The ongoing teachers’ dispute in Slovakia has demonstrated the militant potential of a long sidelined working class.
Its implications are far reaching, both in Slovakia and across the wider eurozone.
Widespread discontent with austerity swept the Social Democratic Party to office in elections earlier this year. But they are fast selling out all their election promises.
The Social Democrats saw deeper integration into the European Union’s (EU) “social market economy” as a means of moderating neoliberalism.This tied their ability to carry out social reforms to the EU.
Slovakia forms part of the EU’s “core”. Since 1989, the country’s export driven growth has become increasingly dependent on exports to Germany. But this means it is now wedded to the German-led austerity drive.
Anger among teachers had been brewing for many years as “reforms” have undermined terms and conditions, along with the quality of education.
Workers became increasingly frustrated—but for a long time this found no concrete expression. But the government put next to nothing on the negotiating table.
The union bureaucracy was pushed to advance from protests to holding a one day warning strike on 13 September.
Slavomír Drahoš, the main union rep at Ladislav Sár Gymnazium school in the capital Bratislava spoke to Socialist Worker. He explained that broken promises and unfulfilled demands led to a serious “breakdown in collective bargaining”.
The government offered a 5 percent pay rise following September’s strike. A confident rank-and-file forced the union to reject it an instead call an indefinite strike from 26 November.
Yet the union suspended the strike only three days later. It went back into negotiations and a sell-out loomed. But Ladislav Sár Gymnazium pulled 17 other schools back into action.
This block of rebel schools organised a demonstration of over 1,000 workers and students in two days. They resolved to hold an indefinite relay strike. This is where teachers take turns to strike, with two different schools out each day.
Drahoš explains that they stayed out to “pressure the union to strike again” and “force them to hold to the original demands”.
Workers have few illusions. They described negotiations as a “sophisticated retreat” aimed at “phasing out the protest mood” and “legitimate aspirations”. Teachers have maintained the pressure and forced the union to organise relay protests.
However the strikes continue and have now spread beyond Bratislava. Meanwhile, teachers and students have thrown away the curriculum on strike days.
The dispute has moved beyond purely economic demands, as they have organised lectures around such issues as human rights, labour history, anti-racism and opposition to neoliberalism.
Rank and file activity has challenged the credentials of the Social Democrats—and the trade union leadership’s reliance upon them.
Slovak teachers have demonstrated a potential for offensive, rank and file activity—not simply in the EU’s periphery but also its core. For that reason, all socialists hope that this dispute will continue to blaze a trail for others to follow.