Talks to End Strike Break Down at 11th Hour

Negotiations between the government and the striking high school teachers collapsed last night, just a day after it seemed a breakthrough was finally within reach.

According to finance and education ministry officials, Secondary School Teachers Association chairman Ran Erez walked out after about seven hours of talks because he had been receiving criticism of the emerging deal from union members throughout the day. Erez, however, claimed that the treasury had reneged on prior commitments, first and foremost a multi-year plan for restoring teaching hours that had been cut in previous years. Government officials rejected this charge, saying they had not reneged on a single commitment included in the memorandum of understanding that the parties initialed on Monday.

Tomorrow, the back-to-work orders issued by the National Labor Court last week are due to take effect, meaning that striking teachers will be legally obligated to return to work even without an agreement. Many teachers are threatening to defy the orders. According to union sources, as of Sunday teachers at some 60 schools had decided not to return to work; however, it is not clear how the draft agreement worked out on Monday will affect teachers' decisions.

At Monday night's meeting, Erez had proposed a new idea that radically changed the course of the negotiations. He offered to waive the 8.5 percent raise that the treasury had agreed to give the teachers in exchange for increased work hours, as the teachers believed that this proposal would actually lower their hourly wage. Instead, he said, the government should take the NIS 1.5 billion it had set aside to finance the raise and use it to reduce the number of students per class.

Erez and treasury and Education Ministry officials quickly concluded a memorandum of understanding based on this proposal, which they initialed Monday night. According to the memorandum, "a sum of NIS 1.5 billion will be allocated for the purpose of reducing the number of students per class in grades 7 through 12 ... This sum is a maximal sum." It also stated that the money would be spent over a period of five years.

The memorandum went on to say that "flexibility in implementation and the detailed plan for reducing class size will be in the hands of the Education Ministry, which will consult with the Teachers Association, with the goal of reaching 30 students per class. If this sum proves insufficient, the number of students [per class] will be higher."

However, it added, this sum will not include the cost of building new classrooms, which is considered the main expense involved in reducing class size. That money would have to come from elsewhere in the state budget.

The memorandum promised the teachers the same 5 percent raise that the Histadrut labor federation had negotiated for all public-sector workers; in exchange, they promised not to strike until the end of 2009. It also stated that the parties would negotiate a mechanism for the teachers to make up the almost two months of school lost to the strike.

Finally, the document noted that Erez sought to anchor the pledge to reduce class sizes in a collective agreement, but the government said this was impossible. Instead, the government promised that its legal advisors would draft some sort of binding document.

At about noon yesterday, Erez informed members of the SSTA's executive of the memorandum's contents, and at 1:30 P.M., negotiations began on the details of the agreement. During the first few hours of talks, both sides radiated optimism that a deal would indeed be finalized by the end of the day. As the day wore on, however, it became clear that this was not in the cards.

Meanwhile, even as the talks were taking place, activist teachers from various parts of the country began criticizing the emerging deal. "It's not clear to me why we struck for almost two months, why we launched this struggle at all," said one. "This is a capitulation agreement in every respect."