The longest Teachers' strike in Israel 's history – a new brand of workers' struggle

A report from Assaf Adiv of the Israeli Workers Advice Centre

The public support for the teachers strike in Israel seems unprecedented. Also the readiness of the teachers – some of them after 20 and 30 years in schools – to stand in the streets in daily demonstration, creates the feeling of a new spirit. All in all we are faced with a new brand of workers struggle.

The longest teachers’ strike in the history of Israel is no accident. Nor is the fact that 60% of the public supports the strike (according to a Geocartography poll). The Government’s refusal to raise the meager salaries of the teachers in this time of Israeli prosperity looks unfair to many.

The Finance Ministry insists on restricting the budget ceiling to an annual 1.7% increase despite the existence of a surplus and more than 5% growth in 2007. This insistence 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 in Israel ask today: whose land is it? The New Billionaires’ or the working people’s?

The huge demonstration that took place on the 17th of November in Rabin Square , Tel Aviv, was something that no trade union or social movement in Israel ever organized before. Labor disputes organized by the Histadrut in recent years tend to involve a strike in a particular branch, or even a general strike sometimes, but never have the workers gone into the streets to demonstrate for weeks on end, all over the country. The strong workers’ committees at the airport or the Electricity Company threaten to stop the movement of planes or to cut the power supply, but there has never before been a serious attempt to make the struggle a general one – inclusive of everybody.

Different social struggles (i.e. the handicapped and single mothers who fought against the cuts in the budget, or people who suffer from cancer that demanded an increase in the budget for special treatments) that had a big impact on public opinion in recent years took another form, bringing people to a tent in front of the Prime Minister’s Office for a hunger strike and then wait until the PM comes out and talks to them.

The teachers did it another way. It is unclear whether the decision to step out to the streets was a central one made by the High School Teachers Organization or a spontaneous initiative. What is clear now is that this type of militant, direct-action strike has mobilized tens of thousands of teachers, high school students and the parents’ association, all of whom participate in the daily activities.

The gut feeling that brought so much support to the teachers has to do with the socioeconomic reality in Israel . In recent years Israel ‘s economy went global, bringing a big leap in the GNP, foreign investments and eventually a dramatic rise in the elite’s living standard. In comparison, wide layers of the working class remained without union representation. Growing numbers work through personnel companies. The poverty rate has risen, especially among the 1.2 million Arab citizens.

While the eyes of the Finance Ministry, which conducts the negotiations with the teachers, are directed toward the international credit rating agencies, the teachers and many of their supporters were thinking about how to make ends meet. It is no accident that on the same day (Tuesday, Nov. 27) that Standard & Poor’s Rating Services had raised its long-term foreign currency sovereign credit rating for Israel to “A” from “A-”, the ministers of Finance and Education announced in a press conference that they are sending the case back to the Labor Court in a signal that the Government would not yield to the teachers demands.

Three years ago in the midst of former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s neoliberal reforms, the government put forward a reform plan for the educational system, formulated by a committee headed by businessman Shlomo Dovrat. The essence of the reform was to privatize the system by giving school headmasters powers to manage the budget, hire and fire teachers and even to decide on the curriculum. At the time both teachers unions – the Israeli Teachers Union (ITU) and the High Schools Teachers Organization (HSTO) refused to cooperate. As a result, the reform died.

After the elections in March 2006, the new coalition of parties that formed the government pledged to rectify the blunders of Netanyahu’s period and to lead a policy that was more attuned to the needs of the poor. In reality the coalition of Labor and Kadima, supported by (Ultra Religious) Shas and the Pensioners Party, has done the opposite.

Exploiting the division between the two teachers unions’, the government struck a deal with the HT. This agreement, signed last September and called “New Horizon,” was a mild version of the Dovrat reform that both unions rejected three years ago. In the negotiations between the HSTO and the Government, the “New Horizon” became the yardstick. The teachers are expected to accept the agreement as the basis of everything or get nothing.

The teachers are not fighting for luxuries. 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 the HSTO in the Carmel Region, the education budget was cut in the last 5 years by NIS 4.5 billion. This means that 285,000 hours were slashed from the high schools – about 8.5 hours per week for each student! Moreover, according to Weinberg, the New Horizon agreement gives headmasters extra powers that will result in a break between teachers and headmasters, for the latter will have authority to fire teachers easily.

Mr. Ghazi Ayub, the secretary of the Triangle Region of the HSTO (Arab schools), put it very simply: “We will not accept New Horizon by any means. It is an attempt to bring the Dovrat Reform in through the back door after we threw it away through the front door. We are fighting for conditions that will allow us to attract young teachers to the system with better conditions of work and better salaries.”

WAC, as a new Trade Union Association that aims at building a broad democratic nonsectarian labor movement, supports the strike of the teachers. Together with HSTO, it has organized solidarity meetings in Arab communities.

The stakes are great. The Government sees this fight as a test of its ability to stick to budgetary discipline and not give in to public demands. The teachers have nothing to lose: they reached a level of frustration and a feeling of degradation so deep that they prefer to lose their jobs rather than return to work under the old conditions.

At the moment of this writing (28.11.07), the struggle seems at a stalemate. The support HSTO has gained, and the amazing energies of its members and their students, could prove to be a new beginning for a social movement in Israel . We at WAC will do whatever we can to materialize this promise, so that Arab and Jewish teachers and students, as well as all workers, can find new ways of organizing and fighting to create a future for all.

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