How the teachers' strike ignited civil society in Poland

The significance of the teachers strike which has paralyzed the Polish school system since April 8 is far greater than the salary negotiations that triggered it.

Zuzanna Ziomecka
Zuzanna Ziomecka Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland
How the teachers' strike ignited civil society in Poland - NewsMavens
East-west News

While talks between the teachers and the PiS (Law and Justice) government continue to yield no progress, many have risen to support the strikers. As gestures of support become grander and more meaningful, the potential impact of public support for teachers could carry over into upcoming elections.

THE BACKSTORY

It began with three unions negotiating with the ministry of education for a 30% salary raise for teachers. When the government conceded to a 15% increase, only the Solidarity union agreed to the deal. The two bigger unions, ZNP (Polish Teachers Union) and Trade Unions Forum, rejected the offer and began a nationwide teachers strike which has effected over 70 percent of public schools across the country. [See interactive map of striking schools here.]

By mid week the stakes grew higher as junior high seniors sat down to their three day final exams. In striking schools, outside professionals with any teaching degrees were brought in to coordinate the examinations. Many fear that the tests may lose validity if procedures were not followed by inexperienced coordinators. Next week eighth graders will sit their end of school exams and face the same risk.

According to a poll conducted for Gazeta Wybrocza, most Polish citizens support the strike: 53% are for it, 43 against. Even more (57%) support a 30% raise for teachers. Not surprisingly, the pro-strike majority live in big cities and are supporters of the Left and Koalicja Europejska (European Coalition), an alliance of oppositional parties. Only 19% of strike supporters are PiS (Law and Justice, the ruling party) voters.

In government controlled public broadcasting media the strike is presented as a tug of war over money in which school children have become political hostages. Headlines running across public media newscasts undermine the strikers “completely compromised morals” and privileges, “So much vacation time and they still complain?”. The Solidarity union is praised for putting children first. “Because Solidarity has a very different set of values.”

Meanwhile, strike supporters are finding inventive and practical ways to express their solidarity. Though on the surface the goal is to raise teacher’s wages, the underlying sentiment is that all opponents of the current government have a vested interested in rallying to the strikers' cause.

The PiS government is careful in deciding to whom it allocates taxpayer and European funds. Making no pretense of equal support for everyone, PiS cherry picks high potential voter groups instead. Since PiS came to power in 2015, funds have been allocated or promised to traditional families, Catholic organizations, farmers and retirees. Professionals, educators, and minority caregivers have been denied.

With European and Polish elections both impending, this teachers strike has been an opportunity to coalesce around common values rather than political parties.

As civil society rallies for teachers, voters of various shades of political sympathies are agreeing on a vision of the future -- a future founded on respect for professionals and quality education. With the government unyielding on the other end of the negotiating table, this could be the beginning of a political agenda that the opposition needs to bring their supporters together.

A NEW SOLIDARITY

On April 12, minister of education Anna Zalewska announced that paying teachers’ salaries for the days they are on strike is against the law. Sławomir Broniarz, the head of teachers union ZNP, calculated that each educator could lose 100 Polish zlotys per day.

In a commentary for Gazeta Wyborcza, Wojciech Maziarski urged civil society to step up and address this. “It’s time to refresh our memories of the 80s when we stood in solidarity against a dictatorial government by forming a movement of that same name -- Solidarity. We cannot count on the union that bears this name today because it has become an ally of the government, but then again, we don’t need them. We can manage on our own,” he wrote in a story published on April 8

And indeed, in response to his call to action, the civil committee Wspieram Nauczycieli (Support Teachers) came together days later to oversee a strike fund. Included in the committee’s ranks are both of the striking teachers unions and Maziarski, as well as activists, educators, business leaders and artists, like Booker Prize winning author Olga Tokarczuk. The committee will help assure that publicly donated funds are fairly allocated to the teachers in greatest need.

As of Sunday April 12, more than three million Polish zlotys have been paid into the strike fund.

Donating to it has become a symbolic declaration of support for the teachers on strike but also a gesture of protest against the ruling party in general. Social media is the public square on which these gestures are made.

AN ESTABLISHMENT-FUNDED MUTINY

In an ironic twist of fate, much of the money collected for strikers is donated from funds that PiS pays out in social programs designed to garner political support.

Earlier this year Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, announced that before the European parliamentary elections every retiree would receive a bonus pension. This payout, called the “thirteenth pension” or “Jaroslaw’s gift,” is largely seen by the opposition as vote buying.

When the Support Teachers strike fund was created, two notable public figures announced on social media that they have already paid their expected "thirteenth pension" into it.

“I knew from the start I would be donating my “thirteenth,” wrote Krzysztof Podemski, a sociologist from the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznan. “The government knows that the easiest way to squash a mutiny is economic starvation. We need to keep that from happening. Though I did not steal this money, I’m giving it back to society. Let’s be Grey Power.” Professor Podemski paid forward 888,80 pln.

Likewise, former head of the Polish Literary Institute Grzegorz Gauden also paid forward his thirteenth pension. “I’m retired. This money was stolen from retirees of the future to buy our votes today. It should go to those who are fighting for the future of Poland instead – to teachers,” he wrote on Facebook. 

By far the most generous single donation to the strike fund came from the founders of an educational NGO called Zwolnieniezteaorii.pl (Excused from Theory) which instructs kids and teachers on how to launch projects of their own design. Paula Bruszewska and her husband donated 108 thousand Polish zlotys, which is the total they will receive from a different government handout -- the so-called ‘500 plus’ monthly social stipend for families. This was PiS’s most popular campaign promise and was duly set in motion shortly after they gained power. The program pays 500 Polish zlotys a month per child, not including the first born, from the time they are born until they reach the age of 18. The Bruszewski’s second child is 4 months old.

Gazeta Wyborcza also supports the teacher’s fund -- all money collected from digital subscriptions purchased during the strike will be donated to Support Teachers.

PUBLIC SUPPORT, FREE PIZZA AND WORDS OF WARNING

Academics, artists, public figures, and workers from other industries are articulating their support for teachers in other ways as well: participation in protests, letters sent to schools and published online but also in small gestures.

Like a pizza. Teachers from a striking school in Warsaw ordered a pizza from a local outlet, and, instead of a bill, received a note from the owner. It said, “We support the teachers' strike. The pizza is on the house.”

Two groups, however, also issued warnings to the strikers.

Parents of disabled persons warn against the government’s "delay, deflect, and deny" tactics which they fell prey to last year. After a 40-day occupational strike over unlivable social stipends paid to parents who care for disabled children full time, they were made promises that were never kept. Today families with disabled children continue to live on 878 zlotys per month.

Doctors also cautioned teachers. In 2017 they held a lengthy hunger strike in an effort to extricate more resources to the public health system, which is draining of talent as doctors emigrate to Western Europe to better paid positions, and where patients stand in months long queues to receive urgent care. Of the promised extra funds that were supposed to be paid to all hospitals, only 67 have actually received additional money.

“Teachers! Be careful and stay alert,” the organizers wrote on Twitter.

Joanna Kos-Krauze, a film director and screenwriter actively supporting the strike, told Gazeta Wybrocza that in her view there is a hidden gender angle in this standoff. Teaching is a very female dominated profession in Poland. Krauze points to this as a hidden and unaddressed issues underpinning the failed negotiations.

SCHOOL CHILDREN SPEAK UP

On the second day of the teachers strike, a school kids' strike gathered hundreds in front of Warsaw’s ministry of education. Apart from wanting to express support for teachers, the school children hoped to bring the topic of deep educational reform into public debate.

Kacper Lemiesz, one of the leaders of the kids strike, listed four traits that differentiate excellent teachers: they show students the meaning and logic of what they are being taught, they respect their students without trying to manipulate or bully them into obedience, they teach independent, individual thinking rather than mindless regurgitation, and they make students feel part of a community.

To be that kind of educator, teachers need a basic foundation of security and social standing. It’s hard to work outside of the box when you’re worried about paying the bills and keeping your family fed.

Simultaneously to their strike, school kids around the country launched Akcja Kreda (Chalk Action) -- a coordinated effort to write chalk messages of support for teachers on sidewalks around school buildings. [See photos on Twitter.]

HAPPY ENDINGS

As Poland begins the second week of the strike, there are several possible scenarios. The teachers could choose to occupy school buildings making upcoming examinations even more difficult. Parents of kids struggling to finish the school year in these conflicted conditions could withdraw support. The government could give in to the teachers demands and then fail to deliver on its promises. A favorable end to negotiations for teachers appears most difficult to achieve.

PiS fears setting a precedent for other professional groups which have been denied support or have yet to ask for it. A concession to teachers could trigger an avalanche of strikes and demands impossible for PiS to meet.

But a favorable outcome for Poland is still very much on the table. This strike has created a new common ground for voters of the various left wing and oppositional parties, which increases their chances of coming together in the next elections to take the reins of the country out of PiS hands.

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