Prime Minister Calls on High School Teachers to End 'Unjustified' Strike

PARIS - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday called for an end to the high school teachers strike, which enters its 12th day today, and lambasted the head of the Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTA), Ran Erez.

"This is a superfluous and utterly unjustified strike," Olmert told reporters during his visit to Paris. "I call on the teachers to stop the strike immediately, and on the secretary of the teachers organization to stop the sanctions, which are hurting the students and the status of teachers in Israel."

According to Olmert, "we made a dramatic revolution in education this year, and we reached an agreement with the Israel Teachers Union, which represents the vast majority of Israeli teachers, on a wage increase of 33 percent. The agreement was also offered to the Secondary School Teachers Association, and already today there is a budget of $1.3 billion for secondary school teachers. But the secretary of the association, as usual, thinks he can get a better agreement for his organization."

Asked why he did not intervene personally to end the strike, Olmert said he was deeply involved in the matter of education and fully supported Education Minister Yuli Tamir. He added that he met with Tamir on Sunday, before departing on his European tour, "and I am coordinated with her down to the smallest detail."

As of last night, no new talks had been scheduled with the strikers.

Erez, meanwhile, called his own press conference in Tel Aviv yesterday to make his case.

"We have an obligation to cry out that the future of the education system, and of the students, are in great danger," he said. "Even if the Finance Ministry were to offer a 15-percent raise, but did not also promise to reduce the number of students per class, we would not agree."

He added that teachers would hold a series of demonstrations and meetings in the coming days with the goal of explaining the strike - inter alia, to parents - "so that everyone will understand that the struggle is not just over a raise, but over the future of Israeli education. This is a battle for the welfare state and reducing [social] gaps."

In addition, he said, the union plans to file a complaint with the United Nations about the deteriorating education system, and also to inform overseas Jewish donors "that the government is not making proper use of the money they donate - namely, by investing in education."

Erez, who urged Olmert to intervene personally in the crisis, was disappointed by the premier's statements in Paris, saying they showed that he "is not knowledgeable about the dispute and the SSTA's demands. The agreement with the Teachers Union is a bad agreement for the teachers, though it saves the government a lot of money."

Eli Cohen, the treasury's wage director, retorted that the SSTA's main goal was to thwart the reforms agreed to by the Teachers Union, which represents elementary school teachers. Erez's union, he charged, wants a huge raise unaccompanied by any reforms at all.