NEITHER of the two negotiating sessions between the government and teachers’ unions in November had, as this issue of The Slovak Spectator went to print, averted the prospect of a nationwide strike by pedagogical and non-pedagogical employees which is due to start on Monday, November 26.
While the trade unions continue to insist on their basic demands – a 10-percent pay rise and increased funding for education sector – the government says that the budget framework for next year does not allow them to allocate such a high amount.
“Unfortunately I have to say that we have not agreed,” said Pavol Ondek, head of the Trade Unions of Employees of the Education Sector and Science (OZ PŠaV), as quoted by the SITA newswire, after a meeting with President Ivan Gašparovič, Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič and Finance Minister Peter Kažimír which took place on November 19.
The trade unions have not declared exactly how long the strike will last, but this could vary since union members will be able to decide, school by school, when they will return to work.
However, several teachers have already said that even after the end of the official strike they will continue with other forms of protest. One proposal is that even if children come to school, teachers will only look after them rather than teach them, SITA wrote.
Though the government offered the trade unions a 5-percent salary hike worth €62 million, the trade unions said this was not enough. The Finance Ministry stressed that the education sector is a priority for the government, demonstrated by the fact that the Education Ministry has been given “the biggest volume of funds among all ministries”.
“While the budget for the public administration assumes a fall in the salaries of state office workers by 5 percent next year, teachers have been offered a salary hike of 5 percent,” the press department of the Finance Ministry told The Slovak Spectator.
The trade unions also rejected a memorandum prepared by the Education Ministry which included a proposal for a gradual increase in the salaries of teachers as well as moves to gradually improve their status in society.
“In our opinion, the situation in the education sector reflects the previous, unsuccessful experiments which did not focus on improving the social status of teachers and based education only to a small extent on the criteria of quality and success by graduates on the labour market,” Education Ministry spokesperson Michal Kaliňák told The Slovak Spectator.
He added that recent laws prepared by the Education Ministry are proof of “our sincere effort to modernise education, and its modernisation based on the criteria of quality and comfort of teaching, including an increase in the salary and social status of pedagogic as well as non-pedagogic employees”.
Prime Minister Robert Fico also said that the proposed salary hike was the most the government could offer.
“You cannot draw blood from a stone,” he commented, as quoted by the TASR newswire.
Municipalities asked to look after children
The last teachers’ strike, which took place on September 13, affected almost 90 percent of nursery and primary schools, 70 percent of secondary schools and 30 percent of universities.
Ondek said that the trade unions will know exactly how many schools are to be affected by the latest strike only on Monday, November 26.
“We only have information […] that about 80 percent of employees from primary schools might participate in the strike,” he told The Slovak Spectator, adding that the trade unions had not yet monitored the situation in secondary schools and universities.
After a meeting between the Education Ministry, trade unions, representatives of employers and representatives of municipalities on November 22, Čaplovič called on mayors to provide places where children would be allowed to spend time during the strike, including schools which are not taking part in the protest, SITA wrote.
Meanwhile, the reasons for and goals of the strike have received support from Comenius University (UK) in Bratislava which said it was “aware of the long-term deficiencies, especially in the area of legislation for education and research, as well as the serious under-financing of this sector, which threatens the motivation of the young university generation to learn and devote themselves to research in Slovakia”, according to an official UK press release.
The strike will also be symbolically supported by medical employees’ and social services trade unions, which will advise their members to wear a yellow bow during the strike, and by nurses.
“The problems in health-care and the education sector accumulate and the [people] with responsibility are closing the door in our faces,” said Iveta Svetlanská, chair of the Trade Unions of Nurses and Midwives, as quoted by TASR, adding that “unwillingness to listen, negotiate and search for solutions is the working method of the ruling government”.
Trade unions at the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) and Volkswagen Slovakia said they supported the strike by school employees, TASR wrote.
Action in support of a pay rise in the education sector started on September 13 last year, when more than 9,000 teachers from across Slovakia gathered in front of the Government Office in Bratislava to express their discontent at what they called inadequate funding for schools. But a month later they shelved their strike plans when the government of Iveta Radičová lost a confidence vote in parliament. The cabinet agreed to remain in office only until an early general election in March 2012, and did not appear to have the mandate to address their demands.
Meanwhile, however, Slovak hospital doctors pressed on with their own industrial action and in December 2011 were involved in a large-scale protest in which about 2,000 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 increase to 1.05- to 1.6-times the average salary in the Slovak economy on January 1, 2012, and continuing to 1.25- to 2.3-times the average salary by January 2013, depending on each doctor’s level of education and experience. The current government has since tried to back away from honouring the third stage of the agreed salary increase.
Private and church schools protest in their own way
Unlike the previous strike, private schools will not support the strike organised by OZ PŠaV. Together with representatives of church schools, the Association of Private Schools and School Facilities has launched a petition for fair, economic and non-discriminatory financing of the education sector. The schools want to use the petition to call on MPs to change laws that would liquidate their institutions, and instead reconcile them with the Slovak constitution and international treaties, SITA wrote on November 20.
“The petition for fair, economic and non-discriminatory financing of the education sector solves more problems than the strike, since the strike is only for a salary hike and a gradual increase in the contributions to schools,” said Saskia Repčíková, head of the Association of Private Schools and School Facilities, as quoted by SITA.
She added that the current rules for financing the schools are not set in a very good way, since the people who distribute the money have several other objectives. For example, municipalities which operate public schools face a conflict of interest when they distribute state contributions, Repčíková stressed.
However, Repčíková stressed that they will not bar teachers at individual private and church schools from striking if they want to.