Teachers and Ministries Reinforce Positions as Strike Continues

The demands of the Secondary School Teachers Association, on one side, and the finance and education ministries on the other have barely changed since the strike began 25 days ago. That fact alone seems to show the depth of the mutual hostility and suspicion between the parties, as well the fact that there have been no genuine negotiations. Instead, the opposite has happened; With each passing day, and in light of the expanding protests, the teachers and the government seem to be growing more extreme in their positions.

Last December, the SSTA declared a labor dispute over the treasury's refusal to sign a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that ran out five years earlier. Finance Ministry officials refused to be disturbed by the action, preferring to negotiate instead with the larger National Teachers Union, which mainly represents elementary school teachers. These talks led, a few months later, to an agreement on wages and educational reforms.

Last year the SSTA enacted sanctions and regional strikes, but these did not advance the negotiations. On the eve of the current school year, in September, the teachers wanted to keep school from starting but were stopped by the National Labor Court. Its order was lifted a week after it was issued and on October 10, immediately after the High Holidays vacation, the strike began in the country's high schools and in some junior highs, affecting about 550,000 students in all.

The teachers' main demands from the start are a 15-percent immediate wage hike. If the average teacher's salary is about NIS 7,000 a month, that would represent an additional NIS 1,050. (The treasury claims the current average salary is about NIS 7,800.) They also want a promise of a gradual reduction in class size, to 35 students (current regulations permit a maximum of 40), as well as the restoration of instruction hours that were cut in recent years, amounting to between 7 and 8 per week, according to the union. SSTA Chairman Ran Erez promised publicly not to back down on the latter two demands, which have broad support from teachers and parents. The government is refusing to commit itself to these issues.

Erez is willing to accept a pay rise of 26 percent over five years, as NTU members received, but will not compromise on the immediate 15-percent hike. Education Minister Yuli Tamir calls this the main obstacle to a final agreement.

The treasury has made two main offers to the teachers. The first, similar to the one signed with the NTU, calls for a 5-percent salary increase over three years (or 10 percent over six years). The second calls for the SSTA to join the reform program agreed with the NTU, which involves a 26-percent wage increase in exchange for an additional two hours of classroom instruction and 10 to 12 non-classroom work (classroom prep, scoring tests, meetings, etc.) a week, for a total of 36 hours a week in school. Treasury officials say they have not decided on the precise composition of these hours.

The union rejects the demand for additional classroom hours on the grounds it will only increase the teachers' workload without benefiting students. They propose substituting about three hours of additional work each week, for one-on-one or small-group tutoring, classroom preparation and the like.

Another issue concerns compensation to teachers for non-teaching duties such as preparing students for matriculation exams and working with the student council. The Finance Ministry wants to cut back on compensation for these activities, as was done with the NTU contract. The SSTA seeks to preserve them.