School Matters / The Right to Strike? Not in Our Book

It seems unlikely that the plethora of mediators, intermediaries and arbiters will bring about a solution to the secondary school teachers' strike. The future of the strike is largely dependent on the National Labor Court's decision on whether to issue the teachers back-to-work orders. Technically, the orders would be only for teachers of 11th- and 12th-graders, who are preparing for matriculation exams, but the Secondary School Teachers Association (SSTA) has already stated that if the court rules against it, all the teachers will go back to school. "We cannot wage a struggle when some of the teachers are teaching and their colleagues are continuing to strike," they said.

Would-be mediators include Adi Eldar, head of the Union of Local Authorities. After two days of talks with the teachers, he backed the state in its back-to-work request. Others include Histadrut labor federation chair Ofer Eini, who supports the teachers and still hopes to facilitate negotiations; and Teachers Union secretary Yossi Wasserman, who two days ago backed the rival union's demands. President Shimon Peres met a group of parents who had called for his intervention, and said he, too, would be prepared to try and mediate.

The mediators are unlikely to achieve results on an issue where discussions have dragged on for more than a year. The reason for this is not only the SSTA's preference for conducting direct negotiations with the government, but also the near-strategic treasury decision that only the labor court can end the strike. At a discussion two days ago in the Knesset Education Committee, Finance Ministry wages director Eli Cohen called the behavior of the SSTA and its head "problematic."

"We are prepared for any kind of deal - a high-school education reform or a new collective agreement - but the SSTA has turned down all the proposals. We have no choice but to request that the labor court solve the conflict," he said.

The reality is apparently a little more complicated. "The Finance Ministry does not believe in negotiations with the teachers organizations," said a senior Education Ministry official who has been involved in the negotiations. "They did not believe in this when they formulated the agreement with the Teachers Union, and they did not start believing in this when the strike began. The proposals that the teachers received after four weeks of striking are very similar to those made at the beginning of the strike. There has not been any real progress."

Another ministry official added: "It is difficult to shake off the feeling that the treasury officials' participation at the meetings is merely appearances. In the labor court debates, the state will claim it has done everything in its power to further the negotiations."

People who participated in mediation attempts feel Education Minister Yuli Tamir does not necessarily agree with the treasury officials, but is going along with them. "Tamir is genuinely trying to solve the crisis outside of court," said one person who participated in the meeting two days ago. Another source says Tamir is toeing the treasury line because of her relatively poor standing within the Labor Party. "She doesn't have real allies to back her. She has no one to rely on, other than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On," the source said.

Halakhically valid

The teachers' strike in the high schools and some junior high schools started 25 days ago, and has kept some 550,000 students at home. However, the strike has not affected all students equally. Many schools in the religious sector are continuing to hold classes. The strike has affected national-religious schools more than yeshivas and ultra-Orthodox girls' seminaries. Some 80,000 pupils study in religious high schools, according to the Education Ministry.

When the strike began, national-religious education council chair Rabbi Avi Gisser and the heads of the big religious networks decided religious studies would continue. Rabbi Haim Druckman, chairman of the Center of Bnei Akiva yeshivas, prompted this move. "While we understand SSTA's struggle, the religious educational institutions' supreme obligation is to study and teach Torah every day. Keeping up Torah studies is a matter of utmost importance to us," the parties wrote in their decision not to join the strike. But some of the religious educational institutions use this as an authorization to teach regular studies. The result is a partial strike.

Below the official reasons lies another one - the trend toward privatization in the religious sector. Parents may pay as much as NIS 15,000 a year to put their children in these schools. Principals say they cannot go against parents' demands that they continue teaching. "The parents don't care about the teachers' strike," said the principal of a high school yeshiva in the center of the country. "They want their money's worth. And we fear that if we don't hold all classes, the parents will simply transfer their children to another school, one that doesn't make concessions."

"The strike-breaking in some of the religious schools is a breaking of yet another link tying them to the general public," said a skullcap-wearing teacher from Jerusalem, who has joined the strike. "When you add in the commitment to parents who pay thousands of shekels, you get a separate school system."

Contrary to many of the religious school system heads, Haim Borgansky, rabbi of Mitzpeh Hoshayahu in the Galilee, actually supports the teachers' strike. He believes the religious education stream must participate in the strike for ethical and halakhic reasons. "Many important rabbinic authorities consider the worker's right to strike to be a basic halakhic right, if the matter is anchored in the country's labor laws and the strike is conducted legally," Rabbi Borgansky wrote to teachers at one of the religious high schools. This note was disseminated far beyond what he had expected. Regarding the prohibition against "stopping Torah studies," he wrote. "All these claims are just as correct in reference to summer break or other vacations. In my opinion, an institution that does not teach its pupils Torah for three months a year cannot tell its teachers that their justified strike should not stop Torah studies."

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva and the rabbi of Beit El, gave his support. "If one side refuses to talk or to go to arbitration, a strike may be used ... This rule also applies to teachers who claim they do not receive enough pay. And even more so, this is for the good of the pupils, since if the teachers cannot earn an honest living, many will not enter this profession, and others will leave ... Therefore, despite the fact that students lose out during a strike, in the long run, they gain," he wrote.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, one of the heads of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, which combines religious studies with military service, also backed the struggle. "The religious teachers, including those who have the privilege of teaching religious studies, must be an integral part of the strike," he wrote. "The abundance of private funds in the national-religious educational network is a terrible injustice toward those who do not have the means and do not receive a good education. This struggle is aimed at correcting this disgraceful state of affairs."

But meanwhile, these voices have not changed the position of most of the religious educational institutions.

Bringing in reforms

Meanwhile, parallel to the strike in the secondary schools, the Education Ministry is continuing its efforts to get additional elementary schools to join the reform it agreed upon with the Teachers Union. Under this reform, teachers will receive more pay in exchange for more work hours. The ministry has eased its goal of getting 70 percent of teachers to sign on, and is settling for 50 percent. It has made other concessions, too: Teachers who join may return to their prior work conditions at the end of the academic year. It is so eager to announce that the reform is underway that its commitment to schools that join - that they will have proper infrastructure to increase instruction hours until 3:30 P.M. - has been forgotten.

Education Ministry officials promise the reform will go into effect in some 320 schools this year. Renovations have been completed in about 100 of these schools, because they are in the communities where the Dovrat report recommendations have been applied for the past two years. For the remainder, their needs have not been mapped out, and no solution has been found. By the most optimistic assessments, renovations in these schools will be finished two to three months before the end of the academic year.

"When they suggested to us that we join in the reform, they promised to send a committee to examine whether the school is suited for it," said the principal of an elementary school in an Arab community in the North. "The committee didn't come, but the Education Ministry is pressuring us to join. We don't have a laboratory, a library or a gym. We don't even have enough classrooms. They talk about working in small groups with the pupils and about the teachers preparing lessons and checking exams in private nooks, but we do not have the space for this."

The agreement between the education and finance ministries, which details how the reform will be paid for, states that every year for the next five years, the Education Ministry would get NIS 20 million "for adapting infrastructures." This is a sizable sum, and apparently will be enough for the 120 schools scheduled to begin the reform. However, in the next school year, some 700 schools are supposed to join on. The sums they will receive apparently will total less than NIS 30,000. "There is hardly any point in starting renovations with a sum like this," a local authority official said. "Perhaps they will repaint the corridors, but they won't be able to do much more than that. This only gives the appearance of renovations."

This time, for the first time in a long while, Education Ministry officials said merely, "No comment."