Teachers Union Chief Leaves PM's Office Without Meeting Olmert

The heads of the Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTA) left the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on Friday after dropping by unannounced in hopes of meeting face-to-face with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

SSTA chairman Ran Erez and his negotiating team arrived at the Prime Minsiter's Office for a lightning visit with Olmert that would, in their words, "bring a quick end to the strike."

At the same time, however, top Treasury and Education Ministry officials were awaiting the arrival of SSTA representatives at a different location. It was through news media reports that they learned of their intention to meet with Olmert rather than with them as previously scheduled. The teachers union said that Erez informed the Treasury that their meeting had been canceled.

The SSTA heads made the trip to the Prime Minister's Office in response to the letter from Olmert which was published in Friday editions of Yedioth Ahronot. In the missive, the premier called on the teachers to end the strike, promising a substantial increase in salary that would range from 26 percent to 34 percent.

The union is convinced that Olmert's letter is a ploy by the government. Erez said that he is willing to wait for the prime minister until Friday sundown.

"If the prime minister will sign an agreement with us today, he will be invited to the protest rally at Rabin Square tomorrow, which will turn into a thank-you rally," Erez said. "All indications are that we are talking about spin coming from the prime minister, and we will now try to test the seriousness of his intentions."

"Olmert is making declarations, but if he's serious then he should arrange a quick meeting and we can catch him at his word," a teachers union official said. "Our demands are clear and they're known. If they will be met, we can end the strike today."

The teachers are holding firm on a salary bump (8.5 percent, which has already been agreed to in principle), the reinstatement of 20,000 classroom hours per year over the course of the next five years, and the reduction of classroom size to 30 students per room within five to six years.

The Prime Minister's Bureau replied that no meeting with Erez was scheduled and that the officials authorized to handle the negotiations are the education and finance ministers.

Government officials said Thursday the demands by striking teachers are exorbitant and cannot be fulfilled.

"Fulfilling the teachers' demands would lead to an economic collapse," a treasury official said after yesterday's round of talks with the SSTA, whose strike enters its 33rd day today.

SSTA chairman Ran Erez said the government must change its priorities and prove it is serious about how important education is.

The SSTA's three main demands are an 8.5 percent wage increase - which would also be given to elementary-school teachers in return for working more - reducing the number of pupils per class to 30 and restoring slashed instruction hours.

The SSTA is demanding the wage increase already in January, but treasury officials say the overall cost of these demands reaches NIS 2.5 billion.

"After the cabinet approved the budget proposal and submitted it to the Knesset, next year's budget is closed," a senior treasury official said.

"The budget increased the funds for security and Holocaust survivors and there's also the agreement with the Teachers Federation. We won't crash the entire economy because of the strike. As soon as this strike is over, the next struggles will erupt; for example, the struggle for increasing health services."

He said that reducing the number of children per classroom and restoring slashed instruction hours must be spread out over several years.

The treasury's budget director, Kobi Haber, said that "there is no way we can add NIS 2.5 billion to the education budget now."

Erez said that "the money is there, it's a question of priorities. That's the basic meaning of our struggle. If education is so important to the government, it can change the law."