Teachers' Unions Cancel Strike, Academic Year to Begin on Time

Arab schools to strike in protest against discrimination, under-funding; Others may defy gov't order, strike later.

The Association of Secondary School Teachers will not violate a National Labor Court ruling forbidding it to strike during the first week of the school year, which begins on Sunday, the union said Thursday.

"We have weighed all the options, and for now, we have decided to abide by the court's order," said union chairman Ran Erez.

However, he added, "we are waiting to see the court's position during the hearing that will be held on September 6, and it is possible that after that, we will decide to violate the order."

"Had we violated the order now, this could have spurred the judges to make an ill-considered ruling, just to teach the teachers a lesson," the union leader continued.

"So we decided to give them another chance. But if the court continues along its current line in the upcoming deliberations, this will be proof that it is targeting the teachers' union and we will change our attitude."

The union has been negotiating with the Finance and Education Ministries since December 2006 over an increase in their wages, including supplements for overtime, and an increase in the number of teachers allowed to take early retirement.

During the last school year, the union carried out sporadic strikes in various parts of the country, though the National Labor Court forbade it to disrupt the matriculation exams.

In its latest decision, the labor court said that "it is important to distinguish between the right to strike ... and the type of strike that the [union] is planning" namely, a strike that would prevent the school year from starting as planned on September 2.

It therefore forbade a strike during the first week of school, but said it would reconsider its injunction on September 6.

Erez held another meeting Thursday with Eli Cohen, the Finance Ministry's wage director.

"The treasury wants first to hold several months of negotiations on reforms in the secondary education system, and to begin talks on increasing our wages only if these fail," Erez charged. "This means another delay in giving the teachers raises. We have no intention of entering these pointless discussions."

Meanwhile, representatives of the Arab local authorities and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee's education panel announced Thursday that the Arab community would begin the school year only on Tuesday, after a three-day strike that they described as a "warning."

"The government of Israel is being racist in its conduct toward the half a million Arab pupils who will not go back to school on September 1," said Shweiki Khatib, chairman of the National Committee of Arab Local Authority Heads. The Arab school year starts on Saturday rather than Sunday.

The Arab community's complaints include the slow pace at which new classrooms are being built, declining educational achievements and an insufficient number of guidance counselors and school psychologists.

However, the government is trying to persuade the Monitoring Committee to cancel the three-day strike, and the committee has said it will make a final decision today. Also Thursday, the Arab Education Forum in the Negev announced that it would not open five elementary schools and 12 kindergartens on September 1. All are institutions serving the Bedouin community in the Negev.

According to Dr. Awad Abu Farih, who coordinates the forum's activities, the decision to strike is a protest against the "state of the infrastructure in these educational institutions, which endangers the pupils' safety, and the absence of sufficient new construction [of schools], which is causing terrible crowding."