On January 5, up to 11,500 teachers and pedagogical staff from 705 schools across Slovakia registered to strike. This move came on the heel of failed negotiations between the Initiative of Slovak Teachers (IST) and the government, represented by Juraj Draxler, the Minister of Education, Science, Research, and Sports. The IST’s key demands, directed to Parliament, were formulated clearly: a gradual 250 euro increase in tariff salaries for all pedagogical staff in the education sector by January 2017; a 400 million-euro budget increase for the sector, and a modification of the existing credit system, including reevaluation of the system of life-long education.
Despite the uninviting weather on the day of the strike, more than 2,000 teachers and supporters gathered at the Slovak National Uprising square in Bratislava, forcing the closure of over one hundred schools. Many issues swayed the podium, principally their dissatisfaction with the underperformance of Slovak students compared to international standards, their salaries (the lowest in the OECD for pedagogical staff), and disappointment with incessant politicking in schools, wilfulness of school directors, and bullying in school cabinets.
Despite the ongoing protests, elementary schools and high schools have slowly reopened their doors, but the baton has been passed to universities. Staff from more at least nineteen universities have declared support for the IST’s cause, calling upon the government to seriously consider their demands as they joined the strike last Monday, February 15.
Public opinion on the strike can be split into three camps. There are those who express outright opposition, blaming teachers for being greedy and arguing that teachers should be paid less to match other underpaid Slovak workers. There are those who criticize the timing, condemning the strike as a power play before the elections. But there is also a large group of people supporting the cause: many events and solidarity actions have taken place in different cities and towns. Parent groups in particular have taken a strong stand in support of the strike. Their initiatives have included publishinga public letter of support, organizing “Fridays with children” so that the schools can continue striking, and wearing green ribbons as a sign of solidarity. The teachers have also been supported by a wide range of public figures, as well as a number of student groups who have organized online and offline to promote the cause.
The current wave of protests is not unprecedented; it echoes demands for improvements in the Slovak education sector articulated as early as 2011. In 2012, two teachers from the small mountain town of Dobšiná gained major media attention when they penned an open letter to the Minister of Education. The letter contained elaborate descriptions of the poor teaching conditions in regional schools, including overcrowded classrooms and the absence of modern equipment. The teachers also complained of low salaries, especially in light of the fact that their work often involved performing the duties of social workers for children from marginalized communities.
In September 2012, a series of strikes convened in front of the Office of the Government, organized by New School Unions and resulting in a secondary strike at a number of Bratislava schools. New School Unions are an interesting example of the new union collectives that have emerged in Slovakia out of dissatisfaction with traditional, idle, ineffective, and politicized union structures. However, these strike actions didn’t claim any victories. Indeed, in the three years since, only mediocre reforms have been introduced under three different ministers.
Almost simultaneously with the teachers, doctors also went on strike in 2012. And it was only after a tense situation in which, for weeks, doctors performed only the most urgent operations that the government accepted some of their demands and agreed to ease the stringent budget for doctors’ salaries. This was a minor victory nevertheless, as the strike aimed at the overall reform of finances in the health sector, a situation that remains pressing to this day.
Since the strike actions of 2012, the Slovak parliament has responded by amending several laws, effectively hindering strikes. For example, doctors on strike can be prosecuted under certain circumstances, and every publicly employed person has an obligation to register for unpaid leave during a strike—which means surrendering one’s salary for the duration of the strike and financing one’s own mandatory health and social security insurance. Given high consumer prices, low salaries (the average salary in the education sector is around 760 euro net), and the fact that many teachers are already forced to have additional jobs to make ends meet, these amendments should be seen as an attack on the right to strike.
Prime Minister Róbert Fico seems to be having a hard time dealing with the current teachers’ protests, which have been heavily covered by the media. National elections are taking place in less than a month, and as a part of electioneering, all opposition parties have declared their full support to the strike movement. In some cases, this comes as pure hypocrisy: all the major right-wing parties were staunch opponents of the strikes when in power, and have historically protested any budget increases for education. These conservative voices of solidarity include the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), who when headed by then–prime minister Iveta Radičová, openly declared in 2011 that there would be no more money for education, as well as Béla Bugár, leader of the Hungarian minority party Most-Híd, who has forgotten his unbridled rage against the railway strikes of 2003 in which his coalition partner the Christian Democrats (KDH) suggested deploying the army to secure railway traffic. Even Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), a libertarian laissez-faire party who religiously promote a business-managerial model for education, are now fervently backing the teachers’ demands for higher public salaries.
The ruling Smer-SD (Direction-Social Democracy) government’s rhetoric is split between supporting the cause, offering teachers a deal for housing opportunities (the teachers have refused the offer, probably for ideological reasons), and issuing tough condemnations of teachers “who should do something for Slovakia.” Smer-SD has also sought to muddle the issues by calling an urgent press conference in which they chose to highlight instead “the threat of migration”—a blatant red herring.
An extraordinary meeting of Parliament was convened on the issue on February 11, adopting a pledge for the new government, inter alia, to produce a National Education Program for 2016–2024. This new program seeks to find ways to enable a transparent and just system of finances for the education sector, to adopt laws on financing regional schools, universities, sciences and research in compliance with OECD recommendations, and to increase the salaries of pedagogical staff. Indeed, what at first seemed to be bad timing for the strike—two months before the elections and after regular parliamentary meetings have concluded—appears to have worked to the strikers’ advantage.
Although misused for different political campaigns and electioneering, the strikers have altogether enjoyed quite strong and positive media coverage and extensive public support. It remains to be seen whether the movement will have effects on election results; however, if the striking teachers continue to exert sustained pressure, they may succeed in putting education reforms on the agenda for the next government. Ideally, they could build on lessons learned from previous strike movements and understand their fight as an emancipation cause for working-class people across all sectors of the economy.
They could also coalesce with the other strike movements. A natural partner comes to mind: medical assistants, who have led an ongoing strike movement since November 2015. More than 600 medical assistants have resigned so far in protest of low salaries and poor financing of the sector, putting pressure on the government to take action. Unfortunately, they have had little backing from hospitals or public opinion, and were cornered and heavily demonized by the Minister of Health, who threatened to fine them if they recalled their resignations. Thus far, there have been only scarce moments of cooperation, and the way forward would be to merge both movements into one cause.
Ultimately, the real game changer, at least from a narrative and discourse point of view, would be for Slovak teachers to make an attempt at transnational solidarity, to understand their cause as a regional one, and to join forces with their Hungarian counterparts fighting the very same fight.
Alena Krempaská has been program director at the Human Rights Institute in Bratislava since 2012. She is a longtime human rights activist, having served at organizations including People Against Racism, Amnesty International Slovakia, and the European Anti-Poverty Network. She writes on political and social issues for the daily Pravda and the Slovak edition of Le Monde Diplomatique (Jetotak.sk).
An earlier version of this article appeared at Political Critique.