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The Histadrut threatened Monday to declare a work dispute as a prelude to a general strike, unless the government entered into "sincere negotiations" with the striking teachers.

The statement followed the stalemate meeting between Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini, and Education Minister Yuli Tamir and treasury officials Sunday night.

"If the government doesn't show a willingness to engage in sincere negotiations, we'll declare a labor dispute, which will enable us to take significant steps 14 days later," said a senior labor federation official. "We don't want to reach that situation, but if there's no progress we may declare a general strike."

The court hearing on whether to issue back-to-work orders for striking secondary-school teachers had been postponed to Monday, after Eini offered to mediate between the government and the Secondary School Teachers Association. Monday National Labor Court President Steve Adler decided to hold the hearing only after he receives clarifications from both sides.

Meanwhile, the teachers' strike is entering its 25th day.

A senior Histadrut official said that Finance Ministry officials showed no desire to advance the negotiations.

"The meeting was apparently intended [to enable] the court hearing," said the official.

"Tamir prefers a settlement out of court, but the treasury is pushing for a legal solution. This is a mistake, because even if they issue back-to-work orders for the teachers, they would be temporary, and afterward both sides would return to the starting point. The only solution is real dialogue. This has not happened so far."

Last week Eini proposed a solution to the conflict, consisting of four points: 1. Secondary-school teachers would receive a pay raise of 26 percent, over five years. 2. In return, teachers would work an additional three hours per week (not in classroom instruction). 3. The pay raise would apply to all teachers. 4. The sides would start talks on reforms, such as reducing classroom size and restoring slashed instruction hours, as teachers have demanded.

The Histadrut promised that any monetary gain the teachers win under the reform would not be grounds for renegotiating agreements with other sectors in the economy.

The Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTA) chair Ran Erez agreed to this proposal in principle, but the Finance and Education ministries have refused to negotiate on it.

Despite the ministries' position, the Histadrut is trying to arrange a meeting today between Eini, Erez, Tamir and treasury officials.

If it transpires that the government is not willing to negotiate in earnest, the Histadrut will cease to serve as broker and place itself squarely behind the teachers, it said Monday.

Tamir said at the Knesset's Education Committee session that the main obstacle in the negotiations was the SSTA's demand for a 15 percent wage increment for all the teachers.

"At this moment this difference cannot be bridged," she said. "If they show flexibility on this, even a little, I promise to fight for flexibility in the treasury as well."

The treasury's wage director, Eli Cohen, said that after the previous talks' failure, "we have no choice but to go to court for a solution. The SSTA is on a wildcat strike."

At the end of the meeting the committee called on the government to revoke its request for back-to-work orders.

The teachers, who heckled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech Monday, shouted at him among other things "600,000 pupils are out on the streets and you're not intervening to solve the crisis," and "the government is neglecting education."

Amiad Meltzer, a teacher from Jerusalem, said "if the prime minister had taught Israel's management and business leadership how to solve a crisis, the first lesson would have been on how to identify a crisis and education is in deep crisis today."

Olmert replied that the teachers mut first agree on the reform that was offered them. "It's time you too reformed your work and conduct," he said.

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