Analysis: The university lecturers' bad sense of timing

Starting a strike parallel to the high school teachers was not a good move.

ta university 88 (photo credit: )
ta university 88
(photo credit: )
The Princess Bride made famous such "classic blunders" as getting into a land war in Asia and "going in with a Sicilian when death is on the line." The university professors may have added two more blunders to that list. The most famous one is not to have a bargaining chip with which to threaten. The only slightly less well known is this - timing. The professors' bargaining chip was to hold the semester hostage to their demands. They gathered the determination to hold out for far longer than university strikes usually take and to actually reach the point where the semester might be endangered and perhaps the entire academic year as well. As was pointed out last week, the only place in the world where an academic semester has actually been canceled is Ghana, and with all due respect to Ghana, Israel does not consider itself on any sort of par with Ghana. Alas, as opposed to Wesley, who only appeared to fall for one classic blunder, the professors have seemingly fallen for both of them. With all due respect as well to the professors' lofty, and less lofty, goals, they picked the wrong time to strike. As some professors themselves have acknowledged recently, starting a parallel strike to the high school teachers' strike was not a good move. When more than 600,000 teenagers are roaming the streets because they have no classes to go to, who cares what is happening to several thousand university students? As Calev Ben-David pointed out in this newspaper a few weeks ago, university students are supposed to roam around and get drunk as part of their college experience. Moreover, as extended university strikes are far more common than high school strikes, no one gave the university strike the time of day for the first two months it ran. In fact, the university strike has not been given the time of day by any of the other parties involved in trying to end it. Anyone who has been observing the Treasury's handling of this strike cannot escape the conclusion that officials there perceive it as an irritating nuisance, but not a crisis situation. For weeks, there were no meetings with the Senior Lecturers Union. In the past few days that has changed, but perhaps even more tellingly, there has not been a single breakthrough in the negotiations since the strike began 10 weeks ago. The Finance Ministry has been content to hold to their hard line, never offering a deal the professors could seriously consider and rejecting out of hand compromise proposals cobbled together by the university presidents. Perhaps Wage Director Eli Cohen gave some inkling as to the Treasury's thinking nearly two months ago when he told the Knesset Education Committee that traditionally there was an order to contract negotiations. First, a deal with the Histadrut Labor Federation has to be signed. Then, the high school teachers need to be placated. Finally, with all of that out of the way, they could look toward coming to an agreement over the summer with the senior lecturers. But the professors jumped the gun, and the Finance Ministry clearly has no patience for it. They have yet to finalize the deals with the National Union of High School Teachers and the Secondary School Teachers Organization, so the time is not yet right in their eyes for the professors. The Treasury's latest proposal is not so much a proposal as a delaying tactic. Let's try arbitration, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On suggested Saturday night. In other words, let's enter a long legal process and get you back in the lecture halls and deal with this when we have some time, like in between school years. So the professors' bargaining chip is useless because no one but the students care about the academic semester or year. The Committee of University Presidents' decision to postpone canceling the semester until January 13 shows that even they don't take the strike as seriously as they might. They had the chance to push the negotiations onto some sort of crisis footing by canceling the semester now, but stepped back from the brink. The presidents invited the professors to meet again Monday night to try and work out an agreement, but there is now no incentive in the world for the lecturers to stop their strike until at least January 12, another three weeks away. And yet, even if the strike continues until then or even beyond, it's very unclear there is really a will to pay more than lip service to ending this strike at all. It may become the longest running, but most insignificant, university strike in Israel's history. Without serious threats in their arsenal, the professors may now need to consider going back to campus and biding their time until their moment in the sun arrives.