Employees of the daily Maariv were ordered to return to work on Wednesday by the Tel Aviv District Court, after they had walked off the job Tuesday night over a dispute with the paper's new owner, Shlomo Ben-Zvi.

The paper did not appear on Wednesday for the first time in 64 years, and its NRG website was not updated overnight Tuesday or Wednesday morning.

Tel Aviv District Court Judge Varda Alshech was scathingly critical of the employees' "wildcat strike," saying that even if they had complaints about the paper's new management, "the proper procedure would have been to file an urgent motion with the court, and not make their own rules."

She issued the back-to-work order at the request of the trustees, attorneys Shlomo Nass and Yaron Arbel. Ben-Zvi will become the paper's owner and managing editor only as of Friday, when he transfers NIS 12 million toward his purchase of its operations, out of a total price of NIS 85 million.

The workers had set 10 P.M. Tuesday night as the deadline for talks at which they wanted Ben-Zvi to clarify his plans for their continued employment. Ben-Zvi tried to put off the talks until Wednesday, but when the deadline passed, the editorial staff walked out.

Under the agreement signed with the workers and the paper's trustees, Ben-Zvi, who will be in charge of the paper's content, is to employee 350 editorial and administrative workers under Maariv's collective agreement. To date, he has named 200 of the workers he will continue to employ, 160 administrative workers and 40 editorial workers involved with the paper's magazines.

Over the past few days, Ben-Zvi has been holding talks with the Sports Channel and the financial daily Globes about sharing content, which would likely result in the dismissal of almost all the paper's sports and financial journalists. But the employees of these departments made him a counteroffer: They asked to be given a chance to put out those sections while making steep cuts in expenses.

Ben-Zvi responded by suggesting that the company trustees employ 60 to 80 people to put out the sections for a month or two, after which he would make a decision. But the workers claimed this was a violation of their agreement, saying it would result in some people being employed at lower salaries and without the workers committee's consent.

Over the next few days, the two sides will try to come to an agreement about employing the additional 60 to 80 workers.

Maariv's workers committee said it plans to petition a labor court against Alshech's decision, because "we are concerned with the undermining of the collective agreement that was signed."