Warning strike in the education sector in Slovakia - two interviews with a member of Priama akcia (IWA Slovakia)
On Thursday 13th September, a one day warning strike was organized in the education sector in Slovakia. Priama akcia interviewed its member working in the education sector about last year’s education workers’ protest, the functioning of a trade union on the school level, the situation in the workplace as well as the self-perception of a teacher as such. It was not our goal to analyze the whole issue based on a single case, therefore we would welcome comments. Our goal was to inform about the situation and also to provoke workers in the education sector to have more discussions – not only about the one day during which the schools were supposed to be closed. This interview was published in Slovak language on 11th September. After the strike our member was interviewed by members of the ZSP Education union. Both interviews in English are part of this article.
Interview for Priama akcia before the one-day strike
1) Hi, why don’t you introduce yourself?
I’m from Bratislava and I’ve been teaching for three years at a secondary school.
2) Why are you taking part in the warning strike?
Well, because something’s finally happening :) But really, – even though it’s only a one day strike, it could be the first in a series of actions. I mean, if teachers and other workers in the education and research sector organized more and finally started to put themselves and their demands first. At the same time, it is an experience for me. We’ve had several meetings with my unionized and non-unionized colleagues and we’ve talked about whether to join the strike and in what way. It is interesting to get to know the opinions and attitudes of my colleagues, and very nice to see that the vast majority of them will strike. (At our school, over 95% of workers approved the strike).
3) You point out that this is an opportunity to get to know the opinions of your colleagues. Does it mean that it is not normally possible?
As for the opinions, usually you don’t talk about these things. You talk about some stuff only in certain circumstances or if there is a problem or when a topic pops up for some reason. For example, one talks about a strike or other form of struggle only when something is happening. You don’t talk about that if nothing is happening. Or take the things that make you angry -- you talk about them when they are current, for example when the headmaster gives you a task you don’t want or when the deputy headmaster gives you a bad timetable. It always depends on the situation.
A strike also gives you some experience with its formal aspects – for example, I didn’t know that even if there is a union at school, you have to form a strike committee. I also helped to write down minutes from the union meetings and the announcement about the strike you have to give to the headmaster. A lot of things are new for me and I think they will come handy in the future.
4) What do you mean by “the future”?
I don’t expect that everything is going to be solved by a single one-day strike this year. I think there will be strikes or other protests also in the future. There always has to be someone who knows how things work and what has to be done. For me it is about sharing experiences. I don’t know if I will stay at this workplace or if I a will be somewhere else and there might be people who don't know these things. It’s just a pity that only I know about the formalities and maybe two or three colleagues who have dealt with them in the past. The rest of my colleagues are not really interested in things which are in the background of what is going on.
5) What do these experiences mean in relation to you being active in Priama akcia?
They can be useful for us as well. If one of us or someone else goes to strike in their workplace, I will know roughly what has to be done. It is a bit different in the education sector because it is different than production or services, but some legal procedures have to be the same. I will know what it looked like in my workplace, so we will roughly know what it should look like elsewhere.
6) Only a few days remain until the strike. What do the preparations look like in your workplace? How have you participated in them and how do you view this experience as a PA member?
Besides what I’ve already said, I’ve taken on the responsibility to spread the information that our school is also on strike, so that the workers in other schools know that they can strike even if they have independent unions or there is no union presence. We have an independent trade union – we belong neither to the “old” union, nor to the NŠO (New School Union).
As for me being a PA member... Well, it is hard to say. It’s a pity my colleagues aren’t more proactive. They tend to have the feeling that “it’s going to” be done somehow. Sometimes I think that it’s because they aren’t used to discussing things, coming up with their own proposals and following them through (I am used the opposite in Priama akcia:)). On the other hand, I am happy that they talk about problems in their sector and their working conditions. That is at least something.
7) Are technical and economic workers joining the strike?
There was a separate meeting with the non-pedagogical staff. The union chairman said he would understand if they don’t want to join the strike because they have even lower wages than the teachers and they would miss those 15 euros. Some said they would like to strike and in the end it was agreed that they would take vacation leave. If the principal doesn’t allow them that, some said they would join the strike. Others said they would go to work. Personally, I would tell them that their support is important because we are colleagues who fight for the same thing. I don’t like when teachers and the rest of the workers are divided and taken as two completely separate categories because they “do something else”.
8) What is the headmaster’s stance towards the strike?
Basically, it was neutral or not negative. To be honest, I don’t know why, because last year it was different. When last year’s demonstration was about to happen, he didn’t want to let us go, despite the fact that many other schools in Slovakia were closed and workers traveled to Bratislava. In the end he made an agreement with the union chairman that form teachers would stay at school with their students and the rest of us can go. My colleagues were not very happy about that.
This year the principal either doesn’t comment on the strike (only smiles weirdly), or says two or three supportive sentences. There was a teacher’s meeting the other day and he said that if he wasn’t headmaster, he would strike as well. (Headmasters can’t.) Actually, it is quite ironic that we formally strike against him (he is our employer) but at the same time for the increase of his salary as well.
9) Have the parents shown any interest in the teachers’ problems? Do you think that they support the strike or that they only care about the fact that they will have to somehow take care of their children when the school is closed?
The notice about the strike was given to the parents’ board. As far as I know, there has been no reaction so far. The headmaster informed the students that the school would be closed and that they should tell that to their parents. When I asked my students about it, they said they supported the strike because they would have a day off, of course. They also asked why it is not on Friday :) But when I asked them about their parents -- if they talked about it at home, they said no. And when I asked them, where they are going to stay, they had this funny look on their faces, and I realized, of course, you are old enough to be home alone. I think this is the difference between nurseries, primary and secondary schools. At our school, maybe the parents of the youngest kids (10-12 years old) might need to solve where the kids will stay, but you can leave a 13-year old kid home alone. And it doesn’t concern the oldest students at all. So, the parents don’t have to think about which one of them stays home from work with the kid.
10) Last year there was a big protest in Bratislava, which you’ve taken part in with your colleagues. I know that they were willing to strike. Eventually the strike was cancelled. What do you think about that?
It was a fiasco.
11) Could you describe their opinion about that and whether it affected their current reaction?
We were at the protest, we wanted to strike, and we signed a paper saying we were willing to strike. (At our school, the majority wanted to strike, but I don’t remember the exact percentage.) When the strike was cancelled in the end, my colleagues were angry because they thought finally something was going to happen. I don’t know if it somehow affected their reaction to the current strike. Maybe they were surprised about the fact that there is going to be a strike this year because after the last year, nobody expected that.
12) Why were you surprised?
It’s hard to explain, but the reaction this year was like “wow, we are going on strike”. Maybe it was because last year there was a feeling that the trade union betrayed people because the workers agreed with the strike but the union finally cancelled it despite having the necessary signatures from the union base.
I think it’s a pity that education workers feel that they are somehow dependent on the steps of the big trade union and thus they do nothing “from below”. There is a sense of despair at schools because the education (and generally the public) sector works differently than the private one. The trade union is big, does not function only in one workplace under one employer, it negotiates with the ministry and the government. It’s so removed from the workplace that most people think that even if they did organize something on the school level; it wouldn’t have any significant effect.
The reason is that the headmaster as the employer can only decide about a limited amount of things that are related mostly to working hours, working at home etc. These things can be included in the collective agreement on the school level. The headmaster can’t decide how much money you earn because there are “salary tables” (fixed salaries) which can be negotiated only centrally with the government or the ministry. And the salaries are what the workers in education sector wish to change.
By the way, the collective agreement on the school level is actually the reason why a union was formed at our school. Some things (for example the working hours mentioned above) are important for the teachers and can be negotiated only this way, on the workplace level.
13) What do you think will happen after the strike on Thursday? Can you imagine the circumstances which would force the trade union to call an indefinite strike?
I don’t know what will happen, but I do hope the union won’t negotiate some bullshit like “a 3% raise” which I think is less than the last year’s inflation rate. I’d rather say something about what should be done – if the demands (and I think they could’ve been better...), are not met, the strike should continue. And what would force the union to call an indefinite strike? I would say that only the activity of the rank and file. If the rank and file members as well as the non-members organized themselves and really said that they wouldn’t go to work, the union would be under pressure and this could, theoretically, lead to the call for a longer strike, not only one-day. But considering the fact that the wages are negotiated centrally and the salary tables apply to everyone, they would have to really be united and not care about media and part of the ”public” portraying them as those who do nothing, just have coffee breaks and in case of indefinite strike take kids as hostages.
14) It is often repeated that being a teacher is a mission, i.e. has a higher cause and more importance. Do you think it’s true or is this work as any other?
I think it is not work as any other because you work with people and, more importantly, you work with children. That means that there is a sense of responsibility. You can’t act the way you like because you form the kids. That means you are careful about what you say and do. But I think it’s not right to see teaching as a mission, because it’s a job in the sense that you go there for a specific amount of time and you are expected to do certain tasks for which you get money.
15) Yes but you can’t completely ignore how the kids look at you.
Sure, it certainly affects you. I see it myself, too. Since I started teaching, I talk more. When the kids ask about something and I could answer just yes or no, I tend to give more explanation. I try not to do it, but maybe when you’ve been teaching for 20 years, it sticks to you. But it shouldn’t.
16) So far, what has been your experience with the functioning of a union organization and how is it different from the organization and strategy advocated by PA in its statutes?
To cut a long story short: the union at my school is run by the chairman who calls meetings, takes care about the documentation as well as the bank account. He negotiates with the headmaster, which results in the collective agreement valid for one year (this document contains things that we have “won”; mostly they just copy the collective agreement from the previous year). The rest of the members are inactive, they do almost nothing. There are a few people who talk at the meetings or help the chairman when he needs something (the vice chairman and two or three of the rank and file).
In Priama akcia, work completely differently; we have no chairman or vice-chairman, we are all rank and file so to speak (if we compare it with the trade unions) and we all take care about everything (of course, we distribute the tasks in order not to create chaos and rotate the tasks after some time). We all try, taking into account the possibilities and abilities we have, to participate in most of the things the organization does. We also stress that we need to learn gradually and we share experience.
As for the strategy, honestly, I haven’t read any document of our union on strategy (the “big” trade union might have one but our small independent union probably doesn’t). However, from what the union does, I assume there is no long-term strategy – its goal is to negotiate more or less the same collective agreement every year, and that’s all. Priama akcia has a strategy that should lead to a social change, so it’s about something completely different. I won’t go into that now; it’s all nicely explained in our Statutes:)
17) You say that members of your union are basically inactive. How would you explain that?
I’ve always thought that it is because they are not used to being active. It was this way in the past, it is this way now, there is always someone who solves everything for them, and that’s why they don’t need to do anything themselves. But there are also new young people joining our union, and these can’t be used to anything because they don’t have such experience, but still they are the same. Maybe it’s not about the unions, but rather about whole society – people in general are not very active and aren’t striving to change the world around them. And I think penetrates everywhere. We should not wonder why the teachers aren’t doing anything when no-one else is.
18) This is quite a paradox and a bit funny because one could say: “Where should people learn that? Shouldn’t teachers show them that? They should learn that at school and then they would speak up more in their lives.”
Well, that sounds nice but the whole educations system serves to reproduce the status quo. It would be great if the school served to develop critical thinking, but in reality its main goal is to prepare the next generation for work. However, many teachers do not see it that way; I have colleagues who try to “broaden the students’ horizons”, but the kids already concentrate only on what “will be useful in their future job”. Then they miss important points only because they say to themselves: “I won’t need this in the future, anyway.” And people are not used to giving opinions and discussing problems. They are used to listening and saying well, ok or no, not really. It is silly to think that teachers can suddenly decide that they are going to teach the kids how to express their opinions, push for their demands and make them understand that they have to “fight” for them somehow. Such a breakthrough is not possible.
19) Isn’t that what Priama akcia aims at?
Yeah, maybe something like Priama akcia could achieve that, because in the organization people have to express their opinions and are getting used to it. While being active in Priama akcia I also had to learn to say out loud what I think. I was not used to speaking up and almost all people are like that.
20) The interview has gotten quite long and we could still say so much more, right? What would you say in conclusion?
That I hope that if the demands are not met after the one-day strike, there will be an indefinite strike.
Priama akcia – Bratislava
Interview for ZSP Education union after the one-day strike
This interview is the first one in a series of planned interviews about the experiences of comrades in this field and is published in the framework of a ZSP campaign publicizing strikes and direct actions organized by education workers. The interview was originally published on ZSP website: http://www.zsp.net.pl/interview_pa_strike.
Hi. We have a few questions about the teachers' strike. What are the main demands?
Officially there are three demands and they are all related to money. The money spent on education in the 2013-2015 state budgets expressed as a percentage of the GDP should be comparable with other EU member states; all employees in the education sector should get higher real wages; teachers and specially trained education workers (school psychologists, speech therapists etc.) should get 1.2 to 2 times the average wage in the national economy.
What do you think about these demands? What other labor problems are common in education?
The demands are all about one thing – more money for the employees and the sector. They could have been more specific – the only timeframe is mentioned in the first demand, and this is softened by the word “comparable” – what does it even mean? The third demand would be fine, if they said until when it should be done; also, it ignores the non-teachers in the sector. The second demand is just a phrase.
There are also practical problems related to money – many schools are desolate, they need to be repaired and equipped with new furniture, computers etc., but there is simply “not enough money” to do that.
However, not everything in education can be solved purely with more money. There are still too many students per teacher, but the government argues otherwise, forcing people out of their jobs in the name of rationalization. (The previous government even said in their statement related to the state budget that they could give teachers more money, but first a certain percentage of them must leave the job, thus compensating for the pay rise).
Another problem is that there is a feeling that no one really knows where education is supposed to go. There are constant reforms, changes of curricula, changes related to further education of teachers… I could go on.
Who called the strike? How does the situation with unions look like in Slovakian schools? Are many teachers unionized? What do you think about the mainstream unions?
The strike was called by the trade union OZPŠaV organizing most of the education and science workers. (They have around 50 000 members; the total number of employees in education is over 100 000). This union is a classic “reformist” lobbying one, organized from top to bottom.
We know that last year some teachers who were not satisfied with the actions of the main union started some other initiative. How has that been working?
The initiative formed into a new union (NŠO) with their “charismatic leader” becoming the union president. A few weeks ago they said they have around 300 members. I know nothing about what they do on the level of particular workplaces.
What message did Priama Akcia bring to the strike? Was it a message of support? A call to continue protest or to organize? How do people react to this?
Priama akcia wrote a solidarity statement with the strike and sent it to the media, the Facebook page and the discussion forum of both unions so that the rank and file can read it. I as a teacher also did an interview for Priama akcia about the conditions in the sector, the attitudes of various groups (headmaster, students, parents) to the strike, and the general sense of inactivity that is prevalent in the sector. In the interview, I also clearly state that if the demands are not met only an indefinite strike would be effective. The trade union is, of course, a lot more careful about these things. Its representatives speak about possible future actions very vaguely. Their chairman even said for the media that a more-day strike would be “a very daring step”. When I discuss this with my colleagues, we agree that there is no networking of teachers and other education employees outside this trade union, and that’s why we are at their mercy and do what they say. Needless to say, if teachers want to achieve something, they need to organize on their own, but that’s a long way to go. The NŠO example from last year isn’t very encouraging either, because the structure of the new union resembles the old one, there is nothing grassroots about it.
What do you think will happen next? Will there be more action or was the strike just a one-day show?
I sincerely hope there is going to be more actions, especially after the demands are not met, but I have a feeling the negotiations are going to yield an unsatisfactory compromise and that will be it. So far, the official union has just hinted at a possible continuation of the actions, and seems reluctant to do so.
How did the strike go and what were your impressions?
There were several negatives of the strike. The union did not organize any protest, so most of the teachers just stayed home, so there was no sense of unity or struggle. Some Facebook teachers in Bratislava suggested a “stroll around the city” at the last minute, but it was so badly organized that only some 50 or so people actually met. Still, it was nice to see that they tried to take matters into their own hands. I hope that this strike and the further development of the negotiations will show them that there is a profound need to organize and control their struggle, because otherwise they can just sit on the sidelines and helplessly watch what is happening on their behalf. And that is not what we want.
Thank you and good luck!