The first day of the social workers' strike ended yesterday with no negotiations between the sides, but representatives of the social workers union, the Finance Ministry and the Histadrut labor federation will meet this morning in an attempt to end the sanctions.

The union, which represents some 10,000 social workers employed by the state, reported near total compliance with the open-ended strike.

"I'd like to see a short strike, but I won't be surprised if we are forced to go on a long strike," union chairman Itzik Perry said. "So far, the proposal of a 20 percent [raise] for low earners is one we've only heard from the media. [The treasury] has only offered us a differential raise of 14.25 percent, which we won't accept."

The union is also demanding that whatever raise is ultimately agreed on also be applied to private-sector social workers.

But the Finance Ministry insisted that it had in fact offered a 20 percent raise for low earners.

"Their claim is that most of the workers earn low wages, and those are precisely the ones we want to take care of - via a 20 percent raise, the allocation of extra [staff] positions that will enable them to go up to full time, as well as raises for [people in] special roles," said Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, the treasury's deputy budget director.

"This is an offer we haven't made to any other sector during negotiations. But their demands aren't limited to workers earning low income; they also want big raises for workers who earn over NIS 10,000 [a month], over and above the 7.25 percent given to the entire public sector. And that's something we can't allow," he added.

Siman-Tov also said that after Friday's negotiating session, the treasury had asked the union to meet again on Saturday night and Sunday, but the latter refused.

Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon told the cabinet yesterday that he has set up an emergency committee, headed by one of his ministry's deputy directors general, to work with the social workers union in handling emergency situations.

The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment on the strike beyond saying that "the prime minister stands behind the finance minister and the social affairs minister in resolving the issue."

Cairo-inspired slogans

Hundreds of social workers from all over the north demonstrated yesterday at Mahanayim Junction, near Hatzor Haglilit, in support of the strikers' demands. They were joined by hundreds of social work students from Tel Hai College. The demonstrators, wearing red shirts and red armbands, blocked Route 90 for quite some time, but the police showed restraint and did not attempt to confront them.

Some of the slogans heard yesterday were clearly inspired by the recent revolutions sweeping the Arab world. "We want air like in Tahrir Square," went one chant, referring to the Cairo plaza that served as the center of Egypt's revolution.

"With such miserable wages, you can't even live in Libya," went another - which, like the first, rhymes in Hebrew.

Prof. Eli Leventhal of Tel Hai College, one of the demonstrators, said the social workers' battle is aimed at strengthening Israeli society.

"The prime minister, back when he was finance minister, decided to strengthen the Israeli billionaires, out of a belief that the strength of a society depends on the strong," Leventhal said. "But we believe it's exactly the opposite: You have to strengthen the weak, because they are the ones who give the state strength."

Dorit Yannai, an Acre social worker with 34 years of experience, said she earns only NIS 6,500 a month.

"I deal with people who have been emotionally wounded and help them with occupational therapy," she said. "I'm upset for the people who should be getting treatment today or in the coming days - but we won't be there. I know this is a nightmare for them, but I hope it will end as soon as possible, and then the situation will be good for everyone - us and them."

Inbar Meidani, a social work student at Tel Hai, said, "Anyone who goes into social work does this out of love for the profession and a sense of mission. We as students see this battle as our battle, because in the end we will finish our studies and go out to work with the weakest strata of society. We want to earn a living with dignity, just like everyone else."

Solidarity with the 'holy workers'

A similar demonstration took place yesterday in the south, drawing about 700 social workers, along with many of their clients. The protesters marched through Be'er Sheva to the government office complex, then ventured out and blocked various roads.

"We'll fight to the end and won't compromise for a minute," said Sara, a social worker from Be'er Sheva. "It's a disgrace what's going on here with our salaries; we're at the end of our rope."

Ashdod social worker Leah Shekel agreed. "I've been in this field for 40 years already and my [monthly] salary is NIS 6,000," she said.

Morris Sabag, who has been helped by social workers at the drug rehabilitation center where he is treated, said he joined the demonstration "to show solidarity with those who do holy work. Today the center where I'm treated is closed and this disrupts my entire day, but I'm here so that Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] and the cabinet ministers will understand that someone needs to help these people, who do holy work for all of us."