State May Ask Court to Send Teachers Back to Work Today

The Education and Finance ministries will ask the National Labor Court for back-to-work orders for striking teachers possibly as early as today, said senior officials in the Education Ministry.

This comes after the breakdown in talks held in the past few days with the Secondary School Teachers Association.

Yesterday afternoon the union rejected the treasury's offer of a 5-percent wage increase spread out over three years.

After the teachers made their announcement, the chairman of the Union of Local Authorities (ULA), Adi Eldar - who is acting as a go-between in the negotiations - said that he had decided to end his role in the 20-day-old strike.

The back-to-work orders will probably be issued for teachers of 11th and 12th grades.

The Education Ministry also announced yesterday that 255 elementary schools have agreed to join the reform program signed with the Teachers Federation. The reforms will be implemented in about 300 elementary schools this year.

According to Education Ministry officials, if the legal preparations for the back-to-work orders can be finished in time, the ministry will go to court today. However, this requires coordination with the local authorities, who are the direct employers of the teachers.

"There is no justification for continuing the talks with the teachers," said one official. "We tried every possible way of ending the crisis through discussion, but with no success."

However, even if the Labor Court issues the back-to-work order, it is not clear whether they will achieve their purpose. According to Dr. Aryeh Loker, head of the organization of high school principals, even if the teachers are forced back to work to prepare students for the winter round of matriculation exams, the principals can still prevent the students from taking the exams. But the ministry said that the schools would be forced to allow the tests.

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On met for the first time yesterday morning with the teacher's union head, Ran Erez. Education Minister Yuli Tamir was also present, as well as Eldar.

After the meeting, Erez said that "the finance minister asked us to believe him that he truly wants to invest in education, but that we should settle in the meantime for the salary increase given to the Histadrut labor federation, which means 1.5 percent in the first year. He refused to agree to the demand for a 15-percent wage increase, even for longer work hours, and he was not willing to commit to two other demands of ours: reducing the number of students per class, and restoring class hours."

Bar-On's offer was nothing new for the teachers, and after a few hours the union's leadership decided to reject the offer.

According to other participants, Bar-On said that he could not meet teachers' demands due to the implications that would have on other sectors of the economy.

"To my great sorrow, this round of talks also failed," Tamir said. "Nevertheless, we will continue to talk. This week a team will be established to adapt the Oz Latmura program [the reform for secondary schools - O.K.], and to reach an agreed upon framework."

"We proposed to Erez to advance in two tracks," said another Education Ministry official. "One is the new collective bargaining agreement, which is similar to that agreed to with the Histadrut labor federation. The second is the high schools reform. It is impossible to complete such a task in a week or two, therefore we asked that the teachers return to work in the meantime. Erez was not willing to agree to any proposal."