Striking Foreign Ministry Staff to Hold Marathon Talks With Finance Min.

Foreign Minister Lieberman: There are red lines that mustn’t be crossed. Talks this evening aimed at ending strike.

Olivier Fitoussi

Former Judge Steve Adler, who is leading mediation efforts between striking Foreign Ministry workers and the Finance Ministry, summoned the parties involved in the dispute to an emergency meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The parties will engage in marathon negotiations aimed at bringing the strike to an end.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Adler on Monday inquiring as to why the talks were stalled. As a result of this telephone conversation, Adler contacted the Finance Ministry’s representatives and the Foreign Ministry’s workers’ union to find out if they were interested in resuming negotiations. “Both sides expressed the willingness to make another effort to arrive at an agreement,” Adler said in a statement. “I came to the conclusion that, given the tremendous damage caused by the strike, the sides must clear their schedules and sit down and solve the problem before the day is out. In light of the response by both sides’ representatives, I recommend renewing the mediation effort immediately, and invite Avi Nissenkorn, the head of the Histadrut’s trade union division, and Kobi Amsalem, director of the wages department in the Finance Ministry, to a mediation meeting at 5:00 P.M. Tuesday. The sides have been asked to free the entire evening for intensive talks and to invite the union and management representatives and all other relevant parties to the meeting in order to conclude the dispute.”

Lieberman slammed the conduct of his ministry’s labor union Tuesday, which declared a strike earlier this week to protest the terms of employment of ministry workers. According to Lieberman, “I instructed the ministry’s management to sever all contact with the labor union as long as it continues to block the entrance gates [to the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem]. Employees are entitled to strike, but they don’t have the right to prevent other people from entering.” He added that he is calling on the union to resume the mediation process and threatened to issue back-to-work orders.

At a press conference held in the Knesset, Lieberman said that the workers have lost public support for their struggle. “The strike is damaging the diplomats’ good name. You can’t conduct a fight on the backs of elderly invalids. There are red lines that mustn’t be crossed.” He added that “The strike is harming the helpless: infants in the process of being adopted, people who’ve lost their passports, elderly invalids whose caretakers are stuck abroad. The union made it impossible for the deputy foreign minister to attend the ceremony honoring the victims of the terrorist attack on the embassy in Buenos Aires.”

Referring to worker demands, the minister said that “There is nothing there for the junior and more vulnerable employees in the Foreign Ministry. Some of the demands are absurd and do nothing but protect the strong. Ambassadors’ salaries are in the $10,000-€10,000 range, depending on location, and do not include legal or household expenses.”

Lieberman added that the demands “must be reasonable. It seems that the union is forcing itself into a corner and has no strategy. They have no idea how to get out of that corner. A labor union has to look out for the employees, not just itself.” He also said that “some of the union’s actions are borderline criminal. Any administration officer who signs off on wages without the Finance Ministry authorization is guilty of larceny. I’m warning you.”

At the press conference, Lieberman said that the sanctions run contrary to the employees’ commitment not to strike during the mediation process supervised by Judge Steve Adler. “I spoke with Judge Adler. I asked him to do everything it takes to get the sides back to mediation or arbitration.” He also said: “I’m not going to get involved as long as the union doesn’t inform the court in writing that it is no longer interested in mediation.”

Lieberman sought to stress that “The mediator's decision is binding. The Finance Ministry accepts that. I am calling on the union to come back to mediation or to make an official announcement that it’s quitting.” He also said that if the union officially announces its withdrawal from mediation, he will play an active role. “I’ve met with the finance minister four times and with the head of the wages department more than a dozen times,” he said.

In response, Yair Fromer, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s workers’ union, said that he is “happy that, after a yearlong dispute, the minister is finally getting involved. According to Fromer, “Nothing has happened in seven months of mediation. It’s been a failure. Judge Steve Adler has not been able to make any progress because the Finance Ministry has been hamstringing the process.”

Fromer rejected Lieberman’s criticism of the union’s conduct and said, “We are engaging in legal sanctions. There has been no violence. If anything, people are complaining that we’ve been too nice.” Before the start of the foreign minister’s press conference, security personnel tried to prevent union representatives from attending, but relented under pressure from members of the press.