Teachers announce end to strike in Gaza belt

SSTO announcement follows request by Knesset Education Committee; Tamir: Erez wants money without reforms.

October 9, 2007 23:51
4 minute read.
Teachers announce end to strike in Gaza belt

school strike 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The Secondary School Teachers Organization on Wednesday afternoon announced an end to the teachers strike in Gaza belt communities. Secondary and junior high schools in Sderot and the western Negev will therefore reopen on Thursday. The announcement came after the Knesset Education Committee called on the SSTO to halt the strike in the Gaza belt schools. The nation's high schools and many junior high schools didn't open on Wednesday morning as the SSTO moved ahead with its threat of an open-ended strike in protest of the lack of a wage agreement between the union and the government. The strike closed between 1,200 and 1,700 junior high and high schools around the country, affecting an estimated 500,000 students who are taught by the 40,000 members of the Secondary School Teachers Organization, the country's second-largest teachers' union. SSTO head Ran Erez told Army Radio morning that due to the "government's lack of sensitivity and the finance minister's declarations" the teachers were preparing for a strike that could last several months. He expressed hope, however, that the shutdown would be as short possible. Erez claimed that the government had presented false information regarding its proposals to teachers, saying that if the government had indeed allocated the amount of money it announced, the teachers would have accepted the proposal. He told Israel Radio that the government's proposal amounted to the teachers working more but getting paid less, adding that it was attempting to "turn them into slaves." Education Minister Yuli Tamir criticized Erez for his management of the negotiations. "Erez changed his position. There was a good and fair proposal on the table but it was to be introduced together with changes to the working week," said Tamir, adding: "Erez wants money to arrive immediately without reforms and without long-term commitments." Tamir said that the Education and Finance Ministries offered the teachers six billion shekels in addition to the 18 billion they were already receiving. In response, Erez told Army Radio: "While six billion shekels were offered, it was to be spread over a six-year period, meaning a billion shekels a year." Erez went on to explain that when this was split among the teachers it amounted to an extra 120 shekels a month, and that "even this increase is not a pay rise but wages for extra hours." The larger National Teachers Union, which represents elementary and junior high teachers in most of the country's remaining 2,000 schools, won't be joining the SSTO in the strike due to a wage agreement reached between the NTU and the Finance Ministry in May that provided a significant increase in NTU teachers' salaries in exchange for increased work hours. The lack of certainty as to the number of schools that will close reflects the composition of their staff. While the high schools are almost entirely staffed by members of the SSTO, junior high schools often have teachers from both unions. Parents are urged to check with the relevant schools to find out if they are on strike. The strike will not affect approximately 50 special-needs classes that cater to some 400 severely disabled children. The SSTO agreed to keep the classes open during the strike following a special request by Education Ministry officials. An Education Ministry hot line will be available Wednesday morning to help parents find out whether their children's school is striking and what they can do about it. The hot line can be reached at 1-212-234-567, and will be operational from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Wednesday morning. There is also a Web site, www.education.gov.il, featuring the information. The strike is going forward after Erez refused a compromise offer from Tamir that would have set a five-month negotiations period during which union teachers would work get a slight salary raise. According to Erez, the salary addition was as little as NIS 50 per teacher per month. Only Jewish schools will be closing on Wednesday, with Arab schools waiting until next Wednesday in order not to disturb Id al-Fitr celebrations. The SSTO heads into the strike with most of the government arrayed against it. Not only has Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On - who must approve any new deal reached with the union - vowed there would be no new deal or funds forthcoming, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and local council heads have called Erez's decision to strike a mistake that will not be easily corrected. According to Finance Ministry figures, the strike will cost the country some NIS 20 million a day, and the ministry has warned that teachers will not be paid "for a single day they are on strike, and this won't be up for negotiations later." The criticism comes because the National Teachers Union, which has more than twice the membership of the SSTO, reached a deal with the government in May according to which teachers' starting salaries will rise significantly, to NIS 5,300 per month, and their wages will rise 30% faster than in the previous wage scheme. The funds set aside to finance this agreement, over NIS 5 billion, include some NIS 1.3b.to finance an identical agreement for the teachers belonging to the SSTO. "NIS 1.3b. is waiting for them," Bar-On told the Knesset on Monday. "They only need to reach out and take it." For their part, the SSTO has demanded a much broader improvement in the working conditions of teachers, including structural reforms in the education system. They have called for smaller class sizes and significantly larger wage increases. The SSTO announced this week it will offer interest-free loans, alternate employment, and a special fund for single-parent families, families in which both parents are SSTO teachers, and those hit hardest by the possible loss of salaries if the strike is an extended one. In this way, the union hopes to be able to withstand the consequences of a strike that may last, according to Erez, "for weeks or even months."

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