Union, Ministry Square Off Over Junior High Schools

Battle over New Horizon plan coincides with expiration of collective wage deal

The Education Ministry has sent a letter to junior high school teachers to say they will face disciplinary action if they follow union instructions not to cooperate with school reform.

The letter marks another phase in rising tensions between the ministry and the teachers over the reform, known as New Horizon.

Itzhak Tomer, the ministry deputy director general, sent the letter to hundreds of schools, particularly in the north, raising a storm among the many teachers who are opposed to the reform.

"We will fight, and if necessary we won't open the next school year. Such threats don't scare us," a teacher from a city in the north said.

Ran Erez, head of the Secondary School Teachers Association, said the letter was an attempt to "frighten the teachers in the junior highs, so they won't dare protect their rights and fight the Education Ministry's campaign of persecution against them.

Last week, his association declared a nationwide labor dispute following the expiration of its collective wage agreement. The union instructed its members in junior high schools not to cooperate with conferences that the ministry and the local authorities are holding to bring schools into the New Horizon reform.

The agreement on the reform was signed in 2006 between the education and finance ministries and the other teachers' labor union, the Teachers Union. However, the Secondary School Teachers Association opposed it.

New Horizon currently encompasses some 40,000 teachers in approximately 1,700 schools, mostly elementary schools.

The Education Ministry is basing its efforts to enforce cooperation with the reform on rulings by the National Labor Tribunal and the High Court of Justice last year that the state may "obligate all teachers in junior high schools to be included in the reform to work in accordance with New Horizon."

"You are acting illegally and, in a any case, you can't order teachers in the junior high schools, even if they are your members, to go against a collective agreement that obligates them," Tomer wrote Erez, adding that the union head was misleading teachers by telling them not to cooperate with New Horizon.

Erez said the labor dispute is not directed against New Horizon, but "against unilateral changes in the working conditions and wages of teachers," against which, he said, there is no reason why teachers cannot protest. The fact that the Teachers Union signed a collective agreement with regard to New Horizon does not obligate his organization, Erez said.

Tomer's letter, which states that it was written "with the agreement of director general Shimshon Shoshani," is unusual in its direct threat against teachers opposing New Horizon.

There has been pressure over the past two years from supervisors and principals on such teachers, but it has been indirect.

Erez asked: "Does the ministry think that teachers who are working totally against their will, whose work harms them economically and professionally, will work well? The only right we retain is the right to fight, and that they also want to take away?"

A teacher from the north commented: "We don't oppose the reform, but what we are being offered is unsuitable to junior high school; the wages and the hours required are incongruent; the physical conditions are unsuitable and there is a dangerous expansion of the powers of the principal. They can't force the reform on us."