From Monday, 8th April to Saturday, 27th April half a million Polish teachers from all levels of pre-university education—kindergarten, through to primary, secondary, and high school—went on strike. It was the longest national walkout in postwar Poland and the biggest in education since 1993. Lasting twenty days—three more than the famous strike at the then Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk on 14th August 1980 that launched the Solidarność movement and introduced Lech Wałęsa to the world—has polarized the country.
According to the organizers of the protest, 15,000 schools and seven in ten education workers throughout the country participated. Up to four million students saw their classes canceled. Even so, due to some last-minute recruitment of temporary substitutes—retired educators, priests, nuns, prison staff, and even forest workers—380,000 students were able to sit an important national exam in the first days of the strike.
Two trade unions, the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) and the Trade Union Forum (FZZ) initiated the walkout after a long period of wage bargaining with the government broke down. Solidarność also participated in the negotiations. Wage negotiations are no small matter for Polish teachers whose salaries are currently the lowest in the European Union, not far behind those of Czech and Slovak colleagues. In 2018, the base teacher salary was between 2,400 and 3,300 zloty (€560–770) gross per month, depending on experience, much less than Poland’s average monthly salary of 4,900 zloty gross. ZNP and FZZ asked for a monthly rise of 1,000 zloty for every teacher in the country—a roughly 30 percent increase from the current level. Later in the negotiations, they advanced a compromise proposal of two separate pay rises of 15 percent each in 2019.
The Polish government rejected both options, arguing that there was no room in the national budget for such a hefty increase. What they offered instead, through their spokesperson, former prime minister Beata Szydło, was two further alternatives. The first was a plan for pay rises through 2023 in exchange for an increase in teachers’ weekly class hours from 18 to 24.
Trade unions argued this was absurd since educators are already working an average of 47 hours per week when considering all their duties. The second was a 5 percent salary increase in January this year followed by a further 9.6 percent in September. Both proposals were refused by ZNP and FZZ, but a split opened up between them and Solidarność, which— controversially — signed an agreement with the government on April 7th. One day later, ZNP and FZZ called for a national strike. Some local sections of Solidarność joined, thus breaking with the national leadership, while others have left the union.
The reasons behind the protest
The walkout comes two school years after a national education reform widely criticized by teachers was launched in 2017. The 2017 reform reintroduced the pre-1999 system of eight years of primary school followed by four years of high school. It thus abolished the system of three years of compulsory junior high schools between six years of primary school and three years of high school. 6,500 junior high school teachers, therefore, lost their jobs.
On top of this, the Minister of Education, Anna Zalewska, introduced changes to the Teachers’ Charter, the national collective agreement. They led 200,000 educators to lose their housing benefits, canceled former salary bonuses paid upon completing two years in teaching and extended from 10 to 15 years the time necessary to achieve promotions and better salaries.
“The education reform has turned everything upside down without any proper time frame for implementation”, says Ewa, a public school teacher in Warsaw who has been teaching for four years. As she further explains to Reset DOC: “The new education requirements are not suited to our students’ schedules and abilities; they are already overloaded trying to meet the demands imposed on them, while their parents blame us teachers for the situation”.
She decided to join the protest due to her low salary, but also to fight against the lack of respect shown to the profession. “During the strike, I experienced both—support and very negative comments—the latter coming from uneducated people and from those who have no connection to the school. However, I mostly felt support and some of our students sent us sweet messages of support such as ‘We are with you,’ and ‘Hold firm,’” she adds.
Among the initiatives supporting the countrywide protest were students rallies, street pickets, ‘strike lectures‘ organized at universities and solidarity statements from bus and truck driver unions. Public opinion has remained divided, however. A survey published in Gazeta Wyborcza —a national daily—in early April showed 52% in support of the strike, with 43% opposed. A few days later, a poll published Fakt— a weekly tabloid—had 43% in favor and 47% against the walkout.
What is undeniable is the outcome—together, the education reform and the amendments to the Charter have allowed the government to spend less on teachers’ salaries. In an attempt to compensate for the cuts, merit pay will be introduced from 2020 to qualified teachers – 52% of the total teaching staff – who achieve an outstanding performance appraisal at work. This incentive will range from 95 to 500 zloty (€22–115) per month, less than half of what ZNP and FZZ have sought for all teachers. The government claims it lacks the financial resources to fulfill the 30% salary rise requested, estimating that the overall cost would be between €3.5 and 4 billion annually.
This is hardly loose change. Yet, the Family 500+ program launched by the government in April 2016— with monthly cash handouts of 500 zloty (€115) to reward couples with more than one child—costs more: €5 billion a year. Besides, the government has recently announced a program of tax cuts that reduced state revenues by some €2.5 billion. “No one is forcing teachers to live in celibacy”, commented Krzysztof Szczerski, chief of the cabinet of Polish president Andrzej Duda, during negotiations, one month before the strike kicked off.
This statement was taken badly, as it implied that teachers – 82% of whom in Poland are women – should increase their income by having babies and qualifying for the Family 500+ program. This unfortunate remark illustrates how little seriousness the government gives to the matter.
A season of national strikes on the eve of elections
The strike was suspended on Saturday 27th April, ten days before the beginning of high school matriculation exams and one month ahead of the European Parliament elections, which were held on May 26th.
However, in the absence of a final agreement, ZNP and FZZ have called a halt only temporarily to prepare for a summer of further negotiations. Chances are that the strike will resume in September (the beginning of the next school year). This could well influence the Polish parliamentary elections, the first since the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party returned to government in 2015, scheduled for the autumn.
“Any form of protest during an election period will immediately become a party political matter,” Krzysztof Szczerski warned in March this year. The walkout did indeed become political on government-friendly media, such as the public broadcaster TVP, which led an aggressive campaign directed against ZNP and its leader, Sławomir Broniarz. He was accused of having staged a political protest, orchestrated by the European Coalition (KE), an alliance of opposition parties led by Civic Platform (PO), the ruling party prior to 2015. Teacher Ewa is dissatisfied with the way the strike was presented on Polish media where, she stresses, “there have been enormous distortions”.
This was not the first national walkout in Poland since PiS returned to the government in 2015. In October 2017, hundreds of Polish doctors launched a hunger strike in a row with the government over healthcare. Twelve months later, a two-week-long walkout by employees of Poland’s national airline LOT over changes to their contracts affected hundreds of flights. On top of this, there have been rumors that further national strikes among civil servants and postal workers are in the works for later in 2019.
Although claims in the pro-government media that the opposition orchestrated the strike appear far-fetched, it is true that the outcome of the protest might have played a role in the European Parliament elections. There was a massive increase in turnout at the May 26th polls in Poland — up 21.85% from the previous elections in 2014. The fact that up to 20% of registered voters were involved the walkout — directly as educators or indirectly as parents of school kids — may have played some role in this.
Moreover, if the strike is resumed any time between September and October this year, it might have a much stronger impact, with the general election looming over PiS. Ewa would join the protest again for, as she puts it, “since something has started, you have to be consistent in pursuing your chosen goal”.
Photo: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP
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