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The Teachers' Strike

From the Grass Roots Up

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TWO-MONTH strike of Israeli high school teachers, their longest ever, ended in December 2007 when the independent High School Teachers Organization (HSTO) reached a compromise with the government. The strike went beyond a labor struggle, for it had features of a civil revolt against establishment priorities. Ran Erez, HSTO chairperson, expressed this spirit when he stood before a huge demonstration in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on November 17 and said, "This is a social struggle for a welfare state." The teachers taught the government a lesson it hadn't dreamed of.

Like any agreement that comes at the climax of a long and difficult strike, this one left many loose ends. There is no certainty as to whether its positive components will be implemented. The agreement ordained an immediate wage hike of 10%- not much when we consider that most teachers earn between 4000 and 7000 shekels (NIS) per month (between $1000 and $1750). For comparison, the average wage in Israel is 7514 NIS. An additional increase, accumulating to 26%, is conditional: the teachers will get it if, in the coming half year, they reach agreement with the government on reforms. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised that within 45 days he would present a plan to lower the number of pupils in the classroom (currently there are about 40) and to restore classroom hours that were cut in the last five years. The teachers will also receive back pay for the days of the strike, on condition that they make up for lost lessons by shortening vacation times in the spring and summer of 2008.

It is too early, therefore, to judge the strike's results. Yet because the teachers may need to walk out again, and because their strike had significance for the social struggle in Israel, we shall attempt an interim summary.

What were the teachers fighting for?

Public schools have deteriorated in recent years as a result of government cuts in public spending. According to data supplied by Mr. Shlomo Weinberg, the secretary of HSTO in the Haifa-Carmel Region, the education budget was cut in the last five years by NIS 4.5 billion. Some 285,000 hours were slashed from the high schools – about 8.5 hours per week per student! The cut is reflected in the poor performance of Israeli 15-year-olds in a recent international exam that tested reading, math and scientific skills: among pupils from 57 participating countries, Israelis ranked in the bottom third.

Educational Reform: Dovrat and New Horizon

In 2004 the government initiated the Dovrat reform, as part of the neoliberal agenda advanced by Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The idea was to increase achievements by establishing three levels: basic, good and excellent. Pupils would qualify for this or that level. A national supervisory body would hold every teacher and class beneath a magnifying glass. The reform would push the high achievers forward, but it would also perpetuate existing gaps. Rather than emphasizing integration as the system did in the past, it would foster competition between and within schools. The extra work load and the competitive stress would fall on the teachers.

The Dovrat Plan also proposed giving greater powers to school principals. They would get pedagogic autonomy, organizationally and budget-wise, like business managers. The principal would be able to hire or dismiss teachers almost at will, would have a large hand in determining salaries, and would be empowered to rent school facilities to private companies. The principal would also be empowered to decide on curriculum.

Largely because of the teachers' opposition, the reform did not go through. Taking a more cautious and gradual approach, the Olmert government, in September 2007, reached an agreement with the Israel Teachers Union (ITU, also known as the Histadrut of Teachers). This reform is called "New Horizon." It is not as ambitious as Dovrat, but it has the same goal. It gives new teachers a better start, lifting their salary from 2800 NIS to 5300—a raise of almost 90% but still far below the national average of 7514 NIS. Veteran teachers, who earn between 4000 and 7000 NIS, would get a 26% hike. These raises will be made in exchange for additional work hours. New Horizon also increases the powers of the principals. The agreement provides that each teacher must sign on to the program personally. Only after half the teachers of a given school have signed will the reform go into effect there.

Of about 3000 elementary and intermediate schools, it is said that 300 will be joining New Horizon this year and 700 in 2008-2009. The rest are expected to do so over the next six years.

According to Or Kashti, Haaretz education correspondent (May 16, 2007), "One of the central changes in the agreement is the granting of broader powers to administrators in areas like administering the school budget and hiring or firing teachers. For example, the agreement provides that the process of dismissing a veteran teacher will be shortened to one year only, instead of two or three…The Director-General of the Education Ministry …estimates that within six years of the reform's implementation, about 20,000 teachers will have left the educational system."

Out of 110,000 teachers at the elementary and intermediate levels, 20,000 is a lot. Such mass departures are supposed to enable the system to change the rules. Meirav Arlosoroff, an economics editor for Haaretz, wrote on December 19 that the Finance and Education ministries see New Horizon as a tool for sifting out those veteran teachers who are "tired." The idea is, "More pay for more work." She described the "secret wish" of the Finance and Education ministries: the "tired" teachers will not want to put in the additional hours the reform requires. They will resign, making up, perhaps, a large part of the 20,000 whose departure is desired.

But where will their replacements come from? (And more will be needed if class size is to be cut.) It is doubtful whether a starting salary that is only two-thirds of the national average will attract good teachers.

In reality, New Horizon is a step toward breaking the system of collective agreements in education. The one with ITU does not take the classic form of a collective agreement, negotiated between employer and union—and then applied across the board. Instead, each teacher is to decide for him- or herself. Here we must make an important distinction. When a union is about to reach an agreement, it may indeed call on its members to vote. That is a positive democratic process. In this case, however, the decision for or against reform is taken out of the union's hands—as if there were no union-and left to the individual teachers at each school. Practically speaking, the union is rendered superfluous.

The moment the employer, here the State, in effect bypasses the union, while on the other hand empowering the school principal to hand out bonuses, the way is paved for a return of Dovrat.

Three years ago, amid former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's neoliberal program, the government proposed educational reform. The plan came out of a committee headed by businessman Shlomo Dovrat. This "Dovrat Plan" was never implemented, largely because of opposition from the two teachers unions (who had no part in drafting it).

After the elections in March 2006, the new Kadima-Labor coalition pledged to soften the draconian measures of Netanyahu and implement a policy attuned to the needs of the poor. The pledge has not materialized. In education, the government exploited the fact that the leaders of the elementary-school teachers' union (Israel Teachers' Union, ITU) are Labor Party loyalists. It struck a separate deal with ITU Chairperson Yossi Wasserman. Signed last September and dubbed "New Horizon," this was a milder version of the Dovrat Plan.

After ITU consented to New Horizon, HSTO was expected to swallow it too. When the high school teachers refused to accept the reform as a fait accompli, the government reared back for a fight. In the subsequent negotiations, New Horizon became the yardstick. From the government's point of view, any concession would rupture the agreement it had already reached with ITU.

But the high school teachers refused to budge. The similarities between Dovrat and New Horizon were just too obvious. Mr. Ghazi Ayub, Secretary of HSTO's Triangle Region (Arab schools), put it this way in a talk to Challenge: "We will not accept New Horizon by any means. It is an attempt to bring the Dovrat Plan in through the back door after we kicked it out the front. We are fighting for a change that will allow us to attract young teachers to the system with better job conditions and better salaries."

The strike's secret source of strength

The strength of the teachers' strike consists in a gut feeling among Israelis that something is awry in the government's priorities.

In recent years, Israel's economy has gone global, bringing a big leap in the GNP and foreign investments. The elite's living standard has risen dramatically. In contrast, wide sectors of the lower and middle classes have remained without union representation. Growing numbers work through personnel ("manpower") companies or subcontractors. The poverty rate has risen. It now includes many who have jobs.

While the Finance Ministry negotiated with the teachers, its eyes were directed toward the international credit-rating agencies. The teachers, for their part, were thinking about how to make ends meet. On November 27, the very day when Standard & Poor's raised its long-term credit rating for Israel from "A-" to "A," the ministers of Finance and Education brought the issue of the teachers' strike to the Labor Court, signaling that they would not yield. The credit rating stands at the heart of the dispute, and it is what makes the teachers' strike so important: it puts on the agenda a simple question that many here are asking today: Whose land is it? The fat cats' or the working people's?

This public question was the teachers' secret weapon. The Finance Ministry never imagined that they would take so determined a stance. Teachers are considered an obedient, self-sacrificing lot, without fighting spirit. Moreover, their strike shuts down no harbor or airport, turns off no lights. Finance also understood that when high school students sit at home, production continues: both parents can still go to work.

The teachers proved that the government's calculations were wrong. They created momentum in public opinion, maintaining solidarity and enthusiasm for as long as it took. They refused to be pressured, and they showed themselves ready to defy restraining orders from the Labor Court. Many announced that they would resign en masse rather than return to work under orders. Their determination gave enormous leverage to the negotiators, enabling them to compel the government to reach agreement for fear of an all-out civil revolt.

The crucial event of the two-month strike was a huge demonstration on November 17 in Rabin Square. The crowd was estimated at between 70,000 and 100,000. No trade union or social movement in Israel had ever organized so large a turnout. The square has held big crowds on issues of war and peace, but never have so many gathered over a social issue. In recent years, when the Histadrut has organized labor disputes, these have usually involved a particular industrial branch. Even when it has called a general strike, never have the workers gone into the streets for weeks on end all over the country.

The decision to take to the streets was not made by the leadership of HSTO. It was a spontaneous initiative. Tens of thousands participated: teachers, high school students and the parents' association. This direct-action struggle set the tone for a new social movement, which discovered itself in the process. It may again raise its head in the future to oppose the globalized capitalist elite in Israel.

Impediments

Some factors played a negative role in the strike. Among them was the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor). Ofer Eini, its head, took the role of a Trojan horse. He offered himself as a mediator, but in effect he stepped in to prevent concessions to the teachers. His motive was understandable: the Histadrut, as the ITU, had only just negotiated a miserable deal for the elementary-school teachers, and this would explode if the HSTU (which is independent of the Histadrut) got more. Eini's various compromise proposals always suited the Finance Ministry. In Maariv (December 7), pundit Ben Caspit revealed that Eini did his best to keep PM Olmert away from the dispute, for fear he would make concessions to the teachers.

Another negative factor was the Labor Court. It has become a millstone around workers' necks. The court was founded to defend their rights, including the right to strike. In the present instance, it adopted the government's position and issued restraining orders, claiming that the strike was of a "political type" and not purely economic. Clearly, when the Histadrut lines up on the side of the government, workers have hardly a chance at the Labor Court. The court's decision to force the teachers back to the classrooms, even without an agreement, expressed its bias in favor of the employer. According to the law, restraining orders are a sanction to be applied in only two cases: an illegal strike or an emergency in the supply of vital services (electricity, water, lifesaving, etc.). Since the teachers' strike falls into neither category, the use of restraining orders must be seen as a grave blow to workers' rights.

The strike surprised the government. It must be admitted, however, that the union was also caught off guard. It was not prepared for so long a struggle. It was not aware of the grass-roots frustration. It had never before seen itself as a leading factor in the social struggle. It had never taken initiatives during labor disputes. In the strike itself, we note, no voice was given to the special claims of the Arab sector, which suffers from systematic discrimination in the field of education. No Arab spokesperson appeared in the media or at the rostrum in Rabin Square, although the Arab teachers took part in the strike.

The coming challenge

The hostility of the government, the Histadrut and the Labor Court raises the question: what coalition of forces can support the teachers in the future—or workers in other sectors? One teacher wrote an answer in Haaretz (December 13): "On the day after the strike, I hope that the teachers' union also changes. It isn't certain that [Ran] Erez is committed to the changes we demand… We, the relatively young teachers, who are even 'idealists,' now need to run as candidates for functions in the union, so that in the future whoever stands at the head will have a clear position with regard to values and education—not just on wage issues, but also on what is happening in the society. The task is to create a socially-conscious labor union."

Liora Maierson, who teaches Literature at the "Beside," the high school beside the university in Jerusalem, wrote in Haaretz on December 5, while the strike was still raging: "Questions can also be put to the Teachers' Union, my union. Why is there no strike fund that will help some of my friends who suddenly find themselves without means. Why did the union merely react and not initiate, when we, the teachers standing at the junctions, organized demonstrations and determined the impact of the strike?"

There is a long way to go, it is clear, before workers can restore power to their organizations and create the kind of solidarity that overcomes boundaries of nation and class. The teachers' strike has shown how reluctant are existing organizations like the Histadrut when it comes to resisting neoliberal capitalism. We may take courage, however, from the fact that the strike created new models of struggle. It also raised the consciousness of many Israelis concerning the harmful consequences of neoliberalism. It showed that resistance is possible. From the ranks of the teachers came voices calling for a socially-conscious labor union. The strike may turn out to signify an important step on the road to social change. "end"

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