school strike 88.
(photo credit: )
"Even if I was drunk, I wouldn't sign this agreement," declared Ran Erez on Sunday of the competing National Teachers Union's deal with the Finance Ministry that raised teachers' salaries while instituting more work hours and easier firing practices.
"Under no circumstances will we sign this deal," he vowed.
As he shuts down Israel's high schools starting Wednesday, the head of the Secondary School Teachers Organization is blasting in every direction. Education Minister Yuli Tamir "doesn't have the power to make financial decisions" - announced within hours of a meeting with her that failed to convince him to cancel his strike threat. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is failing to understand that the system is collapsing. The NTU, representing 80 percent of Israel's teachers, knowingly or stupidly signed a bad deal. The Education Ministry worships at the "golden calf of matriculation exams." The Finance Ministry is destroying the country's future with its policy of "cheap education."
But Ran Erez's aggressive rhetoric is an unsuccessful attempt to conceal that he hasn't got a card up his sleeve. As noted by MK Michael Melchior and others over the weekend, the government won't sacrifice its deal with the NTU by signing a better one with the SSTO. Meanwhile, the SSTO's earlier intransigence - fueled in no small part by Erez's famously belligerent personality - cannot now be tossed away without showing some real achievement. After all, Erez spent much of the second half of last year shutting down alternating parts of the country's secondary schools to show he meant business.
Just how trapped has Ran Erez become, with Finance holding all the cards and parents sure to turn against him as the strike stretches into weeks and months? One sign can be seen in the surprisingly gracious actions that accompany his tough talk. Though Yuli Tamir is supposed to be irrelevant to the crisis - her spokespeople have explained her current trip overseas in the midst of the crisis by noting that Erez himself believes she isn't helpful to the discussion - the union has delayed its strike several days for the declared purpose of allowing Tamir to return to the country 24 hours before it is to begin.
Tamir, for her part, apparently has no qualms over flying out to a previously scheduled speaking engagement. Perhaps she hopes to let Erez stew for his insults over the weekend.
It is also noteworthy that Erez called on the prime minister to intervene several days before the strike was even announced - not a common practice among unionists engaging in an honest labor action that they believe could succeed. But perhaps it is a smart move for those who know it must fail.
There are real concerns with the deal struck with the NTU. It fails to tackle the most troubling problems in Israeli education, which are not the salaries themselves but more systemic ailments in the education system. It demands more from teachers than in many Western countries, while offering to pay them a still-humble sum in exchange. It reduces their job security. In short, the deal should be watched carefully to see if the gains outweigh the costs, and changed if it is found to be unsuccessful.
But it is a deal, an attempt at some small measure of improvement in a system spiraling downward into the Third World. Israeli schoolchildren now score alongside Thailand and Romania in international test scores, and the drop has continued unabated through periods of government largesse (such as under Rabin) as well as periods of ruthless budget cuts.
The dissonance between the gracious timing and calls for prime ministerial intervention on the one hand, and the vicious rhetoric on the other, results from the impossible tree into which the SSTO under Erez has climbed. For all its complaints, the SSTO has not offered or accepted any systematic reform that could help repair Israel's broken education system, instead seeking to preserve a professional structure that has failed at its primary objective.
Such a comprehensive reform plan might have helped Erez to walk out of the Treasury's trap with his head held high. The strike he plans, by hurting voting parents and the salaries of desperate teachers, will achieve the opposite.