Since Monday, 8 April, Polish schools and pre-schools are on strike. Classes are cancelled throughout the country. Teachers are demanding increases of salary. The government reached an agreement with one of three of the trade unions, the educational branch of “Solidarność”, but most teachers continue to strike. Many of “Solidarność” members defy their union. Many of the teachers on strike are non-unionised. Altogether some 600,000 people are on strike.
There was a referendum in schools about the strike. 78% said they were ready to strike. The unions ask for:
- Increase of salary by 1,000 zł (about 230 Euro)
- Increase budgetary expenditure on education
- Change of the teachers work system
- Change of the teachers advancement path
- Firing of Anna Zalewska, the PiS education minister.
The teachers unions were pondering a strike since the end of 2018. However their motions to engage with the ministry or the prime minister proved elusive. They felt forced into strike. If you are a 25 years old in Poland today and you would like to be a teacher this is not your popular choice. Average age of a Polish teacher is 42. Only 2,4% of students dream to be a teacher one day. This is one of the lowest indicators among the OECD countries.
The response & the memes
The government took the strike threat seriously only last minute. Beata Szydło, vice PM responsible for the social matters and MEP candidate, was called in for help, as the teachers do not consider Anna Zalewska (another MEP candidate) a partner. Ms Szydło mission fails, yet she continues to lead the talks. For the time being the leading union, ZNP, rejects all the governmental proposals.
On Saturday before the strike, Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS leader, made a new promise to the farmers offering at least 500 zł (about 116 Euro) per cow and 100 zł (about 23 Euro) per porker. That was a classical PiS campaign: offer financial assistance to groups supporting Law and Justice. The timing, however, could not be worse: the Internet is full of memes like these:
If the timing is terrible for the ruling party, the real life test is next to come. What to do with millions of children who should go to schools? Parents took holidays, special leaves, or took children with them to work. But the real test is about the exams season that also starts this week.
On 10, 11 and 12 April there is a state exam for the middle schools’ final year (gimnazjum) aged 16. The middle schools are being phased out this year, hence the final exams season continues next week for the 8th graders of the new system (aged 15): they shall have exams on 15, 16 & 17 April.
The phasing out of the old system created a major havoc in the educational system. There is a great anxiety there will not be enough space for all the 15-year olds and 16-year olds who should move to high schools at the same time (3-year long and 4-year long schools). There are also costs related to the adaptation to the new system where the state has not provided enough funding for the local governments which sustain the schools. There are even court cases pending on the issue.
Awhile back the ZNP leader Sławomir Broniarz said the exams could be jeopardised by the strike. The government does everything in its power to avoid the disaster. Crisis management in full bloom.
On day 3 of the strike and day 1 of the exams the country holds its breath. And a relief in the afternoon: only in 3 schools out of the entire country the exams did not take place. Day 2 of the tests and a relief, all schools carried out the exams. Day 3 and the situation is under control.
What will happen next week? Will the 15-year olds be ok, too? How about the schools that those 16- and 15-year olds will be moving to, are they ready?
There are more questions than answers today, the victorious government is temporarily relieved, the strike continuous, and so do new rounds of negotiations led by Ms Szydło.
On one hand, the government is negotiating. The Szydło offer includes a 15% salary increase. Thus far, the unions reject the offer.
On the other hand, there is trolling against the strike, the ZNP and its leader. The leader in the process is the right-wing public TV, TVP in its information programmes. Cynical comments, false accusations and misused video material to prove one’s point: welcome to TVP’s Wiadomości daily routine. Some programmes are saying that only 11% schools are on strike, others – 48%. ZNP says 78% of schools are on strike.
PiS politicians talk about the strike, ZNP and Mr Broniarz that they are politically motivated, politically inspired by the opposition, that they work “hand in hand” with Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of the Civic Platform. One PiS politician said: nobody stops teachers from having more children.
There are reports confirming that Law and Justice used trolling farms in the past campaigns. There is no reason to believe this not to be the case today.
Some commentators draw parallels to the demonisation of teachers today to the way handicapped people and their parents were addressed when they went on a strike over a year ago, or migrants or the LGBT community. Virtually anyone PiS chooses to be a “target” of their campaign.
The Ministry of Education tries to single out teachers on strike to keep this information on the record for future reference. The Ministry asked the school directors to provide information who’s on strike. Minister Zalewska asked directly, denies the story. The Internet is flooded with counter-proof.
Gazeta Wyborcza sums up the PiS strategy: “Don’t talk about the strike, demonise Broniarz, talk about the PiS offer”.
It’s about the society, not politics
Meanwhile, the strike continuous for the 5th day today. There is no compromise in sight. The strike is controversial and divisive, only 46% of the public supports the teachers, 43% is opposed to the strike. Most of the people disagree with the strike timing (exams). Most of the people are concerned about the children promotion to the next class, or graduation.
When teachers strike they do not receive salaries. ZNP organises support for the teachers. People wear black to support the teachers. Someplace teachers call for a pizza delivery, and when the pizza arrives they receive the food free of charge. In solidarity with the striking teachers.
Not only teachers are on strike this week. The strike of taxi drivers on Monday lasted a day. The taxi drivers do not like Uber, but also other companies providing taxi services without proper licences.
The real issue is if Law and Justice can contain the teachers strike problem. Contain, not solve. Clearly the strike is a negative development for the ruling party. It is 600,000 people who are concerned. By now PiS tried to control the information, to shame, to troll and to intimidate. With time PiS proves to be partly successful as the exams take place and large part of the society is against the strike. The next hurdle: graduation papers that can only be signed by teachers (unlike the exams, which were managed with assistance of volunteers working at sport facilities, universities or the Catholic Church).
The crisis management is with the detriment to the quality of education.
It seems that the argument of children education can prevail. The strike has been quite intrusive, but the unions could consider softening their strike method to be more accommodating of children needs.
The one actor who lost credibility thus far is “Solidarność” trade union, not ZNP or Mr Broniarz, despite PiS trolls efforts. Traditionally “S” has been the most respected trade union. To see teachers blurring the emblem “Solidarność” to continue the strike – this is the end of an era.
People who have problem are PiS leading MEP candidates: Anna Zalewska and Beata Szydło. Instead of addressing the school problems both are accused of doing too little too late, being aloof and disconnected. Their expected departure for the European Parliament should be viewed as removing the not-so-popular politicians before the October parliamentary elections. The only elections that PiS truly cares for.