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Membership in the Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTT) grew this year by about 2,100 teachers, compared to a loss of about 2,200 teachers for the Israel Teachers Union (Histadrut Hamorim), according to official Education Ministry figures.

Ministry sources say many of the teachers who joined the SSTT this year teach in junior high schools and used to be members of the Teachers Union. Teachers who left the ITU said they chose to do so to avoid having to work according to the conditions of the Ofek Hadash (New Horizon) reforms, which are part of the agreement signed recently between the state and the ITU.

The membership figures relate to the period of September 2007 to April 2008, and the total number of teachers in the SSTT reached 30,700, up 8%. The ITU has 88,288 members.

The ITU still maintains a majority in junior high schools: Of the 19,100 teachers in junior highs, 53% belong to the ITU, 32% to the SSTT and 15% do not belong to either union.

Despite these official figures, the SSTT reported that its membership had grown by 3,245 teachers in the period from September 2007 to June 2008, most of them teaching at junior high schools. Yet, the ITU insists that the drop in its numbers is much smaller than reported, only about a few hundred.

Yaakov Attias, a teacher in Be'er Sheva, joined the SSTT last December: "If a full-time position means 24 hours [of teaching] a week, and Ofek Hadash demands 36 hours from me, that constituted an increase of 50%. Then why do I only get a 26% salary increase? I am a math teacher, so I did the calculations: Today I make NIS 52 an hour gross, compared to NIS 38 an hour under the reforms." He explained that since he did not want to work under the reform, he switched to the SSTT, and 35 other teachers moved with him.

An Education Ministry official said yesterday: "The Teachers Union, just like the treasury and the Education Ministry, understands that the junior high schools have turned into the main area of competition between the two organizations. Therefore, it is possible that changes will be made in the reforms in the junior highs, to try to bring teachers back to the ITU."

Ran Erez, the chairman of the SSTT, said: "The figures we have indicate that those joining us have left the ITU. Some joined because of the struggle and others to escape Ofek Hadash. The teachers understand that the reforms will require them to work longer hours for little money, and they don't want to be subject to those conditions. SSTT members are not required to work in Ofek Hadash."

The ITU responded: "To our regret, the teachers leaving us are fed by lies, spread by interested parties. The proof of the success of the reform is that not a single teacher notified [us] of their wish to return to the old conditions, even though they can do so this year."