Blackout on union news from Israel... Teachers' strike enters 10th week

In an educational crisis of Biblical proportions, Israel’s high school teachers have now been on strike for more than a week and 40 days. The story, neither glamorous nor glitzy, has been largely ignored by the world press as well as the Israeli government officials who could, and certainly should, attempt to settle this matter. Locally, however, the strike is headline news on a daily basis, overshadowing even the latest round of peace talks at Annapolis.

It is almost incomprehensible to believe that a highly developed country would allow its educational system to sink into such quicksand and then simply allow it to flail about, week after week, while parents worry and the students are free to spend their time at the mall or on the beach.

The strike is being led by the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO), which represents the majority of high school teachers in Israel.

Sadly enough, Chicago teachers have a lot in common with their Israeli counterparts. In many ways, their problems are our problems.

There is the issue of insultingly low salaries, which means that many teachers have to work at extra jobs in order to sustain themselves and their families. The cost of living in Israel is high; Tel Aviv is the costliest city in the middle east and ranks number 17 in the world. The average monthly wage is $2000. A veteran high school teacher, with fourteen years experience, takes home only $1600 per month, and it is not enough to make ends meet.

There is the problem of class size: the average high school teacher has forty (40!!) students per class. One teacher reported during an extensive interview with the Jerusalem Post, “I have five or six frontal hours of teaching, which is the most I can do,” said Soshi Ayash in the interview. “With 40 or more kids in a class, there isn’t time anymore to get to know students on an individual basis…”

One of the problems facing the high school teachers is that the elementary teachers union bowed to pressure (similar to recent pressure from the Mayor here in Chicago) to extend the work day, thereby effectively canceling a raise. Elementary teachers in Israel are now required to spend 36 “frontal” hours per week at work, plus an additional nine hours in the school building on other duties.

Genia Sasson, who was also interviewed by the Post, said that trying to do work in the cramped teacher rooms in the schools is impossible. “We don’t hav eour own office, even our own table,” Sasson said, noting that most teachers grade papers and do other work at home as well.

Any responsible and realistic educator knows that smaller classes work to everyone’s advantage, and that overcrowded classes benefit no one but the ministries or educational boards that fund the schools.

There are also endless attacks on “bad” teachers and the union that “protects” them. They also have a so-called Reform movement afoot, which includes merit pay (for the “outstanding” teachers), and a salary increase tied to an increase in working hours. Teachers have been offered a 22 percent pay raise over the next few years in exchange for acceptance of those “reforms”, which include increased pay for new teachers, and an accelerated salary schedule, along with provisions to facilitate the firing of “unsuitable” teachers, and an average increase of 8 percent in contact hours.

Since teacher cuts must be implemented in order to fund the wage increases, and since those increases will be spread over many years, thereby diluting their value, and since other unspecified cuts will have to be made, the offer, as presented, is currently unacceptable.

And then there are the politics.

Almost two weeks ago, in a letter published by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated: “I commit to a dramatic wage increase of between 26 percent and 34 percent to members of the Middle and High School Teachers’ Association. I commit to a reduction in the number of students per classroom. We will raise the number of hours in the education system. We will increase the number of positions for teachers and principals.” He then demanded that teachers dedicate more hours to children with learning problems, and to spend more hours in school on a daily basis.

In response to the letter, the chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO), Ran Erez, went directly to Jerusalem to initiate a meeting with Olmert. “I was happy to read Olmert’s letter. we’ve been trying to get in to see him for the past six months. We intend to see just how serious he is,” he stated before arriving at Olmert’s official residence.

Erez later reported that the prime minister refused to meet with him.

As we go to press, the situation has deteriorated. The National Parents Organization announced a strike against the entire educational system, affecting grades one through 12, starting Sunday, December 2. The elementary teachers, who are represented by a separate union, settled weeks ago and have been in teaching during the ongoing high school strike. Spokesmen for the NPO asserted that the parents will decide whether to send their children to school or not.

The National Labor Court was expected to issue comprehensive injunctions ordering the teachers back to work and effectively ending the strike. All 3000 striking teachers have threatened to resign.

“Issuing an injunction won’t make the problem go away,” Erez commented on Saturday. “Eleventh and 12th graders don’t need a babysitter. They need education.” He insisted that protests will continue regardless of any injunction. A recent SSTO campaign, in response to the refusal of the Finance Ministry to reduce class size, has displayed fliers stating that 120 members of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) sit in luxurious offices while they force 40 children back into crowded classrooms.

As of Monday, December 3, the Jerusalem Post reported that the National Labor Court did not issue the expected injunction, instead ordering the SSTO to respond to the latest government proposal by late afternoon. The court gave the state until 11pm Monday night to submit details of its offer.

According to combined sources, the strike involves 40,000 teachers who teach more than 500,000 students per day in 1,700 junior high schools and high school in Israel. The strike began October 10 and was continuing as Substance went to press. 


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