Teachers' Strike Sweeps Poland
A general strike in Poland’s education sector that began on Monday, April 8 continues with no end in sight. According to organizers from the two unions that initiated the strike—the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) and the Trade Union Forum (FZZ)—on the first day of the strike 14,000 schools and kindergartens out of 20,400 such institutions joined the walkout. Teachers at 2,000 of those schools have since returned to work, but there are strong indications that this will be a longer protest, comparable in scope to the mobilizations by the country’s teachers between 1991 and 1993.
The strike is occurring with general elections in Poland looming later this year, the first since the right-wing Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) victory in 2015.
ORIGINS: A WAGE DISPUTE
The immediate reason for the strike is that wage bargaining between the two teachers’ unions and the government ended without reaching any results. The education section of the union Solidarność (Solidarity) also participated in the negotiations, but—as in other sectors—left the common union front on April 7 and signed the agreement proposed by the government.
ZNP and FZZ demanded a wage increase of 1,000 zloty ($260)—around 30 percent—for everyone employed in education. However, during negotiations both unions declared that they would be willing to sign the agreement if the government agreed to two increases of 15 percent each in 2019. The government’s proposal, agreed to by Solidarność, included a 5 percent increase in January of this year and a further 9.6 percent in September.
Government spokesperson Beata Szydło, Poland’s former prime minister and current vice-chairwoman of the ruling Law and Justice party, also presented a long-term plan for wage increases through 2023, in exchange for an increase in working time spent “in front of the blackboard” from 18 to 24 hours. In addition to putting more work on the backs of existing teachers, the proposal would result in a cut of 20 percent of jobs in the sector. The latter proposal was not even accepted by Solidarność.
This dispute over wages is a continuation of the conflict between the government and the teachers’ unions that broke out in 2017 over the issue of the education reform. That reform abolished the “gimnazjum”—three years of compulsory junior high school starting at the age 12 or 13, following six years of primary school, with three to four years of secondary school. It reintroduced the system of compulsory primary school lasting eight years followed by four years of high school.
Last year, the monthly basic salary for teaching staff ranged from 2,400 zloty ($630) for apprentice teachers to 3,300 zloty ($867). That’s significantly lower than the average salary in Poland of 4,700 zloty ($1,235). That prompted ZNP and FZZ to put forward an increase of “1,000 zloty for everyone” ($263). When the government refused that demand, the unions began preparing for a strike.
The dispute over low wages might not have been so acute if it had not been for the reform abolishing junior high schools and amendments to the Teacher’s Charter, the equivalent of a collective agreement for the entire sector. Both changes were pushed through by the Minister of National Education, Anna Zalewska.
The 2017 reform was implemented rapidly over the resistance of parents and teachers’ unions. A grassroots citizens’ initiative collected nearly one million signatures in support of a national referendum on the reform, but Parliament ignored the request.
As a result of the abolition of junior high schools, 6,600 teachers lost their jobs. But the consequences of the changes in the Teacher’s Charter were much more severe. Gone were the housing benefit paid to one-third of the country’s 650,000 teachers and one-off bonuses of two months’ salary paid to teachers after they finish their first two years. The career path—the time teachers have to spend at each level of the profession before being promoted to the next level and a higher salary—was extended from 10 to 15 years. The reform also eliminated right to housing for teachers in rural areas and small towns, as well as for teachers who retired, those with a disability pension or those receiving “teacher’s compensatory benefits” after early retirement.
In this way, the Ministry of National Education significantly reduced salaries. In exchange, the government introduced merit pay in the form an incentive allowance called “500 plus for the teacher.” The monthly allowance is only available to qualified teachers—who make up only 52 percent of all school staff—and they must achieve an “outstanding” performance appraisal at work to get it. The payments will only start in 2020 and will initially amount to 95 zloty ($25), only reaching 500 zloty ($131) in 2022.
These proposals—similar to the promises of salary increases dependent on prolonging working time “in front of the blackboard” presented this year—were commonly perceived by teachers as empty promises and an attempt to postpone any raises.
All this, combined with the chaos caused by the reform—overcrowding, inconvenient working hours, schools operating on two shifts to make up for the abolition of the gimnazja—led to a confrontation between the government and the education unions. It culminated in a one-day general strike organized by the ZNP on March 31, 2017. That strike had two demands: a 10 percent raise and employment guarantees for all school staff until 2020. According to data from the Central Statistical Office, about 28,000 educators took part in the strike. ZNP estimated many more took part, however, with strikes in 8,000 schools, i.e. 40 percent of the country’s educational institutions. After the strike, no agreement was signed but Minister Zalewska promised that the reform would not result in any redundancies—she lied—and that plans for wage increases would be presented later.
DYNAMICS OF THE GENERAL STRIKE
Everything seems to indicate that both the union leadership and striking school employees are determined to keep on striking until “victory is reached.” At the moment, we see mass participation in the strike action and quite a lot of public support. Junior high school exams were conducted on April 10, but only after a last-minute amendment allowed people from outside the schools, including priests, nuns, prison staff, and forest guards. Such a maneuver will be impossible to repeat for the approaching May matura exams, needed to finish high school. Both strikers and the government will face a dilemma as to whether they can afford to delay these exams due to the strike, as students need these grades to apply to universities.
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So far, despite the inconvenience for parents and children, the strike has received a lot of support. That is shown by surveys, with a majority of respondents declaring their support for the strike, as well as by numerous solidarity actions and initiatives. These range from protests and street pickets to “strike lectures” organized at universities and solidarity statements from unions of bus and truck drivers and at LOT, Poland’s national airline.
On Friday, April 12, thousands took part in support rallies throughout the country. Two days earlier, on April 10, several hundred students demonstrated their support for the teachers in front of the Ministry of Education in Warsaw under the slogan of a “student strike.” Solidarity rallies were also organized by trade unions from Warsaw, Wrocław, and Krakow universities.
A strike fund, launched on April 11, collected over one million zloty ($263,000) within 24 hours. Within two days, that amount had tripled. Support for the fundraiser and the strikers’ demands of has even been expressed by people like Henryka Bochniarz, the former leader of the Confederation of Employers, Lewiatan) and by liberal publicists who are usually hostile to trade unions, strikes, and the public sector in general. Their support stems primarily from hostility to the current government, rather than a sudden love for the union movement, but it’s been helpful nonetheless.
The strike also caused cracks and conflicts in Solidarność as, in many places, its local sections either joined the strike against the position of its national leadership or even “dropped their union cards” and left the union en masse.
However, there is as of yet no indication that the teachers’ mobilization and public support for the strike has influenced the stance of the government. Throughout the week, the only response to the strike from the ruling Law and Justice party was to repeat the proposal that was approved by Solidarność. This was accompanied by an aggressive campaign in the pro-government media directed mainly against ZNP and its leader, Sławomir Broniarz, accusing the union of “communism” or of conducting a “political protest,” implying that the protest is orchestrated by the liberal “Civic Coalition,” a coalition of parties led by Civic Platform (PO), the ruling party prior to 2015.
It remains to be seen how long the government will maintain its rigid position and whether public opinion will eventually turn against the strikers. Teachers’ fatigue is likely to increase in the coming days and weeks, along with stress as the upcoming graduation exams inch closer. There is a risk that this year’s strike will end the same way as the 1993 strike—the longest in the history of Poland’s educational system—did.
HISTORY OF EDUCATION STRUGGLES
The ongoing strike is another great mobilization in a long line of mass strike actions in Poland’s education sector. Those accusing ZNP of striking only when the Law and Justice party is in power and having done nothing when schools were closed down during previous governments forget that in May 2008 200,000 education workers participated in 12,000 strike actions in defense of the Teacher's Charter, the right to early retirement, and for salary increases.
The 2008 strikes, however, did not last nearly as long as the big teacher mobilization at the beginning of the neoliberal transformation in the early 1990s.
The dispute started with the freezing of the salary index in the public sector in 1991, which caused a decrease in real wages for all public workers. Between 1990 and 1992, inflation-adjusted salaries for those employed in education fell by 17 percent, while expenditures on education fell from 12.8 to 8.9 percent of the total national budget. The Constitutional Tribunal declared the wage freeze illegal, but the government refused to adjust salaries citing the need to rein in budget deficits and limit inflation.
The first one-day strikes were organized in 1991 and were often combined with school occupations. In February 1992, a coordinated one-day warning strike was staged in the whole country. When this did not help either, in February 1993, the ZNP entered into a collective dispute, beginning the process to legally organize an open-ended strike. At the end of March, the National Commission of Solidarność also supported the organization of a strike in education for May.
On April 22, a warning strike took place in which 81 percent of the institutions took part. An indefinite general strike in education began on May 4. High school graduation exams in 1993 took place with a significant delay. The strike lasted until May 24, but eventually ended in a defeat as teachers did not manage to win the increases they had demanded. In the end, their salaries increased by 20 percent, as the government had proposed, much less than the inflation rate of 35 percent.
Though not a success in terms of wages, the 1993 strike marked the beginning of protests by other public sector workers, including the health service, which ultimately led to the fall of the government and a call for new parliamentary elections, in which the “post-Solidarność” camp lost its power and the new government mitigated the draconian austerity policy.
Jakub Grzegorczyk is a member of Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initative) in Poland. You can donate to the strike fund Workers' Initiative has set up to support their members who are teachers on strike in small towns at https://zrzutka.pl/uccyrn. For more information, write to international[at]ozzip[dot]pl.