Analysis: The strike's political lessons

The biggest political danger posed by the strike is for the man who holds the cards to resolving it.

By
October 10, 2007 00:01
Analysis: The strike's political lessons

Ran Erez 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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In his futuristic 1973 comedy Sleeper, Woody Allen awakens after centuries of suspended animation, only to find he's slept right past World War III. "It all started," he's told, "when a mad man by the name of Albert Shanker got a hold of the atomic bomb." You probably have to be a New Yorker of a certain age to recall Shanker as the outspoken, aggressive and at times uncompromising teachers' union leader, who became one of the most divisive figures in the city by leading his constituents to a series of strikes that paralyzed the local education system. Ran Erez, head of the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO), which is scheduled to begin what may be a lengthy nationwide strike on Wednesday morning, hasn't yet acquired the kind of notoriety that earns one the privilege of being a Woody Allen punch line. Nor does this threatened labor action quite rise to the apocalyptic level described in comments such as MK Michael Melchior's claim that it could cause "the destruction of the national education system." But Erez's actions thus far, as well as those of other key players in the unfolding of this strike, have much wider ramifications than a simple labor dispute, even if this one is resolved by negotiations in the 11th hour. And if it indeed goes on for the "months" threatened by the SSTO, some very harsh lessons are going to be learned by all those involved, which at the end of the day might also include the prime minister. The backdrop of the strike is a growing concern over the fast-dropping grades being earned by Israeli students when measured against international standards - a national embarrassment, considering the traditional Jewish emphasis on learning - and the push in recent years to bring about much-needed reforms to the educational system to reverse this trend. Educational reform was one of the three agenda-topping items Prime Minister Ehud Olmert listed in his speech opening the new Knesset session on Monday, and the government has dubbed 2008 as "the year of education." Those reforms theoretically include long-overdue wage hikes for the country's underpaid teachers. Indeed, the National Teachers Union, representing elementary school educators, has already accepted a new government package that includes a raise in salaries. By rejecting those hikes as insufficient and objecting to other elements in the reform package, Erez and the SSTO are starting their strike on the wrong foot, by failing to establish and maintain unified wage demands with other members of their profession. Labor disputes in the educational system are nothing new here. In recent years, a brief teachers' strike at the start of the school year has seemed almost as de rigueur as buying new pencils and notebooks for the kids. Yet Israelis who have little patience for the claims of other striking workers who inconvenience the general public - such as the port and airport workers - have shown considerably more sympathy for the teachers, at least recognizing the justice of their complaints of being underpaid. Erez, though, has exhibited the type of Shanker-esque aggressiveness and taste for self-promotion that threatens to undermine the public's patience for the teachers' cause. He certainly made a major error in appearing live on Channel 2's news show on Sunday night, where reporter Emmanuel Rozen ambushed him with questions about his personal salary as a union leader, and charged that he was seeking to justify his hefty paycheck by fighting the educational reforms. The more the media and public focuses on Erez himself, the less it will focus on the plight of the far-lower paid teachers he represents. For their sake, and his own as well, he would do well to tread a little more carefully and speak a degree less belligerently as the strike unfolds. But Erez is hardly the only public figure who gets a failing grade in this dispute. Faring even worse has been Education Minister Yuli Tamir. The media has roasted Tamir for traveling abroad last weekend, visiting New York City to fulfill a prior commitment rather than staying home and working to avert the walkout. In Tamir's defense, the key to resolving the dispute lies not in her office, but with the Finance Ministry. Yet public perception is as important in these situations as the underlying reality, and clearly she made a tactical error in making the trip. This error is even greater given her current political standing. Brought into government from academia by then-prime minister Ehud Barak in 1999, the former Tel Aviv University philosophy professor was initially viewed as one of Labor's bright new stars. She later switched to become one of the strongest backers of Amir Peretz, and after supporting him in his losing primary battle with Barak this past June, Tamir's future in Labor now looks considerably dimmer. Nor, judging by the criticism she has received from some Kadima MKs, is she greatly appreciated by Labor's senior coalition partner. Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh has made some particularly harsh comments, no doubt enjoying the payback for the criticism she garnered from Tamir back when Tirosh served as director-general of the Education Ministry under the Likud's Limor Livnat. There is also lingering resentment within Tirosh's faction that the Education Ministry was handed by Olmert to Labor and Tamir, after Ariel Sharon had promised that portfolio to Kadima MK Uriel Reichman, who then resigned from the party in a huff and returned to academia. The biggest political danger posed by the strike, though, is for the man who really holds the cards to resolving it, recently-appointed Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On. This will be his first really big test since inheriting the office from the disgraced Avraham Hirchson in July. Bar-On has publicly vowed to stand firm against the SSTO's salary demands and to continue with the planned education reforms, including the expanded authority of school principals to fire teachers they consider to be underperforming. Bar-On has boasted of the NIS 1.5 billion put aside to start implementing the reforms, along with the expanded NIS 27.6b. total education budget for 2008. But with an unprecedented NIS 12b. budget surplus this year thanks to tax revenues from a surprising banner year for the economy, it's likely questions will be asked in the media why a little more can't be found for the teachers. The finance minister has the advantage of having been involved in a similar struggle back when, as interior minister, he confronted the municipalities over wages as the newspapers and TV news shows regularly ran stories about the plight of unpaid municipal workers. But Bar-On was helped then by the public's recognition of the widespread corruption in municipal government, a charge certainly no one would throw at the teachers. What the finance minister must do to keep the public's trust if the school strike drags on is not to talk about the need to maintain fiscal discipline as he has been doing, but focus instead on the necessity of educational reform and continue to paint the SSTO leadership as the main stumbling block to its implementation. That may not be enough though, if the weeks drag on and parents find themselves with their kids stuck at home. Eventually, a fair share of the blame for a continuing deadlock will also rise up to Bar-On's boss. The prime minister has thus far resisted calls to personally involve himself in the negotiations, preferring to focus on the preparations for the Annapolis summit and staving off the legal and political challenges that seem to multiply against him daily. But the last thing Olmert needs on his plate now is a public made more restive by an extended school strike. At the end of this school day, the prime minister may find that the teachers' strike is one classroom fight he can't afford to be absent from. Calev@jpost.com

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