Three days, maybe a week, possibly even longer – that’s how long Slovak teachers intend to strike for higher wages. Starting yesterday, most parents of school-age children in Slovakia have had to figure out what to do with their kids. Even so, according to the first reactions, the parents sympathize with the protest, because it really is difficult to live on the starting monthly salary of 360 euros ($468) for a kindergarten teacher or 508 euros ($660) for a middle school teacher.
Since a September warning strike, the government, through Education Minister Dusan Caplovic, has been saying that it understands the demands of the trade unions but cannot agree to a 10 percent salary increase. Instead officials have proposed 5 percent and not a cent more.
A bit of confusion characterized the organization of the strike, and it’s not clear how long schools will be closed. Local politicians have been intimidating some school principals, because the local administration can legally fire principals of elementary and middle schools. In some places, teachers joined only symbolically. Last week, discussion in the media focused not on addressing the root of the problem, but rather on whether teachers will get any Christmas bonus or nothing for the days spent on strike. Because of that risk, most non-teaching staff aren’t striking: for a cook or janitor losing any money before Christmas from their already low salaries (around 300 euros) appeared to be too big a blow.
Education is a problem in all four Visegrad countries. A good showing in recent regional elections in the Czech Republic has boosted the influence of that country’s Communist Party, particularly on education. That’s no accident, as big money doesn’t usually flow to education, meaning the other parties don’t consider it important and thus handed over the department. For the future of the Czech Republic, that is bad news – not because of the Communists, but because of the lack of interest from the others.
Hungary has the opposite problem. One of the things that ruling party Fidesz decided to centralize and control after its victory in 2010 was precisely education. Officially, the move was made for economic reasons, but now it seems that the goal of the ongoing educational revamp was to use Fidesz’s increased strength in local governments to ensure the loyalty of school principals, restrict the formation and functioning of independent educational institutions, and increase the role of traditional Christian churches in the upbringing and education of young people.
In Poland, teachers have been battling over privileges that they receive from the so-called Teachers’ Charter (basically the status of public officials, long holidays, guaranteed jobs, restricted working hours). The law needs to be changed, as Poland’s demographic crisis has started to generate fewer pupils and students. But laying off teachers is very difficult. The move would be another step of the center-right government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk in its overall effort to limit the privileges of some selected groups of employees and lighten the load on future state budgets.
Of course, Polish teachers have understood this approach as an attack on their way of life. A large public discussion has begun on the issue, which has included extreme opinions about overly generous privileges or claims that the “famous charter” doesn’t mean anything.
At least according to OECD statistics, Polish teachers appear to be well-off, even if Czech teachers earn the most (in terms of data from 2010 on purchasing power parity). For example, after 15 years of practice, a Czech elementary school teacher makes $19,949 a year, his Polish counterpart $15,186, a Hungarian $13,228, and a Slovak $12,688. But to reach the highest possible wages, a Polish teacher needs to work in the field only 10 years, Czechs and Slovaks 32 years, and a Hungarian 40 years.
The Slovak protests are thus not surprising. And so far the teachers of the four Visegrad countries haven’t started to cooperate, as have their medical counterparts. In recent years, thanks to coordinated efforts, doctors have successfully struck for higher salaries. We’ll see if that’s in store for Central Europe’s teachers.
Martin Ehl is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU. He recently won the prestigious Writing for Central Europe journalism prize, awarded by the APA – Austria Press Agency in cooperation with Bank Austria.