El Al Moves To Avoid Tiff With Big Labor

Sharon Steps In As Unions Warn Airline Not To ‘Break’ Hotel Strike

By E.J. Kessler

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.
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El Al Israel Airlines is reportedly moving to extricate itself from a contract with a New York hotel involved in a labor dispute, after several American unions warned that the airline’s patronage of the hotel “might jeopardize some of the U.S. trade union movement’s historic support for Israel” and “impact the rather significant investment of U.S. trade unions in State of Israel Bonds.”

In a written statement, El Al company spokesman Ari Achiaz responded that El Al’s management is “in communication with the hotel management and conveyed their concern regarding the labor relations dispute.” El Al’s management, he added, is “carefully reviewing its actions regarding what steps the company needs to make.”

“If the situation continues as is, El Al Israel Airlines will no longer be able to have their company crew use the hotel’s facilities for crew resting,” Achiaz said in the statement.

A source familiar with the talks said that the president of Israel Bonds, Yeshoshua Matza, had called on Prime Minister Sharon to press El Al, Israel’s national carrier, to settle the situation, and that El Al had apparently done so.

Avram Lyon, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, which has been pressing El Al on the matter, said that he was hopeful that the airline would extricate itself from the hotel contract. “We understand that there is a letter being sent by El Al to the hotel owner invoking their cancellation clause if the dispute is not settled,” he said. “We raised the issue with Sharon. We know it came up in a Cabinet meeting. But until we actually see the letter, I’m not going to say it’s actually happening.”

El Al rents 50 rooms nightly at the Washington Jefferson Hotel, a 100-room Manhattan establishment where there is a strike by its workers, the majority of whom signed union pledge cards to be represented by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, labor sources said. The workers are alleging that the hotel’s management is violating labor law and have filed charges accusing the hotel of “egregious” and “unfair” labor practices.

In support of their strike, the heads of five unions wrote a letter to El Al chief Amos Shapira asking him to sever the airline’s relationship with Washington Jefferson, saying that El Al workers were “strikebreaking” by crossing picket lines and using the hotel.

The letter also contained a warning that El Al’s behavior reflected poorly on Israel and could affect labor movement investment in Israel.

“The situation (where the management has refused to recognize the Jefferson Hotel’s employees right to be represented by a union of their choice) is receiving the attention not only of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, but other unions in New York and elsewhere, as well as local and national Jewish agencies, and the general press,” the labor leaders wrote. “It has also led to a situation that might jeopardize some of the U.S. labor movement’s historic support for Israel. This is not just a matter of a change of attitude — it might also impact the rather significant investment of U.S. trade unions in State of Israel Bonds, currently running into billions of dollars.”

It was signed by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; Morton Bahr, president of Communications Workers of America; Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Bruce Raynor, president of the needle trades union, Unite, and Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union. The five union heads are members of the AFL-CIO executive council as well as officers of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Shapira received similar messages from officials of the Histadrut-General Federation of Labor in Israel, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Labor Zionist Alliance and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

A lawyer for Washington Jefferson, David Lew, did not return a call seeking comment. Washington Jefferson is owned by Shimmie Horn, who also owns an interest in Correctional Services Corporation, a firm embroiled in a scandal involving allegations that it bribed a number of New York lawmakers. A spokeswoman for the Israeli consulate in New York, Dina Wosner, declined comment last week.

John Turchiano, a spokesman for the Hotel Motel Trades Council, the union umbrella under which the hotel and restaurant employees union operates, said he had no confirmation that El Al was extricating itself from its contract with Washington Jefferson, but that the council hopes that it is true. Given that there is as yet no resolution of the strike, he said, “El Al’s honoring of the picket line is more important than ever.”

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