“We want to teach, we want to work. Please, understand us.”

—Teachers’ general strike in Poland, 2019

Poland’s striking teachers have three messages for the right-wing government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party: we care about the future of education, we are fighting for our dignity, and we are definitely fighting for our students. In their dramatic message to the parents and students during the examination period, the teachers emphasized that the current chaos at schools is the result of the 2016 school reform. “We want to teach, we want to work. Please, understand us,” they said.

On Monday, teachers from 15,179 schools in Poland (74 percent) began a general strike after three months of fruitless talks with the ministry and government. The largest union, ZNP, wants a 1,000 złoty ($260) raise for every teacher in Poland. Teachers are among the lowest paid groups in our society, with monthly salaries ranging from $460 for junior teachers up to $920 for senior ones, which at best is 70 percent of the average Polish salary. It is difficult for teachers to lead quality lessons when they are worried about paying their own bills and feeding their own children. Nonetheless, Solidarity Union agreed to the government proposal of a 15 percent raise, just one day before the general strike. Individual members of the Solidarity Union decided to participate in the strike anyway. Solidarity’s ongoing policy of acting as a PiS government ally — an unthinkable shift from its nineteen-eighties values — is causing frustration among the Solidarity union teachers who decide to leave it.

The students’ involvement is significant as well. Recently, students self-organized to support their teachers. Due to the national education minister Anna Zalewska’s reform (nicknamed “deform”), schooldays now end late in the afternoon, with numerous instances of seven-year-olds finishing classes at 6 p.m. and students feeling overburdened by the new curriculum. What is more, the costly and unreasonable reversal of 1999 three-level system (six years of elementary, three years of junior high school, three years of senior) aimed to centralize education has reintroduced the ideological curriculum that was a distinctive feature of the communist era before 1989. With only six months of “preparation” for such a substantial change, is it any surprise that the reform didn’t account for complications? With the final closure of gymnasium (junior high school), junior graduates and the new eight-year elementary school alumni will be enrolled together in 2018/19. In consequence, there are now twice as many students competing to enter high schools. The question arises whether we should still consider that the right to education, as per Recommendation CM/Rec (2012) 13 of the Council of Europe, to be fully exercised in Poland. Is our education of adequate quality?

Teachers’ demands for better education and working conditions were met with government propaganda and insults. Listening about the budget limitations for months, the teachers heard a surprising announcement two days before the strike. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński has promised generous handout of 100 zł ($26) per pig and 500 zł ($131) per cow for farmers. With its brutal timing and context, the campaign promise became an offense to teachers and has caused even greater mobilization to participate in the strike.

Among the most ridiculous responses from PiS party members was the suggestion that teachers should get pregnant in order to receive the 500 zł per child-care benefit; the minister, meanwhile, proposed a raise — by increasing teachers worktime by six hours a week. In consequence to such a strategy, 30 percent teachers would lose their jobs! Another suggested solution to the crisis was to employ anyone who has pedagogical qualifications, even if they have never worked as teachers. Journalists have reported “humorous” incidents in which priests, nuns, politicians, or — most recently — three firemen have been sent into schools to run an exam ten minutes before it is due to start. The last act of this tragicomedy will most probably end with nullifying the students’ recent exams due to the breach of the law and procedures.

The teachers are faced with government propaganda on national TV, radio, and social media, including an “information campaign” by professional PR firm, which disseminated untrustworthy survey results on the lack of parents’ and society’s support of the strike. There are also growing accusations that PiS is hiring internet trolls. The society’s response to the strike is, however, quite unexpected and contrasting with the popular depiction of the lazy teacher with two months of paid holidays. Parents, students, surgeons, actors, and others have added exclamation marks in their Facebook profile pictures, taken solidarity photos captioned in Polish and English, and brought sweets to staffrooms. Workplace managers have allowed employees to bring in their kids, while grandparents and friends have offered to take care of the children. Libraries and museums have organized extra classes, local governments have promised not to cut the teachers’ salaries during the protests, and students have written messages of support with chalk at school yards. For the majority of teachers, however, this strike, the largest since 1993, may end quite soon, due to the pressure of the loss of wages. Polish teachers urgently need the support. If the teaching profession still has value in our society, it is time for this strike to receive international attention.

Beata Zwierzyńska is a doctoral candidate at University of Lower Silesia and Masaryk University; involved with European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers. She can be found on Twitter @beatazwie.

4 thoughts on “Why Teachers Are Striking in Poland

  1. A lot of typical oposition propaganda, withot mention that teachers are spending 18 working hours in class per week, least amount in eu. Dear author ask people in other eu countries how big are child benefits there? And also ask farmers in other country from where the money for animals come from? Then write a solid article again.

    1. It’s a matter of context. Two days before the biggest in history teachers’ strike, the leader of PiS gives a victorious speech to farmers. He grants money for cattle and pigs and doesn’t even mention the teachers’ problem. We teachers consider it absolutely rude and we have no doubts it was done on purpose. To humiliate even more.
      Teachers were advised to give birth to children instead of asking for pay rise. We’re fighting for appreciation of our work not of our fertility!
      Poland is going absurd.

    2. Well, Guest. You are right that the Polish teaching hours load is among the lowest in the EU (but not “the lowest.” Turkey and Greece are lower). But Polish teaching hours per year are within 5% of Finland (widely regarded as a world leader in education) and measured by the more stringent “actual teaching time” instead of contract time.
      I might find fault with the writing of this article, but the fact is that the Polish teaching schedule is SLIGHTLY less than the EU average and the pay is FAR less than the Polish average. While there is a slight “apples to oranges” issue here, there is no doubt that the gist of Beata Zwierzyńska’s article is quite solid.

    3. The research on the teachers’ actual working time is 47h/week: http://eduentuzjasci.pl/badania/110-badanie/186-badanie-czasu-i-warunkow-pracy-nauczycieli.html What is more, if one wants to compare the number of hours, they should also consider the infrastructural conditions of work, i.e. a working space, computer, materials – all most of the time brought from home.

      The point of mentioning the child benefits and money for animals is governments’ narration that the budget has hit its limit. Yes, two days before teachers hear that there is in fact money… for the cows and pigs. It is an obvious insult for the teachers as they have been lied to before. To say that anyone can have a child and collect more money is not only rude but ignorant. The child benefit doesn’t go to the teacher’s pocket, but is spent on the child and is not extra money to earn.

      Adding to that, I might have also mentioned how the so-called 15% raises come from. First, the teachers’ promotion time from junior to senior teacher were extended which gave the government significant savings. What is more, the junior teachers were striped of their entrance benefit. As a long time teacher, I can also testify how hard it is to be deprived of the benefit for village school teachers who most of the time covered at least partial costs of commuting to rural areas.

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