Erez: Some progress in strike talks

SSTO head says sides have made headway on two key issues as Thursday's injunction deadline nears.

Erez Treasury 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Erez Treasury 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Some progress has been made in talks between the Secondary School Teachers' Organization (SSTO) and the education and finance ministers, SSTO head Ran Erez said on Wednesday. Erez, quoted by Army Radio, said the sides had inched closer to an agreement on two key issues: Lowering the number of children in each class and adding schooling hours which were previously cut. On Tuesday night, negotiations that were widely expected to end the eight-week-long high school teachers strike ended suddenly as the teachers' representatives stormed angrily out of a late-night meeting, accusing the Finance Ministry of backtracking on an agreement reached the night before. The agreement had been signed by Erez on Monday night. According to a copy of the text given to The Jerusalem Post, the agreement called for a 5 percent increase in teachers' salaries through 2009, matching a general wage increase achieved in a deal with the Histadrut, and a government promise to invest NIS 1.5 billion in lowering the number of children in each class, with a stipulation that none of the money will be spent on construction. The deal also included a clause that the union would not strike through 2009, and that the implementation of the classroom-size reform - which was expected to shrink classes to 30 pupils - would be the responsibility of the Education Ministry. According to sources who were involved in Tuesday's negotiations, Erez left the seven-hour negotiations to be interviewed on Channel 2 after a news report critical of his handling of the 56-day-long strike. "He came back from that interview and didn't stay even 15 minutes before walking out," said one source. "Apparently, the criticism from the teachers over this deal must have been massive." Both the Finance and Education ministries called on Erez to return to the negotiations. Erez was criticized for signing a deal that amounted to what many saw as a stop-gap measure, since it left out many of the reforms to the school system the government has been trying to enact. The union could not be reached for comment by press time. The union is heading into a Thursday deadline at which injunctions issued by the National Labor Court go into effect, forcing the 40,000 striking high school teachers back to work. Hundreds of teachers - union activists insist the number is in the thousands - have threatened to defy the court order, insisting their "democratic rights" were being infringed. Meanwhile, the National Parents Leadership, an umbrella group of local parents' associations, demanded on Tuesday that parents receive refunds for monthly fees paid while the high schools were on strike. The refunds may amount to tens of millions of shekels. In a letter to Education Minister Yuli Tamir, NPL chairwoman Etti Binyamin called on the education system to refund the payments, which are collected through automatic deposits at the beginning of the school year for enrichment activities and field trips. According to the NPL, parents are owed some NIS 500 per child. These funds are added to those promised to parents after last year's high school strike, which led to the cancellation of customary extended field trips for which parents had already paid. In June, then-ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav promised that these funds could be held as credit for the current year.