General strike in education in Poland

May 22, 2019 by

The general strike in the education sector in Poland began on Monday, April 8. According to organizers from the two unions that initiated the strike (Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP) – Polish Teachers’ Union and Forum Związków Zawodowych (FZZ) – Trade Union Forum), on the first day of the strike 14,000 schools and kindergartens out of 20,400 such institutions joined the walkout (68%). There are strong indications that this may be the beginning of a longer protest with a scope comparable to the teachers’ mobilizations of 1991 to 1993. Its political repercussions may be as serious as in the 1990s.

Origins – A wage dispute

The immediate reason for the strike is that the wage bargaining between ZNP, FZZ and the government that had been going on since March of this year ended without reaching any results. The Education Section of the union Solidarność also participated in the negotiations, but – as in other sectors – left the common union front on April 7 and signed the agreement as proposed by the government. ZNP and FZZ demanded a wage increase of 1,000 zlotys [around 230 eur/260 usd] for everyone employed in education. However, during negotiations they both declared that they are willing to sign the agreement if the government agreed to two increases of 15% each in 2019. The government’s proposal, which Solidarność agreed to, included a 5% increase in January of this year (already approved) and a further 9.6% in September. In addition, Beata Szydło (former prime minister of Poland and vice-chairwoman of the ruling party PiS) also presented a “long-term” plan for more increases in the years 2020 to 2023, which included also an assumed increase of working time spent “in front of the blackboard” (a teaching quota) from 18 to 24 hours. That would mean a reduction in employment by about 20%. The latter proposal was not even accepted by Solidarność, which played the role of a strikebreaker in the negotiations.

The dispute over wages that started last year was a continuation of the conflict between the government and the teachers’ unions that broke out in 2017 around the issue of the education reform. That reform abolished the „gimnazjum” (introduced in 1999 as a compulsory junior high school lasting three years, starting at the age of 12 or 13, and following previous six years of primary school) and reintroduced the system with a compulsory primary school lasting eight years. Last year, the Ministry of Education proposed wage increases ranging from 93 zlotys (for teachers during apprenticeship) to 168 zlotys (for certified teachers). The union ZNP put forward a counter-proposal – a 15% increase. The Ministry of National Education promised to implement that within three years (in 2018 only the salary was to increase by 5.35%). In fact, the real value of the increases proposed by the Ministry last year amounted to about 3.75% (i.e. slightly more than the salary adjustment carried out in 2017 which amounted to 2%).

Where did the demands of ZNP and FZZ come from? Last year, the basic salary of teaching staff ranged from 2,400 zlotys (before tax for a teacher during apprenticeship) to 3,300 zlotys (before tax for a certified teacher) per month, i.e., it was significantly lower than the average salary in Poland (4,700 zlotys). This prompted ZNP and FZZ to put forward a demand of “1,000 zlotys for everyone”, and because the government refused to implement it the unions began preparations for a strike.

Background – deform (not reform) of the education system

Wage demands are not everything: the dispute over pay rises might not have been so acute if it had not been for the 2017 reform abolishing junior high schools, combined with amendments to the Teacher’s Charter (which sets out detailed rules for the remuneration of teaching staff and is equivalent to a collective agreement for the entire sector). Both changes were pushed through by the Minister of National Education, Anna Zalewska.

As a result of the abolition of junior high schools in 2017, 6,600 teachers (about 1%) lost their jobs, but the consequences of the changes in the Teacher’s Charter were much more severe: the liquidation of the housing benefit, which was paid to one third of the teachers in the country (186,000), and of other bonuses (the one-off payment of two months’ basic remuneration for teachers with two years’ experience after obtaining the rank of a contracted teacher), the extension of the career path from 10 to 15 years and the abolition of the right to housing for teachers from rural areas and towns up to 5,000 inhabitants and for teachers who retired, those with a disability pension or those receiving the so-called “teacher’s compensatory benefits”.

In this way, the Ministry of National Education significantly reduced salaries – both by eliminating allowances and by extending the career path, which determine the level of basic salary. Some form of “compensation” for the above cuts was supposed to be the incentive allowance called “500 plus for the teacher”, but it will be given only to qualified teachers (52% of school staff) who achieve an outstanding performance appraisal at work. Additionally, the payment of “500 plus for the teacher” is to start only in 2020 and it will initially amount to 95 zlotys – while it will reach the level of 500 zlotys only in 2022. These proposals – similar to the promises of salary increases dependent on prolonging working time “in front of the blackboard” presented in April of this year – were commonly perceived by teachers as empty promises and an attempt to postpone the decission .

All this, combined with the chaos caused by the reform (overcrowded schools, inconvenient working hours and two-shift schools, etc.), led to a confrontation between the government and the sectoral trade unions. It culminated in a one-day general strike organized by the ZNP on March 31, 2017. It was organized in order to achieve two demands: a 10% pay rise 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, however, that the strike actions took place in 40% of educational institutions in the whole country (i.e., in over 8,000 schools). After the strike, no agreement was signed but Minister Zalewska promised that the reform would not result in any redundancies (she lied) and plans for wage increases would be presented later.

General strike in education – Its course and dynamics

Everything seems to indicate that both the union leadership and the staff of schools and kindergartens who has been taking part in the strike 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 for the strike. Junior high school exams were conducted on April 10, but only as a result of a last-minute amendment of the regulation by the Ministry of National Education that allowed supervision by persons with pedagogical rights not employed in a given school, teachers of religion, priests, and nuns (who were banned from striking), and even prison service staff or forest guards. In the case of matura exams (to finish high school) approaching in May, such a maneuver will be impossible to repeat and both strikers and the government will face a dilemma as to whether they can afford to delay the matura exams due to the strike before accepting trade union demands.

So far, it seems that despite the inconvenience for parents and children, the strike has received a lot of support. That is shown by surveys (more than half of respondents declared their support for the strike) and also by numerous solidarity actions and initiatives. They range from protests and street pickets, to “strike lectures” organized at universities and to the solidarity statements and gestures of support from trade union members of other sectors. 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. ZNP from the University of Warsaw, in cooperation with the initiative „Uniwersytet Zaangażowany” (“The Engaged University”), has been organizing daily “strike lectures” since April 8 which are open to pupils from closed schools. Members of Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative) from Wrocław and Krakow have also taken the initiative to provide childcare at universities during the strike. Official support was expressed by, among others, the Union at Poland’s national airline LOT and by the union of the bus and truck drivers. Finally, on Thursday, April 11, fundraising for a strike fund was launched which collected over one million zlotys within 24 hours, and by Saturday, April 13, the amount has tripled. The support for the fundraising and for the demands of ZNP and FZZ was even expressed by such people as Henryka Bochniarz (former leader of the Confederation of Employers “Lewiatan”) or liberal publicists who are usually hostile to trade unions, strikes and the public sector in general. Of course, this is primarily a part of the criticism of the government they dislike and not as a result of sudden love for the union movement.

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. Following media reports, it can be estimated that several hundred people have already left Solidarność and will perhaps join other unions.

However, there is no indication that the teachers’ mobilization and the public support for the strike has influenced the stance of the government. Throughout the week, the only response to the strike from the Law and Justice ruling party (PiS) was to repeat the proposal that was approved by Solidarność. This was accompanied by an aggressive campaign of pro-government media directed mainly against the leader of the ZNP, Sławomir Broniarz, and the whole union, accusing them of “communism” or of conducting a “political protest” (implying that it is orchestrated by the liberal “Civic Coalition” (PO) whose representatives publicly expressed their support for the strike in various ways).

The open questions are, however, how long the government will maintain its rigid position and whether public opinion will not turn against the strikers. Tiredness and stress due to the upcoming matura exams will also increase in next days and weeks. There is a risk that this year’s strike will end the same way as the longest protest in education system in Poland in 1993.

History of workers struggles in education

The ongoing strike is another great mobilization of the education sector, which in Poland, has repeatedly undertaken strike actions on a massive scale. 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 (PO-PSL)” forget that in May 2008 almost 200,000 workers of the education sector participated in over 12,000 strike actions which were organized in defence of the Teacher’s Charter, the right to early retirement and for salary increases. However, the strikes of 2008 did not last as long as the greatest teacher mobilization at the beginning of the transformation in the early 1990s.

The dispute started with the freezing of salary indexation in the public sector in 1991 which caused a real decrease in the income of all workers employed in the public sector. In 1990/1992, the salaries of those employed in education fell by 17%, and expenditures on education generally fell from 12.8% to 8.9% of the total budget. The wage freeze was declared illegal by the Constitutional Tribunal but the government refused to adjust salaries (according to the law they had to be adjusted to the wage growth in the private sector). The first one-day strikes were organized as early as 1991 and were often combined with school occupations. In February 1992, as the Olszewski government did not react to the wage demands, 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. At the end of March the National Commission of Solidarność supported the organization of a strike in education for May. Two increases were demanded – 600,000 zlotys from April and another 340,000 from September. The government planned 390,000 and 200,000 in the budget respectively (that was before the currency reform).

On 22 April, a warning strike took place in which 81.3% of the institutions (according to ZNP data) took part. However, this did not made the government change its stance, and as a result an indefinite general strike in education began on May 4. Matura exams in 1993 took place with a significant delay. The strike of 1993 lasted until May 24th and eventually ended in a defeat as teachers did not manage to win the increases [they had demanded]. In the end, their salaries increased as much as the government planned, by about 20%, but this was much less than the inflation rate (35%).

The 1993 strike was not a success in terms of wages but it was the beginning of protests by workers from other public sectors (including the health service) which ultimately led to bringing down the government and calling new parliamentary elections, as a result of which the “post-Solidarność” camp lost its power and the new government mitigated the draconian austerity policy.

Jakub Grzegorczyk

In Polish:

Strike fund for teachers from small towns and villages

Inicjatywa Pracownicza (IP, Workers’ Initative Union) has started fundraising for the strike fund to support its members on strike who are teachers from smaller towns. Your donation will help them to continue the fight, despite the lack of support from local authorities and some parents.

Every day IP members decide to continue the strike. And this is not an easy decision. With such low wages, every strike day is a burden for their family budget. They will not receive the full wage for the strike period. There are also other worries. If strikers can count on the support of parents then it is a lot easier. Unfortunately, in smaller towns it is more difficult to find organized activities for children during the strike. Parents’ sometimes lose their patience and blame the teachers.

We want to support the teachers, help them to keep fighting and honour their efforts by supporting them financially. Each trade union provides a strike fund only to its members. The fund coordinated by ZNP “Wspieram nauczycieli” (“I support teachers”) which has become very successful is intended only for non-unionized teachers.

Thank you! Solidarity is our weapon!

For more information, please, write to Workers’ Initiative:

Source: General strike in education in Poland [summary] – support the Strike Fund

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