Teachers strike in Poland this spring?

What might happen and what may be a major blow for the ruling party: the powerful Teachers Union (ZNP) just called for a massive strike in schools to take place during the exams season.

What’s the problem? Salaries.

Sławomir Broniarz
Mr Broniarz announces teachers’ strike, Warsaw, 10 Jan 2019.

Currently the starting salary for a teacher in Poland is the country’s minimal wage, 2250 zł, or 520 Euro. If you are a cashier in one of a leading shop chains, your entry level salary is about 2650 zł, or 615 Euro, and it increases annually. To become a teacher you need to study and graduate, your qualifications need to be excellent. And your salary is just a friction of your competence. Voila, welcome to the Polish schools in 2019.

Yes, teachers salaries increase with time and experience, too. There are extras, too. Yet, all is too little too slow. Low income of teachers has massively driven teachers of physics, chemistry or biology out of schools. Many schools, especially in smaller towns, have problems recruiting foreign language teachers. Warsaw schools alone lack some 200 teachers as of January 2019.

A few years ago there were some 670 thousand teachers in Poland. Today there are fewer than 500 thousand teachers.

Some local governments, concerned with the low level of salaries in schools, have started to complement their income. In 2019 every young teacher in Warsaw receives about 250 zł (about 60 Euro) more from the city budget. Rafał Trzaskowski, a former MEP and Warsaw mayor said a few weeks ago when the city decided to increase the city contribution to teachers salaries: “The costs are growing with the deform of the education. The government subvention is insufficient, the costs are enormous. We promised increase of salaries, we want to keep the youth in their jobs [of teaching]”.

The frictions between the teachers unions and the Education Minister, Anna Zalewska (PiS) have a long history. It concerns how teachers are promoted and remunerated, the school curricula, and the ongoing school reform. Last talks ended yesterday. Sławomir Broniarz, ZNP leader, said: “The minister failed to propose a rational proposal to improve teachers’ situation” and accused the minister of empty talk. ZNP wants 1000 zł salary increase across the board.

Instead Minister Zalewska proposed a 250 zł salary increase and more flexibility for school directors to allocate resources. Excellent results would also mean higher wages. She wants to continue to talk with the unions.

Broniarz: “The strike will mean no activity at schools. We will not pretend to take care of children”. Last December some 10,000 teachers took a sick leave to mark their protest.

Part of the frustration of the Teachers’ Union comes from the fact that the PiS minister first talked separately with the Solidarność trade union (education branch) and the 70+ representation of ZNP had to wait two hours for the minister.

Hence the potential of the strike is massive. First, there are some 500,000 concerned individuals, who are educated, voting, underpaid and frequently local community leaders.

Second, the timing could not be worse for the ruling party – just weeks before the May elections, or maybe even during the vote.

Third, the strike could have a devastating impact on the timing of school exams, especially for those graduating high schools. They will be also first time voters. Already in December and January first test exams have been cancelled due to no show of teachers.

Fourth, the impact of closed schools would be massive on all parents, should the schools be closed and there would be no place to leave the kids behind.

Fifth, minister Zalewska is tipped to be one of PiS’ frontwomen in the European elections. Faced with a major strike of the unions, this may complicate her chances.

Et alors?

Poland has a long history of public education. World’s first education ministry was created in Poland in 1773 (the Commission of National Education). During the founding act of the Zamojski Academy in 1600 (opening of the third university in the country) Jan Zamoyski, a leading political figure of the time and a visionary, said: “republics are as good as the education of their youth”.

Today, the Polish schools are placed on the edge. Not only the schools and teachers are underfunded, they are also faced with a growing nationalistic narrative: European education and civic education have been either eradicated or sidelined from Polish schools.

We shall come back on this blog to the issue of the quality of Polish European education in due time.

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