperate this time?
"If management chooses to unilaterally dismiss employees, or to downsize without consulting us – that would be a blatant violation of our collective bargaining agreements, and it would be legitimate for the union to respond accordingly. That’s certainly a situation we’re trying to avoid, but if we have to, we’ll respond with the necessary steps.​"