Analysis: Tamir's tough lesson

Education Minister learning the hard way that without the necessary backing, she's become irrelevant.

Yuli Tamir 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Yuli Tamir 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Barely a year ago, Yuli Tamir entered the Education Ministry promising a new period of reconciliation with the teachers unions. Her first decision in her new post was to scrap the controversial Dovrat Report, which if fully implemented would have dramatically changed the system of teachers employment and drastically reduced the power of the unions to collectively negotiate with the government on behalf of the entire teaching force. Tamir wanted a clean break with her predecessor, combative Limor Livnat, who over five years on the job had charted a collision course with the unions. Livnat had sworn to break their power and the Dovrat Commission was her doomsday weapon to achieve that objective. The unions responded in kind with a vicious personal campaign, plastering her unsmiling face on every wall and bus shelter. Tamir, wanting none of that, declared herself the teachers' ally in their justified campaign to improve their salaries and working conditions. Now it all seems to have fallen apart. For the first time in the long and painful history of teachers strikes, the Secondary Schools Teachers Organization has caused the cancellation of matriculation exams and are threatening to continue their strike. The teacher-friendly minister is now seeking an injunction from the National Labor Court and meanwhile is preparing her own unprecedented doomsday weapon, breaking the strike by bringing in temporary staff to prepare the high-schoolers for their crucial exams. If that's not enough, Tamir is also facing a nationwide strike of university and college students demanding the lowering of tuition fees. Who remembers now the ambitious plan she once had for a national program of student loans? The unions, of course, have a valid case. Israeli teachers are woefully underpaid to teach overcrowded classes and are expected to prepare their students for their futures with an ever-dwindling amount of teaching hours. On the other hand, they can be equally accused of preferring blackmail and intransigence to serious negotiations over a long overdue overhaul of their pay system. Instead of fighting against Dovrat, they might have tried to influence the most comprehensive program ever devised in Israel for educational reform. But how have they reached such an impasse with Tamir, using measures against her they never brought out against their nemesis Livnat. Livnat had one clear advantage over Tamir: as education minister, she also enjoyed the crucial backing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who pledged the necessary funds to see the reform through. Tamir has none of that. She isn't even from the same party as the current PM and finance minister. The Education Ministry might be seen as one of the most coveted cabinet posts, but there is little the minister can change within the budget's constraints without the agreement of the "Treasury boys." And if they prove stubborn, the only thing that can move them is a harsh word from the finance minister. We all know that Avraham Hirchson has other things on his mind right now than helping out a minister from a rival party. Neither has Ehud Olmert yet shown any inclination in that direction. Without their backing, Tamir might as well stay in Poland. The students union, headed by budding politicians, well understands the situation and have announced that they will return to the lecture halls only after meeting the prime minister. Professor Tamir is learning the hard way that she might be nominally in charge of the biggest organization in the country, but without the necessary backing, she has become just as irrelevant as her political patron, the soon to be ex-Defense Minister Amir Peretz.