In an extremely rare move, the union representing the Israel Defense Forces' civilian workforce declared a labor dispute Sunday which threatens to lead to an all-out strike.

The union is demanding higher wages and improved benefits.

"We always preferred maintaining restraint and never holding a strike due to the sensitive nature of the work we perform, but the defense establishment is taking advantage of that," said Moshe Friedman, the union chairman.

The purchasing power of wages earned by thousands of civilians employed on IDF bases - including production workers, computer technicians, engineers and maintenance staff - has eroded over the past five years, Friedman claims.

"Civilians working for the IDF and employed under second-generation status make minimum wage or even less and require income supplements," he added. "Only those working overtime make more than NIS 6,000 a month. Aside from the real drop in wages, there are constant reductions in the number of civilians employed by the IDF and the work load has grown.

"Until now, we have nearly taken for granted the fact that we are at the bottom of the defense establishment salary structure, as opposed to IDF careerists and employees of Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems," Friedman continued. "We now plan to put an end to this perpetual injustice."

The civilian employees are demanding a 10% pay increase and want their benefits to match those of IDF career soldiers, according to Friedman.

"We are discriminated against even in areas like holiday gifts," he claimed. "Uniformed careerists are entitled this year to a holiday gift worth NIS 1,000, while IDF civilian employees receive gifts worth only NIS 318. We weren't even allowed to join the warehouse club which extends benefits when buying products."

The Histadrut labor federation says it will back the IDF's civilian workers in their struggle, which is to begin with a national rally in Tel Aviv.

"We were always careful not to have protest activities in IDF facilities in consideration of security needs," the Histadrut said. "But this time we have a justified struggle that is unparalleled, and we'll consider supporting any measure decided on by the workers' organization."