The biggest education strike since 1993 began in Poland on Monday. Unions estimate that over 600,000 workers are taking part in an indefinite strike - not just teachers, but cooks, cleaners, caretakers and office staff as well.
The strike includes nurseries as well as schools. The vast majority of strikers are women. Strikers are demanding a pay rise, but they are angry about many other things too.
Magdalena Kierpiec is a primary school teacher on strike in Czestochowa in southern Poland. She isn’t in a union but is on strike. Magdalena told Socialist Worker, “The main reason for the strike is frustration, never-ending teachers’ duties and the fight for education. We have been patient for many years, but we are losing our respectable position as teachers because of our earnings.
“We won’t give up until we get what we are fighting for. We are very determined.
“Despite differences of opinion, we stick together and are very motivated to strike. In my town, Chestochowa, all schools are on strike.”
Filip Ilkowski, a university lecturer and member of the ZNP, said workers are angry about government changes to education.
“The current right wing populist government has carried out a “reform” of education which has resulted in chaos,” he explained.
“It has made it increasingly necessary for teachers to work in several schools, and caused serious problems for students.
“The curriculum has changed to include more ideologies of the current authority. This is why the strike is supported by many students and their parents.”
And Magdalena said the extra work that teachers are expected to do is a major issue. “The job is not only teaching during classes for 18 hours a week,” she said. “Teachers are involved in many school projects, filling in documentation, checking tests, organising tours for students, meeting parents and completing the Electronic Students Lots.
“The list of teachers’ obligations is very long.”
The strike is a much needed boost for the whole workers’ movement.An indefinite nationwide strike is a very rare event. Hopefully this is about to change.
School workers have held many demonstrations, and a one-day strike two years ago. On each demonstration teachers demanded more action. The pressure on the union leaders paid off.Over 15,000 schools and nurseries are on strike, about 75 percent of the total number.
The main union involved is the Polish Teachers’ Union (ZNP) with over 200,000 members. A much smaller union belonging to the Forum of Trade Unions (FZZ) - which includes the biggest nurses’ union - is also involved.
Initially the demand was for a 1,000 zloty a month wage rise (some 200 pounds). But union leaders are now asking for less in a misguided attempt to show they are being “reasonable”.
The second biggest teaching union is Solidarity, which still has the world-famous logo from the time of the ten-million strong workers rebellion in 1980-81. Scandalously Solidarity leaders are now acting as strike breakers.
The leader of the Solidarity federation, Piotr Duda, has been trying to sabotage the strike, even before it started. He even refused to talk with ZNP leaders. Why? Because for historical reasons Solidarity leaders have a very close relationship with Poland’s hard right Law and Justice (PiS) government.
The Solidarity teachers’ leader, Ryszard Proksa, signed a deal with the government on the eve of the strike last Sunday for a lot less - about half - than the strikers are asking for. He even threatened union members who joined the strike with expulsion, adding that branches of the union might be shut down. Proksa is a PiS local councillor.
The threats backfired. Solidarity teachers are disgusted and the overwhelming majority of Solidarity teachers are striking. Regions of the union covering Silesia, Gdansk and Poznan are demanding Proksa’s resignation. Teachers are crossing out the Solidarity logo on strike badges and some are even leaving the union.
Filip said, “The scale of open rebellion is unprecedented. This is due to the fact that the strike is of immense importance.”
He added that Solidarity has “reiterated government propaganda”.
“The leader said the strike meant ‘taking children hostages’,” he said. “Now the ZNP has to resist government propaganda that talks about the ‘welfare of children’.”
The authorities have made it very difficult to organise a legal strike. Each of the thousands of schools had to individually start a collective dispute at the local level. This was meant to atomise teachers.
But the demand for action among them was so high that this backfired. School strike committees were set up and there was close cooperation among rank and file teachers - not only between the various union members, but also with those who were not in any union.
So now hundreds of thousands of non-union teachers and school workers are striking as well.
On Thursday a special strike fund was set up to cover those such as Solidarity members and non-unionists who are not in the ZNP.
The government is desperate to beat the teachers. This week police have even entered some schools asking questions. In order to make sure that this week’s middle school exams took place the government allowed the rules for supervision to be broken. Unqualified people were brought in - among them firefighters, prison service staff and forestry workers in uniform! Teachers of religion, priests and nuns also supervised.
The government is right to be worried. Poland’s economic growth has been relatively high in recent years and unemployment has dropped to the lowest level for decades. But workers are not seeing the benefits. According to the World Inequality Database Poland has the highest income disparities in Europe.
Magdalena said the government had made an “avalanche of promises” during parliamentary elections. These included a family benefit for each child, not just for the second child, investment in education and higher salaries for teachers.
“We were told that things are going great and we will have money for everything,” she said. “But we felt completely differently. Teachers, students and parents in schools were in chaos.
“Education reform caused disinformation, extra work and frustration. Despite government promises that nobody will lose work, many teachers lost their jobs.”
And she added that, while families may have been given new benefits, the cost of basic products has gone up.
ZNP member and striking Warsaw teacher Agnieszka Kaleta said, “Everyone was very pleased with Friday’s decision by the union leadership to continue the indefinite strike. We can win - the strikers are solid. In my school all of us come in and we discuss the organisation of the strike every day.
"Friday’s demonstration in central Warsaw where thousands of people showed their support for us was fantastic. These demonstrations are being held all over the country.”
The teachers may inspire other workers to strike. Let’s hope so.
The teachers and other school and nursery workers are in a powerful position. They need to make sure that their leaders do not retreat.