Teachers Launch Campaign to Defend Possible Shutdown

Education Ministry officials are scheduled to meet with high school teachers today in Jerusalem to discuss their demands for a wage increase in an attempt to prevent a strike, parties involved in the negotiations told Haaretz yesterday. But recent developments suggest pupils may see their summer vacation extended indefinitely.

The Secondary School Teachers' Association, chaired by Ran Erez, has in recent days launched a public campaign to explain the reasons for the impending strike.

"We've been engaged in negotiations for almost a year now, and have made no significant headway," Erez complains. "The treasury won't talk to us, and the Education Ministry is not really authorized to negotiate with us on our demands for a new wage agreement."

The 2008 academic year is scheduled to begin next Monday, in 11 days. But the association has in recent days been instructing high school teachers to refrain from preparing for school.

The association will only allow teachers to work the last two days of August. "The only reason we agreed to have teachers come to school was to explain the reasons for striking to other teachers," Erez said. "We want to show them why this struggle is so important." He added that the association has every intention of striking come September 2.

The teachers are seeking a collective wage agreement, which they have not had since 2001. The association imposed partial sanctions last year, instructing teachers to refrain from providing extra-curricular activity and holding wildcat strikes that closed several junior highs at a time.

The association is demanding teachers' wages be doubled over a period of five years. They also are calling for a wage-update system, assurances regarding pension plans, additional pay for extra-curricular tutoring, added responsibility and extended early-retirement quotas. They are also demanding that the terms be incorporated into a multi-year agreement.

The teachers are demanding two other general concessions: A reduction in the number of students per class, and the return of schooling hours that have been dropped over recent years.

"We asked that teachers receive pay for work that they had until today been performing gratis," Erez claims. "Students with learning disabilities, for example, require additional tutoring for which teachers receive no [extra] pay. This requires an increase of NIS 80 million, but the treasury is willing to provide only half that amount. This means a reduction in pay for schooling hours, and we cannot accept that."

Education Ministry officials said they regarded the teachers' decisions as "ponderous." A senior official said negotiators for Erez's organization have told them off the record that the treasury's settlement offers were "more than they had hoped for, but they still won't budge."

The finance Ministry said that the government had allocated over NIS 1 billion toward including the association in the reform in education. "The association should follow the example of the Teachers' Union and sign on," the treasury said.