Liberman lashes out at striking Foreign Ministry workers

Foreign minister accuses disgruntled employees of waging labor struggle on the backs of Israelis in distress.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, February 7, 2014. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, February 7, 2014.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Representatives from the Treasury, the Histadrut and the Foreign Ministry workers’ committee met Tuesday night with mediator Steven Adler to begin marathon talks aimed at ending the strike that has grounded the country’s Foreign Service.
The meeting followed Liberman’s request to Adler, the retired president of the National Labor Court, for his recommendations on ending the strike that began Sunday, following three weeks of crippling work sanctions that have left Isra elis who have lost passports stranded abroad, led to the cancellation of a high profile visit by the Prime Minister to South America and left Israel without representation at countless conferences and meetings abroad.
Adler has been mediating the work dispute for the last seven months.
He issued a statement saying that as a result of Liberman’s request, he checked with the sides and determined there was an interest by both sides to put an end to the crisis. “In light of the damage caused by the strike it is necessary for the representatives of the sides to clear their schedules and hold a mediation meeting today,” he said.
The meeting took place in the office of Avi Nissenkorn, head of the Histadrut’s trade union division. Kobi Amsalem, director of the wages department in the Finance Ministry, represented the Treasury.
Earlier in the day Liberman took off the gloves regarding his striking workers and said at a press conference that they have lost public support and are damaging the ministry.
“A number of red lines have been crossed, and now they are damaging the Foreign Ministry,” Liberman said, adding that he is generally on the side of the workers. “At this time the struggle has gone very much in the wrong direction, and there has been a loss of legitimacy and public support.”
Liberman, who said he has done more for the workers regarding salaries and additional positions than any of his predecessors, said there was no reason that the struggle should be waged on the backs of Israelis in distress who need the ministry’s services and cannot get them.
He cited Israelis abroad who lost passports and cannot return to Israel, foreign caretakers giving aid to the elderly who cannot get visas, or bodies of Israelis who died abroad that cannot be transported back to the country for burial as a result of the work stoppage.
This behavior “hurts our good name and the public support in our struggle,” he said.
The foreign minister, giving his first press conference on the work dispute that stretches back to 2012, slammed the ministry’s workers’ committee for unilaterally bolting a seven month mediation process and for using “verbal and physical violence” to further their goals.
The violence he referred to were the workers blocking the entrance of his staff and others into the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, and taunts toward those working in the ministry not backing the sanctions.
He said that he gave a directive to the ministry’s management to cut off all contact with the workers’ committee as long as there is violence.
While acknowledging that salaries for younger members of the foreign service needed to be increased, he said some of the demands of the workers were “absurd” and exaggerated.
One example he gave was a demand that the pension for workers be based on a diplomat’s final salary abroad. Diplomats make considerably more abroad than they do when posted at the ministry in Jerusalem.
For example, he said the salary for Israel’s ambassador in Nepal is $9,752 a month, the salary of the envoy in Berlin was €10,152 – and that does not include additional payments such as home maintenance.
“It is illogical to think that the pension will be based on that sum,” he said.
“The demands have to be reasonable to show that this is not a struggle over ego, but for the workers,” he said. “What has happened is that the workers’ committee has gotten entangled, has no strategy, does not know how to further wage the struggle, has climbed up a high tree and does not know how to come down.”
Liberman also took the workers to task for claims that onethird of the diplomatic corps has left over the last decade because of financial considerations, saying that in many cases people left because they did not get the assignment they wanted, and chalked it up to bad pay.
People do not join the ministry for pay, he said, but rather for the challenge and its “way of life.”
The head of the ministry’s workers’ committee, Yair Frommer, who attended Liberman’s press conference, said afterward that he was pleased that the minister has finally seen fit to get involved.
“I hope the minister has come to solve this problem, and call on him to work with us to solve this crisis,” he said.
He explained the workers’ decision to leave the mediation process as having to do with their belief that mediation was “not an end, but a means” and that the treasury was torpedoing these efforts.
He denied that the workers were using “violence,” and said that the only criticism of the workers’ committee he has heard over the years is that it is not aggressive enough.
Frommer said that diplomats with 15 years experience were grossing NIS 9,000 a month, and were often the only breadwinners in their families since their spouse had to give up their career in order to travel with them abroad.
The workers’ committee disputed the salary figures Liberman presented at the press conference for ambassadors, and said that in any event lower level diplomats in the embassies earn between NIS 6,000 to NIS 13,000 a month.
President Shimon Peres, during a swearing in ceremony for 26 judges and court registrars at his official residence, voiced concern over the harm that the strike was causing the state and its foreign relations.
Peres, who will be traveling to Austria on Sunday for a three-day state visit, will be doing so without the services of the Foreign Ministry. The arrangements for his trip were made by members of his own staff.
Peres said that he did not want to blame anyone for the situation, but said it was imperative to end the strike as quickly as possible.
Peres, who has in the past served stints as finance minister and as foreign minister, urged both sides to place greater confidence in Adler’s ability to formulate a solution to the dispute. “The Foreign Ministry is very dear to me,” he said, “and the Finance Ministry is very important.”
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.