Both sides declare victory at end of school strike saga

Secondary schools restart after nine-week hiatus.

The reaction among teachers, parents and politicians was one of gratified relief on Thursday as 20 hours of marathon negotiations, stretching through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, produced the outline of a deal between secondary school teachers and the government to end the 65-day strike. "We have achieved all of the goals for which we fought," Secondary School Teachers Organization head Ran Erez declared at a joint press conference with Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On and Education Minister Yuli Tamir Thursday afternoon. "In a struggle, one must be steadfast and persevere; one must know how far to push the issue, to approach the peak and then to sign [an agreement]. The peak was yesterday. We signed and this morning we finished the wording of the documents," Erez said. He thanked the finance minister "for his patience and tolerance" and the education minister "for her activities over the past few days." "Without this combined effort, we would not necessarily have reached this event," Erez said. Tamir also praised the deal. "This is a package that has never before been on the table. It will add billions of shekels to the education budget in the coming years and will significantly increase our ability to provide good education in Israel." Bar-On said it was "a day of celebration" that promised "a better future for Israel's children" and "a stronger education system that raises the status of teachers." But some officials criticized the manner in which the agreement had been reached. Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini congratulated the sides on having accepted his October proposal for ending the strike, but said that much suffering could have been prevented if they had done so earlier. MK Zevulun Orlev (National Union/National Religious Party) said that while the students' return to classes was a welcome development, "there remains a heavy feeling of discomfort that the government has missed a golden opportunity to implement real reform that would have upgraded the collapsing education system and teachers' lowly status." The deal is an outline of a collective wage agreement that will only become official when it is signed next Thursday. Disagreement surfaced between the teachers union and the Finance Ministry over details of the agreement just hours after the deal was announced. What was perhaps the teachers' core demand - reducing the number of students per class - will be addressed by a committee to be established by Education Ministry Director-General Shlomit Amihai; the panel is to present a plan on the matter to Tamir and Bar-On within 45 days. The agreement also stipulates that wages lost during the strike - which Finance Ministry officials had vowed would never be paid - will be given to teachers in exchange for making up the classroom hours by working overtime and on vacation days. The precise figures - SSTO officials want half to be paid immediately, and the remainder to be earned through added hours - will be determined by the Education Ministry. Future wage increases will be implemented only if the SSTO and the government agree on a broader reform based on the union's Oz Letmura ("Courage to Change") plan. The sides have six months to draft that reform, which will deal with more comprehensive changes such as restructuring the teachers' work week and promotion ladder and adding more private tutoring hours.