Round 1 Goes to the Treasury

The Finance Ministry hasn't been this happy in a long time: it has now managed to defeat Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association.

The Finance Ministry hasn't been this happy in a long time: it has now managed to defeat Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association. True, it won on points and not by a knockout, but winning on points is still winning.

The victory is particularly sweet because Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and the ministry's wages director, Eli Cohen, managed to organize an entire coalition against Erez. The coalition included the Education Ministry (which in most cases supports the teachers' demands) and the Union of Local Authorities, bringing everyone together to face off against the man threatening to burn down the house.

The success of the treasury is obvious, as it succeeded in obtaining an injunction preventing a teacher strike that had yet to begin, a week before the school year opens. The court was convinced that the time has come to change the annual ritual of strike threats, rather than waiting until the last moment to find out whether the school year will begin as scheduled. This time the students and parents will be saved that aggravation, and the school year will begin in another three days, as scheduled.

The National Labor Court ruled that if the parties do not reach an agreement within a week, they must appear before the court again on September 6, when the court will decide whether to allow the teachers to strike.

It wasn't by chance that National Labor Court President Steve Adler, who headed the panel, chose Thursday as the determining day. Even if the court decides to allow the teachers to strike, it won't happen until after the Sukkot holiday anyway. That's because the month of holidays and vacations is starting shortly, and you need a really unwise leader to strike during a month when there are so few school days. Don't forget that every strike day causes a cut of NIS 25 million to teachers' salaries, since the Finance Ministry deducts teachers' pay for strike days.

It is reasonable to assume, then, that the big strike will be delayed until October 7, right after Sukkot.

In the extended struggle between the Finance Ministry and the Education Ministry, Erez comes out battered and humiliated. He made demands in many areas, calling for a new wage agreement, compensation for previous pay cuts, an increase in retirement quotas, and higher salaries for special education teachers. But despite Erez having organized strikes and disrupted class time intermittently for three months during the last school year - thereby harming the students, who barely learned anything over that period, and didn't take tests or receive their diplomas - Erez did not accomplish anything for those he was representing.

That's because Erez made a strategic mistake. He cut off the historic partnership with Yossi Wasserman, chairman of the Israel Teachers Union, who conducted separate negotiations and reached a respectable deal. Wasserman's 80,000 teachers control the sensitive part of the system. The parents cry out only when the kindergartens, first and second grades and special education classes strike, because the children in those classes cannot be left home alone, while children in middle school and high school can.

So as soon as the teachers union decides not to participate in the strike, the weapon of Judgment Day disappears, and the strike becomes much easier for both the government and the public to digest.

The secondary school teachers can also see how Wasserman succeeded in reaching an agreement that significantly raises the salaries of elementary school teachers. The basic salary of a beginning teacher will rise by 32 percent, from about NIS 4,000 a month to NIS 5,300. Other teachers will receive an additional 26 percent - and that's before the 5-percent raise they are to receive as part of the general wage agreement signed by the government and the Histadrut labor federation. Erez's teachers, meanwhile, won't be getting anything - not even that 5-percent raise secured by the Histadrut.

But one would be mistaken to think that Erez has given up. Right after the labor court issued its ruling, he rushed to give the Finance Ministry a new list of still more extreme demands. "We have decided to take the gloves off and fight with all our might, to the point of 'burning down the house,'" he said yesterday.

The big question is whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Education Minister Yuli Tamir or Bar-On are capable of withstanding a long-term comprehensive strike that begins right after Sukkot. They have already announced that they are prepared to give the secondary school teachers the same benefits the elementary school teachers received - and they do indeed deserve a respectable raise. But Erez has to accept that the government cannot give him more than what Wasserman got, because then the deal with Wasserman will blow up.

So far, the Olmert government has shown little ability to withstand pressure, preferring to capitulate quickly. Will it surprise us this time around?