Education: On the Same Page?

Teachers who recently spoke to The Jerusalem Post are unsure if they achieved their goals.

Erez 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Erez 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The longest secondary school strike in the country's history ended just a couple of weeks ago, and the question that obstinately remains is this: Did Secondary School Teachers Organization head Ran Erez get a great deal for the 41,000 teachers in his organization or not? Erez was personally vilified by the Education and Finance Ministries for his leadership style during the strike. He was accused of grandstanding for the media rather than negotiating seriously. There were calls for him to be replaced, and insinuations that it was Erez himself who was the main obstacle to progress. Teachers are also divided on whether Erez's leadership was beneficial or not. Some commended him and said nothing would have been accomplished had he played nice with the government. Others say the strike made clear that the teachers' goals were really achieved through grassroots efforts, and that Erez's leadership was highly suspect. Teachers are also confused as to whether they achieved their goals or not. Some feel as though the strike broke them - that they were forced back into the classroom because they are law-abiding citizens unwilling to violate court orders. Others think the strike unified and energized the teachers and, for the first time in a very long while, gave them a sense of self-worth that had been sorely lacking. Interestingly, none of the teachers that The Jerusalem Post has talked to recently is really sure if they achieved their goals. Erez is convinced that he and the SSTO did. He believes the deal he and the leadership of the SSTO worked out at the 11th hour, just before back-to-work orders were to go into effect, was wildly successful. The Post caught up with him briefly this week, and he explained why the deal that was worked out was better than Histadrut head Ofer Eini's proposal... but also why there's a chance it could still all just go up in smoke. Responding to the Post's query as to why he signed a deal which was apparently far poorer than Eini's proposal, Erez was quick to contradict this. "Eini's proposal was an advance of 8.5 percent, in exchange for signing on to the reform. The Treasury nixed his proposal; we agreed to it. But the Treasury said the advance would be dispersed in three installments in return for three more teaching hours a week. That means each hour would be worth less than 3%. But the value of an hour right now is 5%," Erez explained. "The deal we reached was for 8.5% dispersed in two installments, in return for two teaching hours, and not even frontal teaching hours. The value of an hour has been preserved." This is over and above the 5% increase the teachers will receive as part of the Histadrut's collective wage agreement for all public sector employees. Moreover, "Eini's proposal did not address reducing class size or adding the teaching hours cut back over the last 10 years. We got commitments on those two things." Not only that. According to Erez, the basis for the reform plan that his team and the Education Ministry will be working out over the next six months is not Education Minister Yuli Tamir's or Israel Teachers Union (ITU) head Yossi Wasserman's, but the SSTO's - "Courage to Change." In addition, the teachers will receive a 26% raise overall once the reform plan is agreed to and implementation begins. So Erez got a mixed bag of numbers and commitments: hard figures for salary increases, but none for reducing class size and adding teaching hours to the week. He responded by saying, "To be totally honest, if we don't figure out the details [with the Education Ministry], then we could lose everything. There is a big difference between signing an agreement and implementing it. Our struggle isn't over. We managed to raise awareness all over the country and now we have to strike while the iron is hot." In other words, Erez anticipates a major battle even after an agreement is signed. On the other hand, no school strike has ever garnered so much public support. Even the students who were kept from their classrooms for more than two months have been sympathetic to the teachers. Over 100,000 people packed Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin to declare that education was an important issue worthy of being at the top of the national agenda. And while 100,000-strong rallies in the square have become rather frequent of late, this one was not about national security or kidnapped soldiers, but about teachers slogging away in their classrooms. Such support may be crucial to getting the government to adhere to its commitments, and turn two typewritten letters into a plan, with stages and numbers and, most importantly, funding to get it done. IF EREZ is confident that this deal was really pretty much all the teachers were demanding, why are the Treasury and the Education Ministry happy with it, too? The answer is connected with the other collective agreements that have been signed this year. Indeed, this has been the year of collective agreements. The Treasury negotiated a new wage agreement with the Histadrut, with the 100,000 teachers of the ITU and with the SSTO - and may even conclude one with the senior lecturers soon. In the era following the economic reforms of former finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who revolutionized the way the government thinks about its annual budget, there is a sense that Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On does not want to be the one to break the bank this year. The 2008 state budget, which passed the Knesset Finance Committee this week, is the biggest in history. And yet, Bar-On was able to keep the government's agreements with the Histadrut and the ITU, while still meeting the SSTO's demands. Salarywise, the SSTO will receive a similar increase to that which the ITU negotiated for months and preliminarily signed in September. That agreement also needs to be finalized this month, and there is little doubt that Bar-On was not about to give the 40,000 teachers of the SSTO more than he had given the 100,000 teachers of the ITU. As for the Education Ministry: It is happy, too, because Erez abandoned his demand for an immediate salary increase without a commensurate commitment to the reform. By accepting the SSTO's reform plan as the basis for change, Erez apparently was left with little reason to maintain his stance, which smoothed the way to an agreement.