Israel: The teachers’ Rebellion 2007

An historical awakening

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The teachers’ rebellion 2007

High-school teachers in Israel are engaged in an impressive active strike, demanding an end to government’s planned capitalist “reform” of the education system, and countering it with their own demands, including higher wages and a restoration of budget cuts. They have overwhelming popular support amongst teachers in the other, bigger teachers’ union, parents, students, school students and working people. This was manifested in the historical mass solidarity demonstration of around 100,000 people in Tel-Aviv on 17 November , organised by the high-school teachers’ union. It was the first time since the foundation of the Israeli state of such a mass turn out in solidarity with a workers’ struggle. The demonstrators could see clearly the relevancy of the teachers’ demands to their own lives, supported the strike action, wanted to defend education and protest against the consequences of the government’s capitalist measures.

The strike of the high school teachers union (“The Teachers Organisation” – with about 35,000 members) began on 10 October and is now in its second month. It has become the longest strike in high schools so far, breaking the record of 45 days in a failed strike in 1978. They demand higher wages (current wages are far below the average), the return of a billion Shekels stolen from the education budget by past governments, a return of teaching hours, and a significant decrease in class sizes (some classes have over 40 students in them). The neo-liberal plan cuts deeply into teachers’ different benefits, and additionally harms their pensions, the right to strike, subordinates the teachers to business norms (including “clocking in and out”), with greater chances of getting sacked and longer working-hours for less payment per hour.

An attrition battle

This strike is a battle of attrition between the government and the teachers. In spite of the immense popularity of the strike, the government and the financial sharks usually seek to absorb this shock and continue with their agenda. Since this government is so hated in any case, the political price it pays currently is not too grave for it, and there is, as yet, no significant economic price that could have pressured it to significant immediate concessions. They do promise the return of a few billion Shekels to the education budget for 2008, but this is a propaganda measure intended to cloak and justify the essence of the steady “market reforms” in the system, especially after the major cuts in the education budget of 2007 has only increased active opposition. In fact, these billions are not intended at all for restoration of teaching-hours and more classrooms, but for the implementation of the neo-liberal plan.

The government, and specifically the Finance Ministry, explicitly admits they fear a domino effect where other sectors of workers use strike action to compel the government to answer their demands. Since the government has already signed deals with the leaderships of the bigger teachers union (“The Teachers Histadrut” – with about 120,000 members) and the General Workers Histadrut (the general Trade Union Federation, excluding teachers) during the last few months, it is obvious to the representatives of capital that conceding to the demand for significant higher wages to this smaller union would open a Pandora’s Box for them of having to deal again with the other unions.

The current price inflation, with drastic rises in basic commodities such as petrol, electricity, water, etc, is already eroding away the promised small wage increases for other sectors. It is the growing hatred for the government’s neo-liberal policies and the tough determination of the high-school teachers’ active opposition to capitulation that inspires workers from other sectors and strengthens the idea that a militant struggle against government policies and for higher wages is necessary. This has already resulted with teachers in the bigger union organising an internal opposition (“Fortitude to the Teachers”/”Awakening”) and demanding that their leadership joins the strike and terminates the signed agreement.

The government counts on the fact that the Teachers Organisation has no strike fund, and so the teachers have no salary (with a few exceptions in the municipalities and some semi-private networks), and that this economic burden will break them. This is, unfortunately, a possible scenario, since this situation weakens the capability of this union to strike for longer periods, unlike the bigger union that had a rather successful strike of several months in 1994. Some of the teachers were drawn to work in various temporary jobs already. The government threatens that in any case, if things take too long, it will use Labour Court Prevention Orders (injunctions) to force the teachers back to work, just as it did earlier this year.

Active and creative strike

The government’s attempts to bring in more capitalist business norms into the education system and to grow parallel private networks already led to the big university students’ strike earlier this year. That struggle, although not yet achieved a victory, has inspired and injected confidence into other struggles of the period, including the current high-school teachers’ strike. It managed to do so due to its highly active character, and its wider calls against privatisations and for free education for all. The current struggle has adopted from the students their red and white colours. The universities’ senior personnel are also on strike for about a month, against the planned business norms affecting their positions.

The Teachers Organisation has already organised about 200 different protests in a period of little more than a month. Usually there are several each day in different places. Some included spontaneous roadblocks (drivers were allowed to pass every few minutes and they sounded their horns in support). A speech of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – who has tried to consistently ignore this struggle – was constantly disrupted by protesting teachers who sneaked into a conference he was addressing. There were torchlight marches. In some areas teachers come to their schools at 7am, decide the next target of activity and when to do it. In some schools, copies of pay-slips of the teachers were sent to the parents, and that has assured an increase in active support by parents. Recently in some of the schools, parents and pupils are called to a special meeting with the teachers, to discuss the crisis of the education system. On 20 November, the teachers were recorded in the World Guinness Records Book after holding the most crowded school-lesson in history, 244 pupils in a an empty 30m2 classroom in Jerusalem to study Bible and Literature – each lesson took 5 minutes! Later, this was repeated with 186 pupils with tables and chairs. There were many other creative initiatives, such as sending Hebrew language protest-signs to American teachers, who agreed to demonstrate against Olmert during his participation in the planned Annapolis Summit at the end of November in the United States.

There are daily updates on activities on the union’s internet site, including reports on other teachers’ struggles in the world. Protest tents have been erected in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. In these tents special classroom lessons/lectures/study-circles are held about regular school subjects as well as about struggle (including examples of struggles in other countries, and historic struggles), education, strikes, democracy, and other burning questions. These are helpful in fertilising a discussion on a ground level among teachers and supporters.

Understanding that the best assurance to win the struggle is by full involvement, teachers have independently organised regional Struggle Staffs (commissions of militant teachers) in a few areas, with independent internet sites and teachers’ blogs updated daily. Most prominent is the Jerusalem Staff, which is spearheading the grassroots activities and the pressure on the union leadership (including a special petition) not to surrender to the unyielding hand of the financier-clerks and their backing for the government, and to demand not only wage increases, but a thorough social-reform in the education system. The mood of these combative teachers is reflected also in some of their independent publications. Here is one example from the Jerusalem website’s opening letter:

“Our role is to protect, to take responsibility, and not to be dragged after the pessimism which has spread in society. Do not be convinced that Israeli society cannot be fixed, because many brave people throughout human history have sacrificed their lives so that we could live in a framework that allows us rights such as the wonderful right to try and get organised with no fear of the regime. Don’t get confused: the regime fears us, and that’s why they try in many and cunning ways to split and dismantle us… We have a chance to become a movement to be told about in history lessons (or at least in the teachers’ rooms in the future), and the capability, and the support by the majority of the public… The teachers’ public… cannot be tricked: the state of Israel has lots of money. Lots means tens of billions of Shekels in budget surpluses which are sent to external debts instead of treatment of those services hit by economy (health, education, welfare, etc), and tens of billions more accumulated in the Bank of Israel (central bank). And, there’s also money to lower the taxation on vehicles (because this encourages growth, they say, but what is that growth, and who of us actually feels it?). This time technology is also on our side.”

A spectacle of solidarity

There’s concrete and active solidarity action by teachers from the bigger union. As well as this, the strike has overwhelming popular support, reflected sharply in polls, in spite of a vicious campaign of deceitful incitation against the teachers in the news-media (including blaming them for increased youth street violence with such headlines as: “Murdered because of the teachers’ strike”). In past years such anti-workers’ propaganda of divide and rule against strikers used to work – traditionally also with the teachers, who are the largest organised workers sector. But gradually, people’s own experience has taught them the true motives behind such lies, and recent strikes have been quite popular, due to increasing rage against the government, the establishment and the rule of capital.

In a clear break from its anti-strikes’ tradition, the primary National Parents’ Organisation has expressed definite solidarity with the teachers. This organisation threatens that if the government tries to break this strike with special injunctions, the parents will not send their children to schools, and will make sure that the struggle continues. Its chairman said during the 17 November mass rally that “this is the beginning of a social-revolution, and it will not stop till all our demands are answered”. Now the organisation plans a national conference of parents as preparation to enforce a shut-down of all schools to support the strike. They have the support of some of the mayors, and this will increase political pressure.

Layers of high-school pupils are radicalised by this struggle, and in various areas pupils have spontaneously joined teachers’ protests. Later, pupils’ protests were organised, including an angry march in the main roads of Tel-Aviv on November 15. In these protests, the metaphor of a sardine-box as classroom is often used. The National Pupils and Youth Council – a highly institutionalised body (which pupils actually defied with an independent strike in 2005) – is influenced by the radicalisation of certain layers of youth, and already organised a pupils’ day of strike last year, against education budget cuts. Now it is pushed to declare support of the teachers and to call pupils to join in action. Its chairman stated:

“We’re very angry with the government, it doesn’t seem that we’re on its mind… We support the teachers because it is a just struggle. We deserve better teachers – who have time to teach. I’m learning in a 40-pupils classroom… The success of the strike means the fulfilment of the principles of the teachers… We’re almost past the point of demonstrating and shouting. What else are we expected to do? Take over the Government-Campus in order to make someone care?” (NanaNews, 16-Nov).

The National Students Association (university students’ organisation) has also declared its support for the teachers, and is spreading red solidarity t-shirts with the slogan: “cheap education – costs expensively”. Yet, after its leadership sold out the big students’ strike earlier, there is an evident exhaustion among students, and currently rejection of the idea of a renewed strike. Nevertheless, there’s a radicalised layer which does get involved already; first and foremost are the students in the teachers’ colleges, and especially students from Jerusalem, “Oranim” college near Haifa, and a core of Jewish and Arab students of “Seminar HaKibbutsim” (including a member of Maavak Sotsyalisti – CWI Israel). The latter marched in some main roads in Tel-Aviv on 19 November, shouting in Hebrew and Arabic solidarity slogans, such as: “Teachers’ wages: double! Each classroom: divide by two! Revolution!”

General Histadrut threatens with a General Strike

In a special press conference on 28 October, the leadership of the General Histadrut declared that it formally “joined” the teachers’ struggle, and might use sanctions and even strikes if the government did not concede: “We will not allow the breaking of the teachers. If there are no proper negotiations we will… declare a general strike in the economy,”said the chairman `Ofer `Eyni. Solidarity strikes involving different unions are forbidden by law in Israel, and so such a threat is unprecedented.

This is a glaring sign of the seismic changes in Israeli society. The bureaucratic leadership of the General Histadrut has no interest in a sharp collision with the state and the ruling class. Its usual function is that of a watchdog on the Israeli working class – bending it to the capitalist class’s agenda and releasing steam when necessary. A recent example is the offensive general strike in July demanding a significant increase in public-sector wages (due to the ongoing longest ever economic growth in Israel, which has benefited only the elite), which was quickly ended with an almost automatic agreement to a mere 5% raise.

However, in the current period, the leadership continues to hold back sectors of workers who are eager to finally get their revenge on the government and the financier-clerks after their past struggles were put down with the help of this very same leadership (which, infuriatingly, includes the front of the Israeli CP). This reality causes workers to be alienated from the General Histadrut, and its slump in popularity has led groups of unorganised workers to get unionised in external formations. Combined with the pressure of the general politicised anti-government public mood, this bureaucratic clique is pushed to prove its right to exist. Currently, that is the reason for its radical rhetoric, but the leadership’s core course remains as the same Trojan horse of a pro-capitalist force within the workers’ movement. Because of this, `Eyni has volunteered to be the negotiator between the government and the teachers, while suggesting as a solution the government’s original plan with some cosmetic changes.

No matter that this threat was made with no intention of backing it up – in future struggles, workers will demand the General Histadrut keeps its promises and expresses organisational steps of genuine solidarity. The seeds of this vital solidarity can be seen on the ground. When a group of 150 teachers and 20 pupils came to demonstrate on November 8 outside Tel-Aviv airport, their calls to the workers were answered with a warm welcome. The Workers Committee (shop-stewards) invited them in for a unique solidarity meeting.

The astounding solidarity, combined with desperate threats of teachers of mass resignation, have so far convinced the government that any use of court injunction orders at this stage would not be able to actually finish the story, but only complicate it.

Historical mass demo

The historical 100,000 November 17 rally did not show only solidarity with the teachers, but became another cry against neo-liberal policies, against the deeply corrupt government, and for a serious investment in public services. The Teachers Organisation chairman, Ran Erez, expressed some of the widespread mood in this struggle during his speech – although trying wrongly to convince the government:

“…Everyone struggles alone and nobody succeeds. Now we are all together! We initiate a social struggle for a Welfare State. Education is closing gaps, education is handling violence, education is handling alcoholism, drugs, shirking (he wrongly criticises the military service dodgers, adopting the government’s position)… this is our struggle. Too bad that the government doesn’t understand it… We aren’t against them; we are in favour of them. We want to tell them: the ground is shaking! This volcano will erupt! … Our struggle is not a struggle of a union for a wage rise, but a social struggle on a different living quality, on progress.”

One of the speakers, a teacher, criticised the government on the question of military investment, saying: “I’m not worth less than a Merkava Tank! (Israel’s well known military tank)”

The mobilisation was important oxygen for this struggle, and a fortifier of other working-class struggles. Unfortunately, the next steps of the struggle were not dealt with by the leadership and the speakers in this rally. The leadership focused more on morale and a display of power. Many supporting bands and singers performed voluntarily for free, which is good, but the balance tended too much to the side of a concert. However, the mood of the demonstrators was not only satisfied with the fact that the event was a success and the fact that the teachers’ leadership had not yet capitulated, but was also politically ‘thirsty’. Although there were no noticeable political calls from the crowd, there was a wide interest in political materials and conversations.

An all-country warning general strike is needed

The absurd absence of the General Histadrut from the rally was sensed. Its chairman did not even come to carry a support speech. Such is the rotten nature of this renegade leadership, it should be replaced.

Maavak Sotsyalisti participated in the rally, and distributed 1,500 flyers, calling for organised solidarity in the form of an extension of the strike to the bigger union, the students and the pupils, and calling upon the General Histadrut to announce a 24-hours warning general strike . A conference of the opposition teachers in the bigger union should be called. Another mass mobilisation should be already declared to take place in Jerusalem in front of the Knesset (parliament). A link with other struggles is essential, and that’s why the Teachers Organisation should adopt a clear agenda against neo-liberal attacks and for strong unions and a political representation of the workers. Following this line they should also sack immediately their lawyer, who was also the lawyer of the management of “Elite Coffee To Go” against the organised waitresses in Tel-Aviv.

The popularity of the chairman Ran Erez is understandable, considering the volume of this struggle, but it must be taken into account that he is an easy compromiser, as was evident in past struggles, and as is admitted by him in the current struggle: “If they don’t agree to sign a collective contract, but agree to decrease the number of pupils per classroom to 30 within 5 years, we might agree” (TV Channel 1 News, 25 November), just as he accepted the suggestion of the General Histadrut for cosmetic changes in the government’s plan. That’s why the role of the Struggle Staffs is so crucial, and why democratic control of the strike must be demanded, including a vote on the final agreement in each teachers’ staff room.

Down with the government – a need to organise an alternative

The Olmert-Barak-Liberman government is fragile, and every single issue shakes its coalition. The ruling class’s deep political crisis is on delay, simply because it is reluctant to see yet again elections that could bring sharp instability. With a current “Labour Dispute” (threatened strike) in Haifa docks and in the Electricity Company – both amongst the heavy core of the Israeli working-class – this period can definitely be marked as one of the sharpest class confrontations so far, which indicates a step forward in the overall transformation of the character of Israeli society and this will be followed in the future by the long-awaited changes in Israeli politics.

If the teachers can continue their struggle until other sectors are drawn into struggle, a social explosion in the form of a mass movement could develop, and not only force concessions to the teachers’ claims and other sectors, but also bring down the government and shake Israeli politics. If not, a failure of the strike might deter some layers of workers and exhaust some of the teachers, but it is more likely to mostly contribute to the accumulating anger and rejection of capitalist politics, especially in a period when struggles are inevitable (although this could be taken back in the case of a national or regional conflict).

Yes, teachers’ salaries should be doubled and class sizes should be halved, and thorough changes are needed in the education system. Segregation between Jewish and Arab students in the system (the Arab education system was formally under supervision of the secret police until recently) and discrimination between different sectors and congregations must be abolished, and all religious teachings should be taken out of school (with the right of religious communities to organise religious studies in their spare time). A single and integrated multi-language education system should be free and for all, from kindergarten to the university, and with special arrangements for workers. Schools should not be “marks-factories” of mere memorising and disciplining; but guiding institutions for independent studying, creativity and critical thought. Teachers, parents and pupils/students should be democratically involved in designing the materials. Privatisations and attacks on the public services must be stopped, and replaced with a democratic, highly-planned economy.

It is vital to organise a political alternative to the government, so that a government which is not a representative of the rule of capital will be possible. This requires the establishment of a genuine workers’ party (for the first time in Israel’s history), which will be able to defy the rule of capital, and lead the current wave of workers’ and social struggles to victory, and to unite workers and youth from both sides of the national and congregational divide.

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November 2007