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The Secondary Schools Teachers' Association yesterday decided to strike at the country's high schools and some junior high schools starting Wednesday. The strike will begin only next Wednesday in Arab schools.

The union, as well as the education and finance ministries, are preparing for a long strike, lasting weeks or even months. Union Chairman Ran Erez and Education Minister Yuli Tamir are scheduled to meet tomorrow morning, but Erez said yesterday he does not expect the action to be called off as a result.

Union leaders postponed the start of the strike by one day because Tamir is scheduled to return from a two-day visit to the United States this afternoon. "We didn't want to give the minister of education an excuse for not being able to get involved in the crisis," Erez said. "We want to allow her to be in Israel and to face the issue."

The union has been battling with the treasury and the Education Ministry for a year over a new collective bargaining agreement. Among the teachers' demands are a wage increase of between 20 percent and 25 percent and an improvement in working conditions.

During the 2006-2007 school year the union conducted short strikes in various parts of the country, but they were prohibited by the National Labor Court from interfering with matriculation exams. The court got involved in the issue again, before the start of the new school year last month, when it issued a court order to ensure that the schools opened as scheduled.

Sources in the Finance Ministry say the teachers' demands carry a combined annual price tag of NIS 1.2 billion.

"We have no intention of giving these amounts to teachers without getting their agreement to the proposed educational reforms in return," a treasury official said. The educational reform calls for increasing teacher pay and status and making wide-ranging administrative changes, among other things.

In response to the union's strike announcement, the education and finance ministries issued a joint announcement stating that "the teachers' union decided not to take advantage of the window of opportunity open to it, choosing instead not to join the reform of the education system and the collective bargaining agreement that was signed with the Histadrut Labor Federation and the Israel Teachers' Union [which represents elementary-school teachers].

The announcement added that the government "had allocated about NIS 5 billion for these reforms, about NIS 1.3 billion of which was for the participation in the reform of the Secondary School Teachers' Association."