We need unity more than a strike

Teachers are underpaid and overworked, but the unions representing us are too divided to be effective.

strike 298  (photo credit: jerusalem post)
strike 298
(photo credit: jerusalem post)
The flippant tone of the newsreader on Army Radio on Tuesday morning as he announced "The teachers' strike roulette wheel has today stopped in Jerusalem" belied the attitude of the public to the current spate of strikes by one of the country's teachers' unions. Many, I suppose, could be forgiven for not having noticed previous sanctions imposed by the union, which represents most high and junior high school teachers. These have consisted of one-day strikes in specific areas of the country. This week, for instance, teachers had struck in Greater Tel Aviv, the central area and the Jerusalem area on different days. Being a teacher and a union member, I have no doubt as to the justification behind the actions. The union's demands, which include a substantial pay increase for teachers, smaller classes, extra pay for working with pupils with learning disabilities, and the setting up of an advancement track for teachers, seem fair enough. If agreed to, they will benefit not only those in the teaching profession, but pupils as a whole. The problem lies, however, with who is striking and the way the sanctions are being carried out. There exists another teachers' union in addition to the Secondary School Teachers' Organization (SSTO) of which I'm a member. There is also the National Teachers' Union (NTU) which covers all teachers in primary schools. However, many teachers of junior high and even high school pupils are also numbered among its members. The reasons for this duality is mainly historic. In the past, junior high schools did not exist. Elementary schools went up to the eighth grade with high schools starting from the ninth grade. The distinction between members of each union was clearer then. The setting up of junior high schools, which are generally connected to high schools and include grades seven through to nine, has changed all that. Teachers who taught the older elementary grades moved on to large six-year comprehensive schools and eventually progressed onto teaching high-school classes as well. The result is confusion caused by any strike called solely by one of the unions. School headmasters have come up with creative solutions to this, none of which appear to work. There are those who have decided that SSTO strikes would cancel studies only in the high school, whereas NTU ones would affect only junior high classes. This has led to strike breaking among teachers, especially those afraid to go against their principal's decision for fear of losing their jobs. PUPILS, IT seems, share no such dilemmas. For most of them a strike is a strike. Teachers coming into school to teach on days when strikes were declared by only one of the unions have found themselves standing before a handful of students. Pupils don't know to which union their teachers belong and all directives from school administrations that they have to come to school unless the strike is declared by both unions fall on deaf ears. In addition to this, an unfair situation is created among staff members. Teachers belonging to the NTU who teach in high schools are, in effect, on strike at the moment even though their union is not taking part in the sanctions. They will receive their day's wages, despite not working, while their colleagues who are members of the striking union will not. For a strike to be successful, it has to affect a great number of people and cause public inconvenience. Day-long school strikes are not considered enough of a disruption to do this especially in the high-school sector. Even though the timing of the strikes, so close to the matriculation exams, is crucial, many high school pupils welcome the occasional day off from their stress-filled schedules. Those lucky enough to benefit from a lesson-free day just before a major exam will not be complaining too much. The only way for this strike to have its desired outcome is for it to affect all areas for a prolonged period of time so that parents fearing for their children's matriculation results will bring pressure to bear. It is sad to consider that had these one-day strikes been called by the NTU and affected elementary schools rather than high schools, parents of younger children would have been on their high horses angered over having to find alternative arrangements to the daily "baby-sitting service" provided by the Education Ministry. It is hard for me to understand why both unions are not sanctioning the present strike, given the current state of the educational system in general and teachers' salaries in particular, which have failed to keep up with the cost of living in the last few years. Its success depends on the collaboration of both the NTU and the SSTO in order to bring these issues to the awareness of the Israeli public. The only way that this will happen is when more people feel that they are being affected personally by the strike. Politics, I fear, has reared its ugly head to prevent leaders of both unions agreeing on a joint course of action to save the educational system. Until such time, pupils will continue to underachieve and teachers will continue to be part of one of the most underpaid and underappreciated sectors of society. The writer is a Jerusalem high-school teacher.