Court order to end strike looms

Intense negotiations were continuing into the night Monday as government officials and high school teachers continued discussions ahead of a looming Thursday deadline, the date on which a National Labor Court order goes into effect forcing teachers back to work. Ahead of the Monday meetings, Secondary School Teachers Organization head Ran Erez met with Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On to "try to advance the negotiations," according to the sides. But talks were taking place in an atmosphere of growing disillusionment among some 40,000 striking high school teachers. Calls last week to defy the back-to-work orders were heard from a handful of union activists, and several hundred teachers were said to be preparing for such a move. By Monday, however, the protest had grown to several thousand teachers, according to school principals and union organizers around the country. Hundreds of teachers demonstrating outside the Israel Business Conference at Tel Aviv's David Intercontinental Hotel, where both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On were speaking. "We won't surrender to the court order," the protestors shouted. Education Minister Yuli Tamir reportedly called for meetings with hundreds of school principals on Wednesday, ahead of the back-to-work deadline, to try to convince them not to support the teachers' protest. Many principals have already said they would not attend. "The discussion surrounding the court orders sadly calls into question how the public treats the rule of law," said Bar-On at the business conference. "As time passes, the possibility for agreed-upon reform of the education system lessens," he warned. "Our responsibility to the students left us no choice but to issue the back-to-work orders." When, during the speech, Bar-On listed Israel's economic accomplishments and budgetary surplus, he was heckled by teachers who yelled that the government wasn't paying attention to education and had no plans for its reform. Earlier Monday, Olmert was also heckled several times during his speech by several teachers who had managed to enter the heavily-guarded conference. The teachers, who were protesting the injunction orders, called out: "It is your responsibility," and, "You want dialogue? Prove it and cancel the injunctions." Olmert tried to ignore the hecklers and continued with his speech. However, he soon succumbed to their taunts and responded: "I understand the distress and recognize that there is a crisis, but we will not solve it by shouting, using disruptions or harsh words, but with a deal." During his speech, Olmert said that "a greater investment in education is vital…the damage that has accumulated over 15 years must be repaired, but it cannot be fixed in one day," and added: "Now the negotiations must be concluded. The classrooms are waiting and the students want to learn." He also said the teachers were right in demanding a salary increase but that the government was also right to demand education reforms. Erez, head of the SSTO, said in response to Olmert's comments that it is the teachers who are awaiting Olmert and the government to offer them a serious wage increase. "We have been waiting for this for a long time and nothing will change until they meet some of our demands," he said. Erez warned of "anarchy" in the education system when the injunctions went into effect. Erez told Army Radio that many of the teachers would not want to return to work under duress and many pupils would not want to be taught by teachers who had been forced back to school. Erez added that the parents union intended to hold a strike. "Practically, even if 15 percent of parents strike, 20% of pupils don't come [to class] and 30-40% of teachers don't obey the injunction, there will be indescribable anarchy," said Erez. Erez emphasized that while he would honor the court orders, "You can't force teachers to teach with handcuffs." Tuesday marks the 55th day of the high school strike. Meanwhile, the higher education strike continued in Israel's public universities. A meeting Monday between representatives of the striking Senior Lecturers Union, the Finance Ministry and the Committee of University Presidents resulted in "no advances, and in fact, no discussions," according to SLU head Prof. Zvi Hacohen. While a small breakthrough was reached Sunday in discussions between the lecturers and the university presidents over a new pay scale for the lecturers, the agreements had yet to gain the approval of the Finance Ministry. At the same time, it ignores the lecturers' chief demand - compensation for wage erosion since 2001, which lecturers say has cost them over 30% of their real incomes. Finance Ministry officials dispute the numbers, arguing for a single-digit drop, and won't agree to a compensation deal. While quiet negotiations continue with the lecturers, university student unions took to the streets Monday in an escalating series of demonstrations that has already seen one student union - at Haifa University - join the senior lecturers on an indefinite strike. A noon "end of semester party" was organized at Ben Gurion University, during which students "mourned the passing" of the semester, which university officials have warned could be canceled if lecturers didn't return to teaching soon. At the same time, hundreds of students were joined by lecturers and some high school teachers for loud protests at the entrances to Haifa University and announced the beginning of an "open-ended" student strike that effectively shut down the university. A rally will be held Tuesday at Tel Aviv University's Antin Square, with lecturers and student unions calling for thousands to protest the ongoing crisis in the education system. Matthew Krieger contributed to this report.