Teachers Union: Talks to End Strike 'Progress on Several Fronts'

On 32nd day of strike, union and government agree to 8.5 percent pay increase.

In the wake of the budding agreement between the Finance and Education ministries and the Secondary School Teachers Association, giving teachers a pay increase of 8.5 percent, elementary-school teachers will also receive this raise in return for working more.

An agreement to that effect was reached at a meeting Wednesday in Tel Aviv between Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Israel Teachers Union head Yossi Wasserman and Histadrut labor federation leader Ofer Eini.

The teachers strike at high schools and some junior highs is entering its 32nd day.

The sides are supposed to report Thursday to the National Labor Court on progress in their talks.

According to sources involved in the negotiations, Tuesday night's meeting yielded agreement on a pay hike of 8.5 percent (plus 1.5 percent included in an agreement signed with the Histadrut) for SSTA members. Treasury officials say it's not a done deal, but Tamir and Eini met with Wasserman Wednesday with the object of ensuring that ITU members not get hurt.

Participants in the meeting said that the emerging formula is for all teachers to receive the raise on two conditions: they pledge to join future reforms being instituted at elementary schools (320 schools this year) and agree to undertake additional work, the extent of which remains under discussion, as with the SSTA. When these teachers join the reform in practice, they will receive a supplement to the average pay raise of 26 percent.

This means increasing the budget for paying teachers' wages already this year, a fact Education Ministry officials say the treasury understands.

SSTA head Ran Erez said the sides are still far from reaching a deal, "but at least there is progress on several matters, topped by the agreement to give all teachers an immediate wage raise."

Erez stressed he would object to the treasury's proposal to grant that raise in two phases - January 2008 and a year later - and that the strike would not end unless the government commits to reduce class size and restore slashed instruction hours, over several years.

Meanwhile, the striking teachers are continuing their protest activities. Erez said that members of an American teachers union plan to demonstrate against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the start of the Annapolis conference.

Wednesday evening Finance Minister Roni Bar-On visited the teachers' protest tent in Jerusalem.

Bar-On told the teachers that the government cares about education as much as they do, adding that "there is an opportunity for real change that must not amount to a pay raise alone." However, he warned, "We cannot resolve in a day the problems of the number of pupils in a class, of teachers' salaries, of restoring hundreds of thousands of hours cut. It's a complex process that we must enter by talking and not under pressure of the strike."