(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the high school teachers' strike entered its 17th day on Monday, Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Secondary School Teachers' Organization head Ran Erez, Finance Ministry Wage Director Eli Cohen and Chairman of the Council of Local Authorities Adi Eldar met in a further attempt to end the crisis.
The talks came a day after Tamir and Erez announced that they would begin a process of arbitration and agreed to Eldar's offer to serve as a intercessor in the negotiations.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet that he completely supported Tamir and Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and would not give in to the demands of the Secondary School Teachers Organization or cancel reforms agreed upon by the Education and Finance ministries.
Histadrut Labor Federation chairman Ofer Eini said if the government did not resolve the crisis with the striking school teachers, the Histadrut would consider declaring a general strike. he said he would present his own draft of a possible labor agreement that would be centered around wage increases in return for extra teaching hours.
The reforms include bolstering the authority of high schools' management, additional teaching hours and changes to teaching arrangements.
"I want to remind [you] that this government, more than any other, has decided on unprecedented investment in education over the next few years, including in the 2008 state budget," Olmert told the ministers. "We voted for a five-year plan to build 8,000 classrooms... an investment of billions."
He said the investment included a 33 percent wage increase for teachers, adding that the money had already been allocated and would be transferred to the teachers when they started holding "serious negotiations with the government to end the strike."
"We will not give up on the reform that we decided to carry out in the educational system," Olmert said. He called on the teachers at high schools and some junior high schools to end their strike and to enter into discussions with the government within the framework of the reform.
Tamir said if an agreement with striking teachers were not reached this week, she would ask the National Labor Court to issue an injunction halting the strike.
Tamir spoke at the cabinet meeting Sunday, following a meeting with Bar-On in which the two discussed ways of resolving the conflict.
She said the ministry had refrained from seeking an injunction in order to try and reach a settlement with the Secondary School Teachers Organization.
"We will make another effort to reach an agreement this week. If we do not succeed, we will issue the injunction," Tamir said.
"We are on the eve of the winter matriculation exams," she said. "Eighty-thousand students are to be tested. With all due respect to the teachers' cause, we cannot allow Israeli children to suffer for it."
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said back-to-work orders should not be issued.
"These injunctions could lead to a wave of resignations," he said before the cabinet meeting. "Teachers can't be forced to teach, and education can't be forced. I call on the education minister and the finance minister to explain the cause of the conflict to the public. It isn't clear what the problem is."
Tamir, at a press briefing after the cabinet meeting, said she did not think there would be mass teacher resignations.
"They know that there was an effort to bring about a salary increase," she said, adding that the government had to do two things: increase the salaries and keep an eye on the ramifications of an increase for the economy.
At a press conference in Tel Aviv, Eini said he had worked hard in recent days to put together the draft as a basis for negotiations. The draft, which was comprised of four major points, would provide for a 26% increase in high-school teachers' wages over five years, he said.
Eini said he had presented the draft to Secondary School Teachers Organization head Ran Erez, who "expressed readiness to adopt the outline, and announced that if the finance minister and the education minister accepted the draft, then the strike would end immediately and the two sides would begin negotiations."
Erez reiterated his call for Olmert to meet with teachers' representatives Sunday or Monday to end the strike.
"If marathon talks can be held at the highest levels, the crisis can be resolved within 48 hours," Israel Radio quoted Erez as saying.
Meanwhile, some 1,000 high school teachers have signed letters of resignation that will take effect if such an injunction is issued.
Dozens of teachers from TALI schools demonstrated outside Beit Hanassi in Jerusalem on Sunday, asking President Shimon Peres to intervene in the crisis.
Also Sunday, the senior lecturers' strike in universities across the country entered its second week. The lecturers are protesting wage erosion and the absence, since 2001, of a collective wage agreement.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.