Education: They'll teach us a lesson or two...

What is the school strike all about?

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
October 11, 2007 18:19
4 minute read.
Education: They'll teach us a lesson or two...

school strike 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Half a million teenagers were left home over the past three days as the country's 40,000 high school teachers went on strike. The Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) had been warning of a strike since August, so it did not come as a surprise to the education system. The two teachers unions have spent 52 days on strike since 2004, and this strike seems a continuation of the same. This perception is wrong. The fallout from the start of the strike was the first indication that something different is happening here. Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On rushed to explain that no extra funds would be forthcoming for a new deal with the high school teachers. Education Minister Yuli Tamir noted that teachers' strikes in the past were not effective in raising salaries or improving working conditions (though they marked the end of the Dovrat reforms), and the teachers would be better off negotiating. Knesset Education Committee chairman Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) diplomatically explained that the union was embarking on a strike whose end was unclear. Criticism also grew outside politics. Parents' committees attacked SSTO chairman Ran Erez as "tyrannical" in the management of the union. Officials at the Union of Local Authorities (secondary school teachers are formally employed by the local authority in which their school is located) quietly noted that the strike was over the fact that Erez was not included in the successful negotiations with the National Teachers Union deal, which represents mainly elementary school teachers. "It's all about the man's ego," said one source. WHAT'S THE difference between this strike and previous ones? A deal already exists, and was already signed by the NTU, giving teachers a 25 percent pay increase and the beginnings of a reform in their status and professionalism. According to the deal - reached almost six months ago - while salaries would begin at a higher level (NIS 5,300 per month) and would rise 30% faster than previously, teachers would have to work about 30% more hours each week and could be more easily fired at the discretion of school principals. The deal, for which the government has already set aside NIS 1.3 billion for the inclusion of the SSTO, has meant that the SSTO leadership is fighting to extract more than the NTU already signed up for. This creates a political stalemate, since a new agreement would cast doubt over the old one. While the SSTO went on strike last year, the NTU negotiated with the government. Can the government afford to send the message that fair dealing leads to a worse deal than disruptive strikes? The unprecedented criticism of the strike and the failure to accept the deal that has been on offer for months raise an obvious question: Why is the SSTO striking in the first place? For Erez, the answer is simple. The deal signed by the NTU is a bad one, and the SSTO would be acting against the interests of its members if it fell into the trap laid for it when the Treasury signed with one union without involving the other. "Even if I were drunk, I wouldn't sign this agreement," Erez declared to reporters early in the week, calling the deal "not just bad," but one that "turns teachers into slaves." Why? According to the union, the Treasury-NTU agreement doesn't improve the hourly salary of teachers. While the monthly salary rises 25%, teaching hours rise by 30%, so per-hour pay is actually lowered. Worse, the agreement cancels the extra salary-hours a teacher can earn through coordinating school activities. These hours are a significant part of high school teachers' salaries, while they play a lesser role in those of elementary teachers. Also, the increased power given to school principals in hiring and firing means "not only the weakening of the teachers' position but the weakening of their union," according to Erez. To prevent the unjust firing of a teacher, NTU teachers must now face the principal - a member of their own union - rather than their employer, the Education Ministry. Finally, Erez explained, the deal would necessarily lead to the firing of thousands of teachers. If the salaries and work hours rise, while the budget remains the same (the NIS 6 billion slated for the reforms are a temporary addition during the implementation phase, after which the education budget will return to its regular level), then teachers must be fired. Simple mathematics demands it. According to SSTO estimates, some 10,000 will be. Many observers and participants in the unfolding education drama respond to the SSTO's complaints by saying the NTU deal is merely "a good beginning." To the firing of teachers, many experts and economists note that the education system is flooded with part-time and undertrained teachers, and lowering their number will raise salaries and create a more competitive profession. At the same time, structural troubles such as redundant infrastructure, lack of policy research and low parental involvement have meant that the education system has continued to drop in international rankings, from one of the top five in the world to below Thailand and Romania in terms of students' test scores. It may be too much to expect a labor union to work for - much less lead - a reform of a vast and structurally warped system, particularly when even Tamir has taken great pains to distance herself from any expectations for a structural reform under her watch. But with the system broken far beyond the issue of teachers' salaries, a limited and imperfect reform already on the table and a political stalemate shutting down the schools, everyone from parents to the most sympathetic MKs are wondering if the SSTO is part of the solution or part of the problem.

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