Tnuva workers are threatening to strike, shutting down production and delivery of dairy products after negotiations over a new salary deal broke down.

The union at Tnuva, Israel's biggest food supplier, on Wednesday asked the Histadrut labor federation to declare an official labor dispute. Under the law, a full-blown strike is only legal two weeks after a dispute is formally declared.

The previous wage agreement governing labor relations at Tnuva expired at the beginning of last summer, just when the so-called "cottage cheese" protests against the high cost of living began. The union ecided to be responsible and not raise additional financial demands at the time, said Ahiav Simhi, chairman of Tnuva's workers union. The workers had thought to help the company during this unprecedented time of crisis, showing solidarity as consumers turned against the former favorite and boycotted it.

But: "The responsibility shown by the 7,000 employees made no impression on the owners and board," Simhi said.

Only now, nine months after the previous agreement expired, has Tnuva chairman Shlomo Rodav instructed management to start negotiating with the workers, Simhi said. They don't expect to be offered more than crumbs, despite Tnuva's large profits, said Simhi.

Tnuva is controlled by the international investments fund Apax Partners.

The workers are demanding 10% raises, and bonuses for all when the new agreement is signed. The bonuses should be equivalent to a monthly salary and will be adjusted for seniority, in their view.

The union is also demanding that Tnuva immediately hire hundreds of subcontract workers as permanent employees. Most of these work as cleaners or on delivery trucks.

"Just a month ago we were informed that Tnuva will distribute a NIS 380 million dividend, building on the previous dividend to total NIS 2.15 billion," said Simhi.

"That is the result of the employees contribution. We refuse to accept that the shareholders disport themselves in hot tubs filled with milk and honey while the board preaches morality and bewails a lack of ability to reward the workers properly," he added.

"We will not stand aside and watch how the owners milk the Tnuva cow. The insatiable shareholder will find himself facing a battle with employees that will make the cottage cheese protests of consumers pale in comparison," said Simhi.

Tnuva management said that it declines to handle the company's labor relations via the media."