J’lem ulpan closure sparks controversy as teachers claim it is because they unionized

Staff had no employment contract and was paid on the basis of hourly salaries, which were found to be insufficient.

By
October 1, 2013 17:55
girl in classroom

girl in class 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

The Milah Ulpan in Jerusalem, a nonprofit operating for some 17 years, closed its doors last month – a move that has sparked controversy, as laid-off teachers believe it occurred because they unionized.

About a year ago, teachers at the ulpan – all of them graduates of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem – had confronted the institution’s management with some problems concerning their salaries and pensions.

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According to Roy Guy- Green, a lawyer representing the laid-off Milah teachers, the staff had no employment contract and was paid on the basis of hourly salaries, which were found to be insufficient to cover their in-class work as well as the time they spent grading homework and exams at home. Discrepancies were also found in the workers’ pension payments, which he said were insufficient.

“For such a small nonprofit with such [few] funds, I would take a very close look at management salaries, and ask why employee rights are neglected for such a long time,” Guy- Green told The Jerusalem Post.

He added that employees should have received documents from management prior to starting, detailing how they would be paid, but hadn’t received any.

A former member of the Ulpan Workers’ Union, Ronit Cohen, said that during meetings with Milah’s management, the teachers’ demands had been called “exaggerated.”

As the workers unionized, Cohen said, the board threatened that “the worker’s organization will lead to closing the non-profit.”

“On July 10, teachers received a notice that the ulpan was closing,” Cohen explained. “The letter said that it was due to the health condition of the head of the managing board.”

According to the notice, the ulpan was to close its doors on September 11 with the end of the semester.

“But after we were told that Milah is closing, we indirectly received information telling us that it was going to reopen as a private institution in the fall,” Cohen said.

According to the former teachers, some of the staff was offered positions in the “new Milah,” but these offers excluded all of the unionized members.

In a letter to students back in August, the laid-off instructors expressed their sadness that after unionizing and holding negotiations with the management over issues such as pension plans, they been told, in July, that the ulpan would close and that they were therefore fired.

“On August 13, Tuesday afternoon, a number of us arrived to teach and found signs stating that the fall semester would open as usual,” they wrote. “This took the teachers who received no such notice, by surprise. We felt it important to inform the students that perhaps the ulpan shall remain, but for the most part, the teachers will no longer be the same teachers.”

The text continued, “On Wednesday morning, one of these teachers came to teach as usual but was informed that her employment has been terminated, effective immediately (an illegal measure). Later that morning, a policeman was called upon to escort this teacher and a colleague who came in to support her off the premises.”

The situation was such, the letter said, that “veteran teachers who have been working here for a few years were kicked out by a policeman right before their students’ eyes. They have still not received an apology from management for this difficult incident. Only a few days ago, harsh and humiliating words were spoken to another teacher.”

Although their website is currently not functioning, Milah continues to offer registration for the upcoming semester, which begins on October 13.

“It’s a shame that after years of commitment to the institution, we are kicked out as criminals,” Cohen said.

In response, Milah CEO Jonathan Tsevi wrote to the Post that the decision to close the nonprofit had come after the head of the managing board suffered a stroke in October 2012. The rest of the organization’s board members were unsuccessful in finding someone to take over the management, and decided to wind up its activities.

“The manager of the ulpan managed to convince the board to extend its activities for a while, hoping that a way will be found to enable the continuation of the Ulpan, but after a while the board reached the final decision, in July 2013, to wind up the organization and consequently a receiver was appointed,” the statement said.

Tsevi emphasized that the decision to close the nonprofit “coincided with the appearance of a labor union, but the winding up decision was pending long before.” He added that “the upheaval which followed only convinced the board members that there was no other way but winding up.”

He explained that the receiver, Zeev Farber, “in spite of the (by now) tarnished reputation (due to deliberate actions of some of the ulpan teachers, encouraged by the union), managed to sell the assets of the nonprofit to private investors who agreed to take upon themselves some of the obligations of the organization (including its obligation to rent the ulpan premises). It should be noted that had investors not been found, the severance of the employees could have been in danger.”

According to him, all the employees at Milah had been encouraged to submit their candidacy to the new company.

“To the best of my knowledge, no employees’ rights were breached by the nonprofit,” he added.

A former student of the ulpan, US native John Reed, who moved to Israel in January for his job as a journalist, told the Post on Tuesday that he had been very happy with Milah prior to the closure.

“It was great. There were terrific teachers. In fact, I think they were the best language teachers I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was also a great buy for your money.”

After the events of the summer, Reed decided to leave the ulpan and register at a different institution for the upcoming semester.

“I am leaving because it became a bit of a mess,” he explained. “Teachers had to spend time explaining and dealing with what was going on, and it disrupted the semester. It was bad for moral and bad for motivation.”

Though he is sorry to be leaving, he said, “I think its the management’s fault that I left. And if it is true that they fired everybody because they unionized, then I disagree with that on principle.”


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