LAST autumn Slovak teachers who demanded higher pay and better funding for public schools opted to shelve their strike plans. They accepted that the interim government of Iveta Radičová, which had lost a vote of confidence and was due to remain in office only until an early general election in March 2012, did not have the mandate to address their demands. Yet it seems that neither the passage of time nor the new, ostensibly left-leaning government of Robert Fico has remedied teachers’ frustrations with what they call the underfinanced education department and the stretched wallets of teachers. On September 13 they organised one of the largest strikes ever by Slovak teachers.
Educational institutions at all levels, from kindergartens to universities, closed their gates between 6:00 and 18:00 on September 13 in order to emphasise teachers’ calls for a 10-percent pay hike. But the draft state budget for next year does not make any allowance for the increased expenditure that would be required to fund such a rise for all educators, despite the fact that the education sector is among the few departments which will see more cash flowing in from the state coffers next year.
While Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič said the teachers’ demands were legitimate he also described the strike as premature and said he would prefer to negotiate.
“We believe that we will achieve the fulfilment of our demands, otherwise we are ready to stage yet another strike,” said the head of the Trade Unions of Employees of the Education Sector and Science (OZ PŠaV), Pavel Ondek, as quoted by the Sme daily.
The unions also want to see more cash flowing into the education sector between 2013 and 2015, and the pay scheme for schools changed so that the salaries of teachers and professional staff rise to 1.2 to 2.0 times the average wage in the national economy, said Ondek, as quoted by the TASR newswire.
On average, countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) invest 6.2 percent of their annual GDP in education. Yet, with only 4.7 percent of its GDP being spent on education in 2009, Slovakia belongs to a group of seven OECD members that invest less than 5 percent of their GDP, according to a recent statement by the club of industrialised countries entitled Education at a Glance.
Regarding tertiary – i.e. university-level – education, Slovakia invested even less, only 0.9 percent of GDP, placing it in second-to-last position, next to South Africa.
Last year, on September 13, more than 9,000 teachers from every part of Slovakia gathered in front of the Government Office in Bratislava to express their discontent with what they called inadequate funding for schools. They later opted to shelve their strike plans. Meanwhile, however, Slovak hospital doctors pressed on with industrial action and in December 2011 were involved in a large-scale protest action in which more than 1,200 physicians threatened to quit if the government refused to boost their pay.
The government finally granted the doctors a three-step salary increase, starting with a salary rise to 1.05 to 1.6 times the average salary in the Slovak economy on January 1, 2012, and to 1.25 to 2.3 of the average salary in January 2013, depending on each doctor’s level of education and experience.
Strike gets strong support
With the involvement of teachers at 90 percent of nursery and primary schools, nearly 80 percent of secondary schools and around 30 percent of universities and colleges, this year’s strike was the biggest since 2003, when teachers protested twice. In June 2003 up to 90 percent of schools remained closed, while in September of that year 60-70 percent of schools were caught up in various forms of protests.
Those strikes proved successful: in October 2003 the government agreed to hike salaries by 7 percent, the SITA newswire reported.
The OZ PŠaV, which has been joined by the New Teachers’ Unions, has this time received support from several other groups, including the Trade Union Association of Nurses and Midwives, the University Student Council, the Union of Secondary School Students and the Association of PhD Students in Slovakia.
They all say that they believe the objective of the strike is to improve the quality of the education system in Slovakia, as well as to increase the attractiveness of teaching as a future profession for young people.
Representatives of private schools also supported the strike, saying that they sympathise with the demands of the trade unions. Since private schools often provide education in areas not covered by public education facilities, they depend on the state and the state budget, said the chair of the Association of Private Schools and School Facilities, Saskia Repčíková, as quoted by SITA.
The private schools in particular support the initiative to increase the funds allocated for education sector in the state budget and to gradually increase financial resources in order to reach the European average, Repčíková added.
The strike also has sympathisers among the centre-right opposition parties, which have criticised not only the poor conditions endured by teachers, but also the changes proposed by the current Education Ministry.
The only education group to come out against the strike was the Association of Catholic Schools in Slovakia, which called on protesters not to make pupils hostages. Striking is not a sport, it is not enough to join the masses, said association chair Ján Horecký, as quoted by SITA.
Horecký said his group would not support the trade unions, which have asked the Education Ministry to change the system of school funding so that its pay only for state-run and public schools but not church and private schools, SITA reported.
Despite the disapproval of the Association of Catholic Schools, several religious schools around the country halted classes and allowed teachers to join the protest, SITA wrote.