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Teachers' strike reflects a deep-seated problem

STRIKES, rallies and protest actions often fail not because of a lack of public support or insufficient number of people taking part, but because of petty conflicts between the organisers, bad timing and unrealistic demands.

STRIKES, rallies and protest actions often fail not because of a lack of public support or insufficient number of people taking part, but because of petty conflicts between the organisers, bad timing and unrealistic demands.

The most recent nationwide strike by employees in the education sector has at least two of these characteristics and this may be why some teachers already feel that those who were supposed to represent their interests have failed them.

The strike, which is seeking to achieve a 10-percent pay rise, was interrupted on November 28 after just three days of forced holidays for schoolchildren. The Trade Unions of Employees of the Education Sector and Science (OZ PŠaV), one of the main teachers’ unions, continued negotiations with the government with its leader Pavel Ondek admitting that there was not much chance of achieving more than the 5-percent pay rise already offered by Finance Minister Peter Kažimír to teachers in October. The New School Unions, another trade union representing teachers, demurred, called the interruption of the strike ‘treason’. Teachers at several schools around Slovakia vowed to continue striking.

Kažimír cast a shadow over teachers’ hopes for better pay when, soon after the strike began, he delivered to Prime Minister Robert Fico some bad news: the Finance Ministry had found yet another hole, this one around €250-million wide, in the state budget. He announced that it would have to be filled if Slovakia is to meet its sub-3-percent 2013 budget deficit target.

While it is highly unlikely that Kažimír made this announcement just to make it easier and publicly more acceptable for the government to reject the teachers’ demands, the truth is that the timing of the strike, given the tight conditions of the public finances as well as consistently gloomy economic predictions, is rather unfortunate.

Perhaps the teachers drew inspiration from last year’s mass protest by Slovak hospital doctors, 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 even though the public and media were deeply divided over the strike.

In Slovakia, where the average wage is around €700 per month, opponents of strikes instantly argue that just like the teachers or physicians, some other professions might go on strike for higher salaries as well.

Yet the teachers’ strike will have no winners in Slovakia, even if the unions finally settle for the 5 percent offered. It will hardly solve the long-term frustration of teachers, and there are few things worse at a school than a frustrated teacher whose social status has been declining for decades. Frustrated teachers cannot serve as role models for children and can hardly inspire anything but disrespect for the system.

Slovak teachers earn only 45 percent of the average wage paid to other full-time employees in Slovakia who have a university education, a comparison which puts Slovakia at the bottom of a ranking used by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a chart published by the Sme daily on November 28. The average ratio in OECD countries is 85 percent.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg which makes Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič one of the unluckiest ministers in the government of Robert Fico, since it is now clear that yet another thin veneer of paint on the edifice of public education will not be enough to prevent it from crumbling.

All this did not stop the Education Ministry paying €4,752 for 36 bottles of expensive brandy to give away to foreign partners during foreign trips, according to a report in Sme, another piquant detail to add to the story of the education sector in Slovakia. Even if the teachers return to their schools with a 5-percent pay hike, Čaplovič will have no reason to toast with expensive brandy,
because the strike is not where the story of the sector’s problems starts and the end of the strike is not where it will end.

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