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Only a few dozen teachers still remained outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem as midnight approached on Wednesday night. At that time, the finance and education ministers and Ran Erez, the chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association, were trying to find a compromise solution that would avert the implementation of the back-to-work order and bring about the end of the strike, which has already dragged on for more than two months. Suddenly, a small window opened on the second floor of the ministry, and the right-hand woman of Ran Erez, Nurit Valensi, waved at the demonstrators below. "It's gonna be okay!" she called down to them. "We're gonna reach a good agreement."

The teachers responded immediately: "The struggle must go on," they asserted, and also sang the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: "The most important thing is not to be afraid." It wasn't clear whether the demonstrators - most of them key activists who had accompanied the struggle from its inception - wanted to strengthen the hand of their representatives in their talks with the government, or perhaps to fortify themselves, in an attempt to cope with the gap between the expectations generated by the strike and the agreement that was being hammered out.

This strike had more than its share of emotion-fraught moments: the first, still hesitant, demonstration, in the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; the protests at major road junctions, first in the Jerusalem area and afterward in dozens of locales; the organizing of independent campaign headquarters around the country; the rapid mobilization, by means of an efficient communications network, for demonstrations in front of Jerusalem's National Labor Court whenever the government sought back-to-work orders; the huge demonstration in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, which drew 100,000 teachers, parents and students; the discussions over the past few days among teachers from dozens of schools over whether to violate the back-to-work orders that were finally issued.

"Suddenly a teacher gets up and feels he is a nation," Leora Timinker, a teacher in Kibbutz Tzora, outside Jerusalem, said a few weeks ago in the midst of the struggle, paraphrasing a famous poem. It was not Erez who pushed these teachers into the streets. The educational reality, the product of years of neglect, is what did it.

This is exactly why the crisis that will accompany the return to school will likely be significant. When the full agreement is finally worked out (as of press time, the lawyers for both sides were hammering out the final details), the teachers will end up with a salary raise of about 8.5 percent, in return for which they will work an extra two hours a week, not frontally in the classrooms, but with small groups of both outstanding and weak students.

By comparison, the teachers originally demanded a raise of 50 percent, though within a few days this had been lowered to 15 percent, provided it was immediate. In any event, the disparity is large.

The wage increment now agreed on will be the first step on the road to a comprehensive reform, which could get the teachers a 26-percent wage hike. The specifics of the reform, including the payment schedule and the extra work that will be required of the teachers, will be worked out in the coming six months. In addition, a government commitment, more or less concrete, was obtained to reduce the average number of students in the classes and to restore the teaching hours that were cut over recent years, particularly in secondary schools. According to government sources involved in the negotiations, this list of achievements could have been concluded weeks earlier. Hundreds of thousands of teaching hours have gone down the drain, and hundreds of thousands of shekels were invested in publicity campaigns and media advisers.

Moreover, it is not clear what influence the extra, limited work will have on the secondary-school system. In the elementary schools that affiliated themselves with the reform this year, the addition totals five extra hours in the classroom. Taking into account the distress of the high schools - heterogeneous classes, relatively difficult material and the constant pressure of the matriculation exams - this adds up to "Grandma's cure-all for a critically ill patient," as a source in the Education Ministry put it. "We can only hope that the continued discussions will engender a more meaningful reform," the source added.

Based on the experience of the past few months of negotiations, the sides face an almost impossible task. At the beginning of the week, when Erez dropped the demand for the first wage hike, an official in the treasury noted, "At least now we won't have to fight with him over a comprehensive reform."

Fanning the flames

Even though the government and the teachers will assert in the days ahead that an opening has been created for a reform, it's doubtful whether they themselves believe it. Education Minister Yuli Tamir maintains that it is better to invest more in the elementary schools, and the treasury, too, is inclined to think nostalgically about the Dovrat report, which recommended "inverting the pyramid" by investing massively in early-age education. In this situation, the junior highs and the high schools are liable to continue standing alone. The commitment of the teachers association itself to substantive changes has also not yet been proved.

The longer the strike went on, the more the crisis of trust between the finance and education ministries and the leaders of the teachers association deepened. At the same time, the teachers' expectations soared. "There was a spiraling of expectations," one of the activists in the struggle said this week. "There were teachers who truly believed that they would return to work with twice the salary and teach in classes of 20 students. Some of them lost touch with reality." In a moment of candor, he added that the teachers association played a key role in cultivating those hopes, with the aim of fanning the fire of the revolt.

A similar pattern was also visible in the discussion over the past few days regarding the teachers' reaction to the back-to-work orders. Erez stated that he would respect the decision of the National Labor Court and call on the teachers to return to the schools. But in the same breath, he also warned that thousands of teachers would not heed his words. In this case, it is possible that the message got through to the decision-makers.

According to one of those involved in the negotiations, "The political echelon was frightened by the intensity of the opposition to the back-to-work orders." This is denied by both the finance and education ministries. "Yuli Tamir really and truly did not want the teachers to return to work under court order," sources in the Education Ministry explain, and officials in the treasury add, at least formally, that "back-to-work orders are not the way to resolve the crisis."

Another question has to do with the teachers' demand for the reduction of the size of the classes and restoration of teaching hours. From the point of view of the teachers association, the insistence on these two issues proved that the struggle was not only about a wage hike. However, it was only a week to 10 days after the start of the strike that these demands were put forward unequivocally. Various sources well-informed about the negotiations suggest several explanations for this: These were authentic demands that were put forward by the various campaign headquarters and were "introduced" into the official position of the teachers association; at about the same time, the teachers' organization began to avail itself of the services of the PR man Motti Morell, who had concluded that public support could be garnered with these demands. In other words, this was a well-planned media tactic: The demands were intended to divert a possible disagreement over the government's demand for more work by the teachers in return for more money. Erez maintains that there was no change in his positions throughout the strike.

Sara Landau, who teaches literature and geography in a high school in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, and is active in the Jerusalem campaign headquarters, believes that the first explanation is the correct one. Immediately after the strike began, she says, "We saw ourselves as a body that would steel the teachers association. The demand for smaller classes and the restoration of teaching hours was raised for the first time in a petition signed by thousands of teachers, which we sent to Ran Erez. The next day, the demand was already up on the Web site of the teachers association." She has no problem with the "borrowing" of the demand, she adds. "We are happy that we were able to have some influence."

Rare respite

According to Landau, "The processes that were engendered in the struggle will come to fruition in another few months. When I enter the classroom, I will be a different teacher." She is referring mainly to the internal cohesion undergone by the teachers - one of the most downtrodden groups in the public service - during the strike. "We found one another and we discovered how important it is to work together with other teachers," she explains. "It creates strength to take part in shaping the future reform. These are not quantifiable things, just like education."

"The anger, the frustration, the feeling that education is being trampled, led to the tremendous mobilization of so many teachers for the struggle," notes Itai Yavin, a Jerusalem high-school teacher. "It was simply a feeling that it was impossible to go on like this any longer. No one foresaw the intensity of it, not even the teachers. I believe that now, after the strike, the perception of the teachers as apathetic has collapsed. That is already a major achievement in itself."

Over the weekend, the teachers will start to digest the contents of the agreement. Initial conversations with some suggest that criticism of it is only a matter of time, as is the concern that the feeling of deep involvement will melt away once the daily work routine begins anew. "The strike created a rare respite for us, during which it was possible to think about the issues of principle - what we expect from our students, from ourselves as teachers, from the Education Ministry and also from the teachers association," a teacher said yesterday morning. "Now it's back to the meat grinder."