Class dismissed, time to protest: National teachers’ strike in Poland

, by Marie Jelenka Kirchner

Class dismissed, time to protest: National teachers' strike in Poland
Graphic used by the ZNP union to promote the strike. Used with permission.

Since Monday, thousands of teachers have been on strike in Poland, and a wave of solidarity covers the country. Marie Jelenka Kirchner discusses the background of this strike, its meaning for the political culture of Poland, and solidarity with the strikers.

“We want to teach and work! Understand us!” was the nation-wide plea of teachers in Poland this Monday when they asked parents and teachers for understanding at the beginning of the biggest strike of this kind Poland has seen in 26 years. Teaching? Yes, of course – but not under the current conditions.

Because of unacceptable conditions, three quarters of all educational facilities have been on a indefinite strike since April 8th. The primary demand of teachers, backed by the trade unions ZNP (Zwiazek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego) and FZZ (Forum Zwiazkow Zawodowych), are proper wages. Despite the fact that Poland’s education has caught up on international comparative studies such as PISA since a school reform in 1999, and now ranks among the best in Europe, teachers’ wages are amongst the lowest on the continent. The entry wage of a teacher is only a few złoty above the minimum wage of 2250 złoty/month (ca. 525€).

A “deform” instead of a reform of the educational system

Teacher Andrzej Z. from Krakow agrees that a wage adjusted to the rapid increase in living expenses is long overdue. He teaches at a primary school in Krakow and has only a few years until his retirement. To afford leisure activities such as a visit in the cinema or at a concert, he additionally works as a massage teacher during weekends.

Trade unions in Poland are well-aware of many of these cases and the current strike is therefore not the first protest over the past year, though it is by far the biggest. Dorota Obidniak, coordinator for international cooperation and educational projects at ZNP, describes a wide portfolio of ZNP’s activities such as published manifestos, public campaigns and demonstrations. “We have been wanting to discuss this for years,” Obidniak says. “But so far nobody was willing to take part.” She acknowledges that the situation of teachers and their pay have improved gradually over the past years – but never to an acceptable level. A comprehensive educational reform in 2017 was fuel to the trade union’s fire. “We don’t talk about a reform here, we talk about a deform,” Obidniak explains. “No pedagogues or experts took part in the development of the changes. We always thought Poland’s education policy could not get worse. We were wrong.”

As part of these reforms, the school system in Poland was completely remodelled and new curricula were developed. Teachers unsuccessfully fought against the reform and a petition for a referendum was ineffectual. From the pedagogical viewpoint, Obidniak describes these reforms as disastrous. It comes as no surprise that they led to many frustrations among teachers in the country. “With everything they do it seems as if the government wants to generate uneducated future generations”, teacher Andrzej Z. comments cynically. “Why not, it’s easier to govern stupid people.”

Public support for the strike

A strike of such a scale does not break out overnight – the strike regulations in Poland prevent this. The strike had weeks’ notice during which a heated debate could be seen in the national media. Especially pro-government media tried – and continue to try – to stir up emotions against the trade unions. The teachers on strike are presented as irresponsible or money-hungry. Especially the decision to begin the strike in the week of nationwide final exams is presented as evidence that the teachers egotistically only care about their own desires. Teachers oppose these accusations decisively.

“As teachers and pedagogues we are downhearted to see how cynically the public is being manipulated; how teachers and parents are tried to be divided. We made the difficult decision to begin this strike in full consciousness that the postponement of exams does not carry consequences nearly as bad as inconsiderate and chaotic reform.”

Teachers from Krakow explain their motivations in an open letter and ask for understanding. So far, the majority of society is on their side. In the school of Andrzej Z., teachers have to – like everywhere – prove with signatures that they are present at school premises according to their normal schedule. This means that there is much time these days to sit in the teachers’ room and discuss. Their days are brightened by supportive gestures of parents who have brought in cake all these past days. “The majority of parents supports us, because they value us and everything we do for their children,” Andrzej Z. explains, very touched by the solidarity he and his colleagues have experienced these past days.

Social media is bustling with positive messages, “I support the teachers” decorates many Facebook profile pictures and the “Keep going” slogan is all over the internet. Liberal media outlets report benevolently about the course of the strike, cultural centres offer care for children whose parents are at work and some companies are flexible to support parents.

On Twitter, the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, posted a picture with his son and the caption: “Today I am supported by the best of the best assistants: my son Staś”. The politician of the centre-right Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) party thanked Warsaw parents for their understanding of the strike. The all-encompassing support of the opposition does surprise some, because only a few months back many PO politicians opposed a strike and called trade unionist activities outdated.

In the important electoral year 2019 a change of course seems to be ongoing. In 2019, Polish citizens elect not only their candidates for the European Parliament, but also a new national government. The strike comes at an important moment for the political and societal direction of Poland. It comes at a time which is characterised by turmoil and change.

Nobody represents this changing narrative better than the young Wiosna (Spring) party of Robert Biedron. Newly founded this year, this party contests with a liberal-left programme for the European elections. Adam Traczyk, a European Parliament candidate from Warsaw and the Wiosna responsible for external affairs, perceives the strike as purely positive. He describes the comprehensive identification of the society with the striking teachers as a novelty in Poland. The power of the mobilisation would have the capacity to lastingly change the political culture in the country.

Solidarity without Solidarność

Attentive readers might find themselves surprised why a trade unionist protest seems to be as outstanding as it is in Poland. After all, it was the Polish trade union Solidarność which set in motion the systemic change in Poland starting in Gdansk and spreading over to the rest of the country – and Europe – 40 years ago.

But the current Solidarność has nothing in common with the revolutionary institution of that time. The chairman of the education department is a politician of the governing PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) party himself. The trade union did not live up to the solidarity in its name when it first gave in to a sellout on Sunday and then issued a written prohibition to its members to strike. Several teachers have since left the Solidarność.

Thus, the government managed to split this trade union – and the fear of a divided society looms above the strikers. The positive mood could easily collapse, both Dorota Obidniak and Adam Traczyk believe, especially if the strike keeps going for a long time. This would seem to be the strategy of the government according to online comments criticising the invisibility of education minister Anna Zalewska these past days. Here, commentators speculate that PiS will stall for time to further manipulate the general mood against the teachers which could be used as a forceful instrument to pressure the strikers.

The behaviour on the government’s side also shows, however, that PiS might have underestimated the range and the outreach of the strike and now struggles to respond. “The PiS has this narrative that the children are the victims of the teachers,” Traczyk explains. “But there is no majority for this in Poland. The demands of the teachers have to be met. Nowadays, many teachers go to Brandenburg [a federal state of Germany], because they can make better money over there. In Poland this job has to be made prestigious again. This job is not a mission of a voluntary service.”

The first success: The debate on education is finally on the agenda

Asking how the trade unions assess the current strike, Obidniak hesitates. “It is difficult to say that we are satisfied with any strike; that sounds wrong. But the determination of our colleagues is amazingly high and has been from the beginning.” She highlights the overall feeling of pride in the trade union and is also pleasantly surprised about the overwhelming solidarity received not only in Poland, but also but also from partners abroad. The German trade union GEW, for example, writes in a letter:

“Striking is never an easy choice for teachers, but your strike is fully justified. We support you in this struggle because it is a common struggle throughout Europe.”

The current strike is not the first big protest in Poland over the past years. A critical mass can be mobilised more easily than before on different political topics. According to Obidniak, this mobilisation of the society enables unique opportunities.

Even though at this time there are no signals of a rapid conclusion of the strike, Obidniak is optimistic that the strike will come to a good result. “The strike is very positive already: there has never been such a deep discussion on education before, and I have never experienced this much solidarity. We suddenly experience support from politicians who have had the opposite opinion before.” She concludes: “There is definitely a turn. Now we just have to hope that the mood remains stable on our side.”

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