High schools on strike as university shut-down averted

Deal reached Saturday night establishes independent panel, outside framework of Shochat Committee, to examine university tuition.

High schools will be closed throughout the country on Sunday after the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO) declared it would continue its protest of "drawn out" negotiations over wage agreements with the Finance Ministry. The labor action followed an SSTO strike on Thursday, and there were conflicting reports regarding the chances it would continue into Monday. Education Minister Yuli Tamir told Israel Radio on Sunday morning that the claims being put forth by the SSTO were justified, but that the teachers "must show patience." She added that the negotiations were taking a long time, and that she was sorry over the strike. The teachers' unions have been threatening for months to completely shut down the education system if the Finance Ministry remained steadfast in its refusal to negotiate a collective salary agreement. The ministry said last week that negotiations were ongoing and the strike indicated bad faith on the part of the teachers. The last collective wage agreement for teachers expired in 2005. Following the urging of the education minister and others in the wake of a "warning strike" by the teachers' organizations in late December, the Treasury and the unions resumed negotiations. The National Teachers Union, which represents educators working with younger students, around 80 percent of the country's teachers, rejected calls from the SSTO to join in Sunday's strike, saying they wanted to give Finance Ministry representatives a few more weeks. The teachers' organizations are demanding the negotiation of a more favorable wage schedule and an increasing in number of early retirement packages offered to educators each year. The high schools were nearly joined in the strike by the public universities and colleges, with student and lecturer organizations promising to fight together "for the future of higher education." The joint strike would have marked a first for Israeli education, but it was averted at the last minute when student and lecturer union representatives reached an agreement with Tamir on Saturday evening, announced at a 9 p.m. press conference. The lecturers and students had threatened to begin an open-ended strike on Sunday, shutting down public universities and colleges in protest of their lack of representation on the six-member Shochat Committee. The strike would have represented the worst crisis in higher education since the student protests of 1998. The deal reached on Saturday night established an independent panel, outside the framework of the Shochat Committee, to examine university tuition. Student representatives will make up four out of the nine members on the new panel, which will operate on the same timeline as the Shochat Committee, with its final recommendations due by the end of June. The deal requires the approval of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The student leaders had threatened to single out Olmert as the stumbling block to an agreement. Under the agreement, tuition will be frozen during the 5768 (2007-2008) academic year at the current NIS 8,588. Students have demanded it be lowered, in keeping with recommendations of the Winograd Committee in 2001. Winograd called for a 50% drop in university tuition (from NIS 10,000 per year), but this recommendation was only partially fulfilled. Student leaders have said the establishment of the Shochat Committee was an attempt to cast aside the Winograd recommendations. Tuition in the colleges, which has not gone down since the Winograd recommendations were issued, would be lowered beginning next year, according to the agreement. In addition, the Perach project, in which students tutor disadvantaged schoolchildren in exchange for scholarship money, would be expanded. The total cost of the deal was estimated at NIS 150m., Tamir said at the Saturday night press conference. The mandate of the Shochat Committee, established in November to examine the future of higher education, includes examining merit-based pay scales for university lecturers, setting tuition policy and dealing with the brain drain of researchers leaving for better-funded institutions in the United States and Britain. Students and lecturers have claimed the committee's members are beholden to the Finance Ministry, and that its recommendations were determined before it was established and would involve the privatization of higher education. Committee head Avraham Shochat, a former finance minister, has called on all parties to wait for the panel's recommendations, saying it was "pointless for you to conduct a struggle against something that isn't there." National Labor Court President Steve Adler halted the Histadrut's last general strike after just a day on November 30, when the Treasury promised to find a solution to the salary issue. "I really hope that the government won't force us to renew a general public strike," said Histadrut Chairman Ofer Eini. "The court has, in fact, recognized the legitimacy of the strike and left us an option to strike again if the problem is not solved." Finance Ministry officials said they would try to convince the Histadrut on Sunday to resume negotiations, and not proceed with a strike that could cripple the economy. According to Treasury estimates, the one-day strike cost the economy around NIS 500 million. Meanwhile, a nationwide railway strike that began on Friday ended on Saturday night, when workers resumed train services. They had been protesting what they said was a delay by management in signing a new work agreement, but agreed to return to work when the Israel Railways promised to reopen negotiations immediately. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.