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The union of secondary school teachers is scheduled to meet in Tel Aviv today to discuss the timing of a strike expected to start this week. The meeting comes after talks with Education Minister Yuli Tamir last Friday failed to yield results on a wage agreement.

Union leader Ran Erez left no room for doubt that the teachers would take action, saying "the strike is on its way."

Union sources said yesterday that despite the good atmosphere at the Friday talks, a strike will begin later this week. Only its character and duration must be decided.

The finance and education ministries, meanwhile, are preparing for the likelihood that the strike will be long, sources said.

For nearly a year, the secondary school teachers' union, which includes educators at junior high schools, has been in a labor dispute with the finance and education ministries, seeking a new collective agreement.

After Friday's meeting, Tamir sounded more optimistic than union chairman Erez, who said that "the situation has not changed significantly."

Tamir said that "we have established a basis for continued dialogue that will continue in the coming days. I hope that as long as there is a framework of dialogue, there will be no strike. It is a long process ... and a lot of patience is needed."

But Erez was quick to clarify where the minister's power ends. "In spite of her good intentions, the education minister lacks the authority to hold talks on issues of economic substance," he said.

Erez added that "we took part in this meeting because it was important for us to hold a discussion on professional matters in which we can reach an agreement on the goals and missions of the school system. In this case, the minister can stress before the prime minister that the key to preventing the strike is in his hands."

Erez also said that "treasury officials do not determine government policy, but are expected to execute it. Only the prime minister can order the treasury to hold serious negotiations with us. We have been talking for so long, and we have not progressed by even one millimeter."

However, a senior source in the Prime Minister's Bureau told Haaretz yesterday that exchanges with the teachers' unions are the responsibility of the education minister and the finance minister, and that at this stage the prime minister will not be involved.

"The prime minister trusts that Yuli Tamir and [Finance Minister] Roni Bar-On will handle the matter and find a solution," the source said.

The teachers are demanding a 20 to 25 percent salary hike and various improvements to their employment terms including pensions and compensation for tutoring pupils who are learning-disabled. They also want a restoration of teaching hours that have been cut over the past few years, and for class sizes to be limited.

During the past school year the union held one-day strikes in different parts of the country, but the National Labor Court forbade them to do anything that might impede matriculation exams. At a later date, the court accepted the government's petition, and forbade the union to disrupt the start of the current school year.

However, on September 6 the government asked that the court injunction be removed.

The union maintains that no progress was achieved in talks with treasury officials, while the Finance Ministry says that the teachers' demands "are not logical."

The government has called on the secondary school teachers' union to join the agreement reached with the primary school teachers for an average wage increase of 26 percent, in return for a longer teaching week of 36 hours.