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Frustration at recent Treasury decisions reached the boiling point on Wednesday as teachers decided to open schools late on Thursday in what unions are calling a "warning strike," and student associations shut down university and college campuses across the country.
The two teachers' unions said they would open Thursday's school day for grades 1-12 at 10 a.m. in protest of what they called the Finance Ministry's unwillingness to negotiate wage agreements "in a timely fashion." The strike will not affect kindergartens or special education.
On December 20, the teachers' unions threatened nationwide strikes if the Treasury stood by its refusal to negotiate a collective salary agreement, something which has been lacking since 2001. At the urging of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, the Finance Ministry and the unions began talks.
The Treasury said Thursday's threatened strike "came out of uncertain motives, and would primarily harm educators and schoolchildren."
"Just this morning, representatives of the ministry's Salary Department agreed with teachers' unions leaders that teachers would receive some NIS 500 per teacher in January to compensate for a drop [in the value of their salaries caused by inflation]," the ministry said in a statement. "The teachers' unions know the negotiations are proceeding."
Some involved in the dispute questioned whether the teachers' action was timed to coincide with the university strikes to "take advantage of the media attention."
Teachers' unions leaders said, however, that the Finance Ministry did not intend for the wage negotiations to end in an agreement, and had left the unions no choice but to begin mobilize for a nationwide "warning strike."
Also Wednesday, higher education students barred entrances to 10 institutions, protesting the establishment of the Shochat Committee charged with examining the future of the higher education system.
Tel Aviv University students slept on campus overnight Tuesday so they could seal the entrances before workers and students began arriving Wednesday morning. At the University of Haifa, students paraded at the entrances with donkeys bearing signs critical of Tamir.
At Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, the junior lecturers' union participated in the student demonstrations, including teaching symbolic classes while sitting on the ground outside the school.
"We demand the immediate implementation of the Winograd recommendations [from 2000, which included lowering student tuition by half to some NIS 5,000 per year] and the establishment of an independent committee headed by an impartial judge that includes student representatives," said a representative of the Ben-Gurion University Student Association.
The demands reflect the suspicion with which student organizations view the Shochat Committee, headed by former finance minister Avraham Shochat, which contains no permanent representative from any student organization. According to many student groups, the Finance Ministry engineered the establishment of the committee in to avoid having to carry out the Winograd recommendations.
Strikes also took place at Hebrew University and the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, the Kaye Academic College of Education in Beersheba, Wingate College near Netanya, the College of Management in Rishon Lezion, Western Galilee College, and the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel.
Shochat called on the students to take an active part in the panel's work.
"If the students really want to influence [the committee's recommendations] and the issue of tuition is important to them, let them join the cooperative work of the committee," he said. "The subcommittees are the focal point for influencing decision-making," he added, inviting students to join the subcommittees that will examine specific issues.
"Strikes are always an option, but for now cooperation is preferable," he said, echoing the sentiments of the Finance Ministry and of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, both of whom have called on students to await the committee's preliminary recommendations, due by the end of April.
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